Concrete jungle: How Italy’s modern ruins became art

Motorways, theatres, car parks... even a polo stadium. The list of incomplete building works littering the Italian landscape is remarkable – scandalous, even. But out of the political shenanigans can something meaningful be created?

Peter Popham
Sunday 08 August 2010 00:00 BST

Failure is an everyday experience. But at a certain level of political and financial commitment, it's not something you expect to happen in modern Europe. Wembley's new stadium may have been a long time in the works, but no one doubted it would finally be finished. The notorious wobbly bridge – by the same practice, Foster Associates – linking St Paul's Cathedral with the Tate Modern, had to be dismantled and reconstructed so that it wobbled no more – but no one expected the architect to throw up his hands in despair and leave the thing dangling over the Thames. Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral may have taken 74 years to complete, but it has been open for business for a good while now.

They do these things differently in Italy. Or rather, fail to do them. Failure on the epic scale is an everyday Italian experience. It's as if they were in competition with the ancients, bent on creating instant ruins to rank alongside the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Motorways, viaducts, stadiums, swimming pools, museums, multi-storey car parks, theatres, railway stations... there is almost no type of public building that, in the past half century, the Italians have not given up on halfway.

A new survey of Italy's unfinished building works found 360 scattered around the country, with 160 in Sicily alone. And the greatest concentration is in the town of Giarre, near Catania, between Mount Etna and the sea.

A mood of melancholy mystery shrouds these half- completed monsters. We are, after all, in the land of la bella figura, where making a good impression is such a national obsession that the average Roman housewife will not take her pug out for a pee without doing her face first. But here in Giarre on the Catania Riviera in eastern Sicily, a town of 27,000 people that is noted (the hand-out at the airport tell me) for its "baroque, museums, aristocratic palaces" etc, the brutta figura of uncompleted mega- projects assails one on every side.

The town's unfinished polo stadium, which consists of two soaring concrete stands, presides today over a running track, a few acres of dusty earth, and nothing else at all. The walls are covered in graffiti, and the local authority has constructed little breeze-block walls to make it slightly more difficult for trespassers to get into the stands.

A couple of kilometres up the road, a municipal swimming pool and a so-called "polyfunctional centre" containing an open-air theatre, both of them sink holes for investments of tens of billions of lire and many years of work, stand unfinished, vacant and half-wrecked. A multi-storey car park in the town, under construction for a generation, was completed only a couple of months back. So was the town's hospital, after 40 years on the stocks, but as one local man told me, "It was born old. And although it's been opened, now they are closing it down again, as part of the rationalisation of Sicily's health service." Meanwhile, the town's theatre, begun nearly 60 years ago, and a children's play centre (intended 20 years ago to be the main attraction of a local park) have yet to be completed.

Local people offer explanations for these failures, but it is hard to know whether or not to take them seriously. In the case of the polo stadium, I was told that the architects had made a mistake in their calculations and given the stands too steep a rake, breaking the legal norms. Meanwhile, the technicians involved in building the swimming pool supposedly made it 49 metres long instead of the regulation 50 metres.

Can such idiocy be credited? Or are these accounts mere urban legends? And these are only two of the mysteries that loom over Giarre like colossal question marks.

Why should a town of 27,000 people require a polo stadium designed to seat 20,000, when polo is not a game in which Sicilians have ever been interested? Then, having decided to build it, why locate it on a site which is accessible only via a narrow lane? And why then stop? And having stopped halfway – having decided, one assumes, that it was a giant mistake – why not at least do something decisive and blow it up?

Giarre's peculiar distinction is not something the locals like to brag about, and until now the town has done nothing to draw attention to its embarrassment of modern ruins. But that all changed last month when the town became the location for Italy's first ever festival of what in Italian they call the incompiuto ("the incomplete").

"Imagine monumental contemporary ruins," invited the festival's press release. "Imagine yourself immersed in a nature which appropriates the spaces of modern man...

"Public meetings, sightseeing tours, concerts, firework displays and psychedelic visions will transform the town of Giarre... A unique opportunity to live an unrepeatable experience among the unfinished works, accessible for the first time. Three days in which the whole town will be involved in a process of participation to chart the future Park of the Incompiuto. The spaces of the unfinished works will be buzzing with public debates, performative actions and workshops..."

I flew down to Sicily to get a taste of this unique event. But despite the vaunted involvement of "the whole town", it was hard to find out what, if anything, was going on.

There were no flyposters stuck up around town, no banners stretched across the main street, no information ' booths dishing out information. The man working in the bar where I drank a coffee admitted that he had heard that something was planned but he couldn't say exactly what. He pointed me in the direction of the town's one hotel, evocatively named Albergo Sicilia and located opposite the petrol station on the road out of town.

It was the wizened desk clerk in the hotel who set me on the right track. I told him why I had come and immediately a light came into his eyes and a crooked smile possessed his grey face. "They built a stadium for 20,000 people for polo matches, that game played by English royalty, in a town where people don't even know what polo is!" he chortled happily, as if it was a joke that would never lose its savour. He led me into a box-room behind the reception desk and pulled back a curtain. "Look, there it is. It was never finished because they built it too steep!"

"But why," I asked him, "build it in the first place?"

He squeezed the thumb and fingers of his right hand together and brought them to his mouth. His meaning was plain enough: to gobble up money.

At the polo stadium I discovered that the festival was in fact under way, though "the involvement of the whole town" turned out to be an overstatement. Near the stadium's rusted and gaping entrance, two chaps in polo shirts perched on bar stools were doing paintings of the stands on canvas with acrylic paints. And I discovered, on a closer look, that the stands themselves and the running track they overlooked were not as dead as they at first appeared.

"We're doing a remake of the chariot race in Ben Hur," said Paololuca Barbieri, a hairy, bearded figure stripped to the waist with a bottle of beer in one hand, a member of an artists' co-operative from Milan called Alterazioni Video, the prime mover behind the festival.

Two traps pulled by ponies and driven by local men were doing preliminary circuits of the running track. A grand total of eight local people, half of them children, looked on from the side. As the "chariots" approached at a fast trot, Barbieri incited the locals to roar and cheer for their chosen team. Another bare-chested figure in a pork-pie hat was making a video of the performance.

Later, Barbieri took me up the hill to the district of Trepunti, where two of Giarre's most notorious unfinished works keep each other company. We watched as a group of local youngsters in trunks and swimsuits climbed down into the unfinished, empty concrete swimming pool and rehearsed a demonstration of synchronised swimming, without the benefit of water.

A few metres away, at the huge unfinished concrete abortion of the centro polifunzionale (polyfunctional centre), which is steadily being consumed by wild fig trees, I finally caught up with the main activity of Giarre's "festival": a two-day sightseeing tour of the town's ridiculous "sights".

"These are the ruins of the 20th century," Andrea Masu, a member of Alterazioni Video with powerful eyebrows, told his 30-odd tourists amid the ruins of the polifunzionale's open-air theatre. "This is our heritage, and it is a heavy and cumbersome one: we must decide what we are going to do about it and what kind of future it can have."

One of those listening to him was Claudia D'Aita, a lawyer and local councillor who grew up in the shadow of these unfinished monsters. She is the key local person in this project, the one who took it into her head that something could and must be done about them.

"All these unfinished buildings were started during Italy's boom years, the florid years, from 1975 to 1995," she told me. "These were the years in which private companies succeeded in putting pressure on the management of local affairs and on the state, and having a decisive role in the decisions taken by the authorities." The buildings were left unfinished on purpose, she said, "because as long as they were unfinished, the contractors could keep going back over and over again for more money to finish them".

From what D'Aita told me it became clear that there is no single villain in this drama. During Italy's boom years – and perhaps still today – the measure of a politician's success was his ability to bring building projects to his town. And if he did so – and money, employment and prestige followed – nobody enquired too closely as to whether the town actually needed or could afford two huge theatres, a polo stadium, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and so on.

Are we talking about the Mafia? I asked her. Is the Mob to blame?

"No," she replied, "they were just people working for the town authority. It was the law which allowed all this to happen. Say you wanted to build a swimming pool. So you asked for the first tranche of finance, then the second tranche, then the third. This mechanism, once initiated, could go round and round and round, and it was in everybody's interest that it continued; everybody was making money out of it. The entrepreneurs and architects longed to work for the state, because it meant an endless flow of money. And it also brought work, it created the local economy."

If any of these grandiose projects had been completed, the funding for their day-to-day running costs would have to have come out of the citizens' pockets, rather than those of the province or the state or the EU. As a result, voices demanding the completing of the uncompleted were muted. The incompiuto might be ugly, but it suited just about everybody to leave them as they were.

Only as a new generation grew up and became aware of the swimming pool, the theatre, the multi-storey car park and so on which the town both possessed and did not possess, and which they would never be able to use, did the incompiuto begin to weigh on Giarre's conscience.

"Soon after the Second World War," D'Aita said, "it was decided that Giarre should become a town of services, of culture. There was a very strong creative push in the town with the aim of building it up. But in the process it stimulated the political class to lobby for more and more new building projects. In the end, people didn't care whether those things were finished or not. Because Giarre has no need of a polo stadium.

"But the younger generation has become angry. The uncompleted buildings became a symbol for them of failure and lack of trust." On one occasion which has gone down in local lore, a youth confronted the man who had dominated Giarre's pork-barrel politics during the boom years, in the town's other yet-to-be-completed theatre. "Your honour," he said, "how is it possible that all this could happen in Giarre?" "The political class was very active in those days," the man replied smoothly. "And if there were problems, if mistakes were made, it was as a result of too much love..."

Giarre's Festival of the Unfinished culminated in the ceremonial sawing down of a single concrete pillar and its removal to Venice, where it is to be exhibited later this month at the Architecture Biennale. The whole event had the air of an extended Dadaist stunt – but Andrea Masu insists that it's going to be much more than that.

"The work we are doing in Giarre has been four years in preparation," he told me, "and now we have completed the first phase. The second phase will involve real interventions in the territory."

The long-term objective, he said, is to return these defective assets to the citizens and find ways of giving them meaning and making them work. "For each of the buildings there are four possibilities," said Masu, "and our idea is to keep them all open. They are: to complete the buildings; to demolish them, which is very costly and complicated; to 're-functionalise' them; and to leave them substantially as they are but to make them habitable."

Clearly the preferred option of Masu and his colleagues is the fourth. "We are proposing that the local authority inaugurate a 'park of the incompiuto'," he said, "giving the possibility of opening up these places to the public with only minimal interventions. Take the stadium, for example: making running tracks, putting in changing-rooms, using the free space for markets, open-air courses, concerts, all of which can be done by making only minimal alterations to the buildings, and more by taking things away than adding them." His team will be back in Giarre next year for a second edition of the festival, he promises, "and next year it will take place in a building site".

As the recent demolition of Newcastle's brutalist multi-storey car park, famous for its role in the film Get Carter, underlines, dealing with the legacy of the bleaker products of modern architecture is a challenge in many countries. With acid humour, Masu described the incompiuto as "the most important Italian architectonic style since World War Two. It's an ideological production which has transformed the Italian countryside," he said, "leaving these black holes." The challenge he and his colleagues have taken up is to find a way to give meaning to these monsters which will leave the communities around them richer not poorer.

And now they've started, he knows they cannot afford to give up halfway: they would never live it down.

For more information: new_sito_av/projects/incompiuto.php

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