Closing Casa Jasmina
Casa Jasmina started from a ruin. In 2014, my husband and I discovered an abandoned space in a once majestic factory, the old “Garrone Foundry” in Turin, which had been built in 1919 and abandoned in 1980. It was my idea to revive this derelict space, chase the rats from the corners and the pigeons from the broken windows, and transform it into what I thought of as the “Turinese House of the Future.” Our plan was to rethink home life from scratch as a utopian experiment.
In Europe, one doesn’t often get the tempting chance to start over clean without the heavy burdens of the past — especially in a city like Turin, which is famous for its aristocratic palaces and baroque marble porticos. Turin does, though, have zones of industrial decline by the old railway tracks, which sometimes disgorge unexploded World War II bombs, much like the bombs that once rained down on our old factory. So we were free to reinvent our space with jackhammers, power-cables and plumbing pipes.
We began with internet. What would happen, we wondered, if you deliberately put the values of open-source networks first, and then designed your house, and chose and built the objects in the house around those open, shareable concepts? The commercial, for-profit “Internet of Things” technology was rising worldwide, so why not try an alternative version? It might be hard to hack, and risky, awkward and even dangerous, but it was sure to look radically different from anything we’d experienced before.
We curated every object that entered “Casa Jasmina” — a venue that was wittily named after me by Massimo Banzi, the leader of the Arduino open-source electronics prototyping platform network, because it was a home not a house, and homes need a woman’s name. We also had Turin’s open-source “Fab Lab” downstairs, where we could 3DPrint, laser-cut, router cut and even robot-fabricate all kinds of newfangled oddities. But we needed standards of judgement: Casa Jasmina had to seem sensible and plausible to us and to our many guests and visitors.
Is it beautiful?
Does it efficiently perform a useful function?
Does it have emotional value?
If it doesn’t, out it goes!
We borrowed this credo from the designer Karim Rashid, and it served us well. We never lacked for input and invention from the Maker movement, Arduino programmers, the Turin FabLab, local designers from Toolbox Co-Working, and kind supporters from Internet-of-Things groups all over the world. These activists cheerily built, borrowed or simply gave us kitchen appliances, tables, chairs, lamps, beds, bookcases, children’s toys, door locks, irrigation systems — you name it. Except for groceries and our Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, we scarcely bought a thing for Casa Jasmina. Every single one of these innovative domestic objects would have baffled or horrified my mother — except for one of her vintage carpets, which I donated myself.
People are naturally curious about a “home of the future,” even though such homes always grow old much faster than normal homes do. Our experiment attracted designers, journalists, politicians, engineers, educators, museum curators, even staffers from the United Nations. Turin is keen on “smart city” initiatives and often invests in high-tech urban control and monitoring systems.
But if you make your smart bed, somebody has to lie in it. And you must be careful that the mattress does not outsmart you!
We were volunteers on this project. We learned a lot, but many of our dreams are still unfulfilled, such as a smart and glamorous laundry display line, and a smart Prosecco faucet that dispenses fizzing Italian wine on demand.
Women find the idea of a new home more interesting and inviting than electronic soldering kits and fabrication laboratories, or sci fi fancy fantasies! Also male Italian tech nerds, have too-smart answers for everything, and have no idea how to do everyday housework or to pick out a comfortable couch.
So Casa Jasmina became a small arena for serious gender-crossing discussions of how to live in a connected house. “The Internet of Women Things,” a feminist group, was created in Casa Jasmina. The group brought Turinese activist women out of the factory basement and right into the living room. We even issued a feminist manifesto.
Neither I nor my husband are Italian, but as the hostess and curator of Casa Jasmina, the two of us learned to appreciate Italian styles, Italian standards and Italian ideas about quality-of-life. As a married couple from Belgrade and Austin, we have plenty to debate when it comes to own domestic life, but we now discuss our shared life in a much deeper, better informed, more contemplative way. We will never be as “deeply superficial” as Italians, or as enthralled by beauty and comfort as they are, but we listen with genuine interest and sympathy as they wrangle, exult and complain, and we can even advance their debates.
Casa Jasmina was fun. We held parties there, and invited people to create, laugh and take risks with us, from artists to astronauts, from makers to cooks. I was especially happy to host babies and toddlers to test our family-home inventions. It was eye-opening to see innocent children outsmart the plywood chairs, hop on the body temperature mattresses, spit out the organic food in disgust, and ignore the avant-garde techno-artworks. Toddlers care nothing for technical smartness, and they will inherit our smart rubbish.
Eventually we hit the wall. We promised we would engage with Casa Jasmina for two years, and we enjoyed it, but after five years, we had new personal priorities and the technical landscape had shifted. We were volunteers in a utopian experiment, but we weren’t landlords or real-estate developers. We had surfed to some rather undeserved fame and glory, in press events, conferences, classroom lectures… even design prizes. Not too bad for people who had deliberately avoided any business model at all. It lasted longer than John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 conceptual bed-in in Amsterdam. And no one has yet to build another Casa Jasmina.
Also, the factory that hosted our project is still developing in other directions. Turin, this ancient city, is valiantly re-developing itself. No other city would have asked us to build a “Casa Jasmina.” Our house project was the product of a creative local tech scene. It was a local-global confluence of happy events.
In Italian there is an expression, “concomittanza degli eventi,” or coexistence of events. When this “concomittanza” goes bad, wars break out, as it did in ex-Yugoslavia, a socialist utopia that lacked an exit strategy. When the concomittanza is happy, though, pleasant new things blossom in the world, like pumpkins on the compost heap.
So let Casa Jasmina — a sense of which is conveyed by these miscellaneous photographs — become another of the many urban myths of Turin, a small legend of a special time and place where people sat on the floor pondering a digitized future and re-inventing Vermouth with their own herbal ingredients.
Even Google found our refuge.
In the end, my idea for Casa Jasmina was to escape the mainstream, to shine some light on the unexpected, and to pay attention to second prizes instead of killer apps. Imaginary projects, one-off inventions, provocative design fictions: the kitten in the ditch, the Cinderella story in reverse. I have always loved technology, but I never adored or worshipped it, and I’ve always been aware of the endless potential for its abuse.
A house needs walls, and an internet house needs firewalls.
The future? Like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, I fly fast-forward with my back turned. I have been catapulted from my past into a space of the everyday that was beyond my young imagination — I couldn’t even fear the truly strange things that surround me nowadays. I have learned to find my freedom in that.
“The future” is overrated, especially when it’s told in a linear narrative: when some prophet preaches that you are sure to end up where he tells you will, and you have no say about it. Whatever happens, you won’t want to live there. You’d be far better off in a kitchen, baking the I Ching into some homemade fortune cookies, and tossing them into a flock of black and white swans.