Is there such a thing as a “typical” Fab Lab? Not really, but Fab Lab Genova breaks every mold there is anyway. We met Masa at 10AM on a Saturday outside the Buridda, a building which could be best described as a squatters workplace. Fab Lab Genova is just one of many projects operating out of Buridda, along with a boxing club and circus troupe. People don’t live there, but their equipment occupies the space, free of rent.
Masa, a tall and lean, dreadlocked backcountry skier, unlocked the heavy gate and explained the history of the building, which was constructed during the time of Mussolini as a school for young fascists. In fact, the blueprint structure of the building is shaped like an M. It then transitioned into a university outpost for the science of education. It lay unused and abused for years before squatters came to occupy it eleven years ago. It’s operated as a small community unto itself since then. Though operational for three years, Fab Lab Genova was chased out of their original home in the University of Economics about a year ago and set up in Buridda after spending several months cleaning and preparing the space for public usage. Since they don’t pay rent, they feel like it’s their civic duty to contribute to the city by making their Fab Lab available for free to the public.
Masa unlocked the front door, pushing it open into a dusty foyer. His first order of business was a tour of the building. Buridda occupiers meet on Mondays in a tall-ceilinged cylindrical room, where the structure for trapeze acrobats stands. Graffiti scrawls up the curved walls, equal parts poetry and slander and pictures of octopi. (Buridda is a typical Genovese dish made from octopus, and Fab Lab Genova has adopted the octopus in its Fab Lab logo.) We followed Masa up a wide curved staircase, like some relic left standing in an abandoned palace-turned-bomb-shelter. Spray-painted pot plants decorate the walls on the top level, a lavish LEGALIZE in flowing script. Masa unhooked a piece of wire holding the door shut, and we stepped out onto the roof, brilliant sun beating down on the “most beautiful city in the world.” Genova is caught between sea and mountains, dwellings built into the hills on one side, steeply cascading down to the Mediterranean front on the other. When it rains, it floods.
On our way back downstairs, we were intercepted by three more members of the off-beat Fab Lab: Luca, Stefano, and Matteo. Last names don’t seem to fit with their vibe. The four smiling guys led us downstairs into their Lab, grinning and talking all at once. I commented on the uniqueness of a Fab Lab in a squatters building, and they agreed. A Fab Lab doesn’t have to be tacked on to a fancy technical institute or reside in a university library. A Fab Lab can pop up anywhere. Fab Lab Genova a quintessentially “local” place, Masa said, and continued with, “The Fab Lab operates with no management,” which Stefano clarified as “self-managed.” These four represent a third of the twelve or thirteen core–they have no formal membership, and as the space is free and open to the public, something like forty people use the Lab on a regular basis. Their only requirements are that users bring their own materials, or exchange other materials for what they use, and leave their workspace looking 15% nicer than how they found it.
Fab Lab Genova is a sprawling complex of rooms and warehouses, an experiment with organized chaos. Our first stop was the “ski factory.” Masa proudly displayed two sets of 200cm boat skis he’d constructed, which set my heart (and Jon’s too) a-flutter with yearning for snowy slopes. The skis are a work in progress; Masa said he wouldn’t try to ride either pair, but he’s getting closer to perfection. They showed off their self-designed shaping mechanism: two heavy blocks of wood with an upward curve. The skis go in between the blocks, along with two rubber pipes, which are inflated, pressing the skis against the wood to create the rocker shape. A similar mechanism is used to design skate- and longboards.
Fab Lab Genova has the benefit of space, which enables them to collect all sorts of materials which can be stored until a purpose for them can be identified. Most of their machinery has been donated or found, such as their drill press and reciprocating saw, both used in wood- and metalworking. More than any other European Fab Lab we’ve explored thus far, Fab Lab Genova emphasizes both hands-on construction and the more technical aspect of digital fabrication. They say this is because they have the luxury of space, to store the heavy machinery and scrap materials that go into such projects.
Also on their ground floor are mills for iron and lead, two ovens for thermal treatment (one of which can reach 1300°C), and the makings for their own self-built laser cutter. They took us around to their “graveyards,” the corner where the failed, cracked longboards reside, and their attempt at vertical farming, designed by the one female member of the Lab. The aquaponics design uses an Arduino sensor to water regularly and looks like the kind of shoe-sorter you’d hang on the inside of your closet door. Most of the plants die, Stefano said, but they stand a fighting chance if they’re not transplanted from their pots into the felt sleeves of the device.
More members trickled in as our interview progressed. A chemistry student named Simone arrived who cruised up and down the Lab on one of the patched-together longboards, causing his fellows to wince in anticipation. He hopped off before crashing into the drill press. A local sculptor came in with his pitbull puppy, and employed some of the members with fixing his mo-ped.
The more “typical” Fab Lab equipment resides in the loft suspended over the Lab. They posses one of the earliest Makerbot 3D printers, from the days when Makerbot was still “good,” by which Luca meant an open-source company. Through member collaboration, they designed a small robot with a Raspberry Pi that can recreate any drawing on a flat surface, the scale of the drawing limited solely by the amount of thread wrapped in the suspension spools. They imagine a future version of this device will hold a spray can instead of felt tip, for creating massive graffiti murals.
Simone led us to his chem lab table, where he explained the sustainable process for creating PCBs, or printed circuit boards. The acid bath solution works with oxygen and the copper in the boards, such that with each use it becomes more and more efficient at etching the PCBs. The robot mentioned above uses a homemade PCB. Stefano also brought out a model airplane, being constructed by another member who wasn’t present. It uses almost exclusively 3D printed parts, save the long rod running from nose to tail. Some materials are easier to find or purchase, Masa explained with a shrug. Stefano told us that this was the first model airplane of its kind, and was being constructed for the open-source market. Though it’s the dream project of one member, all are involved in its construction; at Fab Lab Genova, there are “no personal, private projects.”
The future goals of Fab Lab Genova, besides “survival,” are to encourage more ladies to join their Lab. Their one female member comes from a background in design; the guys jokingly said that designers are good at creating beautiful things that don’t always work (such as the vertical farming project-in-progress,) whereas engineers and scientists are good at making “ugly stuff that works.”
Something that does work is the informal system this Lab runs by. We discussed the differences in American and European approach. In the US, they would need to have a legal department and insurance. After a one-time safety course, users of Fab Lab Genova are expected to use safety equipment and their brains and not get themselves in trouble. They’re warned that if they lose a finger using the machinery, they forfeit that finger; it will be thrown into the garden as fertilizer. This has yet to happen, and probably never will. Responsibility for self is valued, and if you hurt yourself, you have no one but yourself to blame. They “don’t have a business plan because [they] don’t have a business.” Fab Lab Genova operates outside the regular organized scheme of things, and that’s how they prefer it.
Fab Lab Genova is free and open and welcoming to anyone who wants to play along. To purchase what equipment they can’t find or exchange for, they host regular events, where they feature DIY workshops during the day and turn the place upside down for parties at night. The next one will be on 11 April, advertised as “Fab Lab by Day, Dub Lab by Night.” And in the spring, the Buridda building sells its own bio wine and beer. They’re clever and local and they know how to have fun. The simplified tag line for the Fab Lab movement is “Anyone can make anything.” Well, Fab Lab Genova proves that “Anyone can make anything anywhere.”