There’s a large empty rectangle on the outer edge of Gela, surrounded by little two-storey houses. And there’s a church on the short side that looks out over the countryside; and a railroad across from it, facing the old city. When it rains, the rectangle turns into a lake. When it’s dry, it’s difficult to even play soccer there, that’s how bumpy, dug up and rutted it is. If it weren’t enclosed by handfuls of illegal buildings (belonging to that wealthy, orderly kind of unlawfulness that unexpectedly sprouts up in certain southern Italian suburbs) it would remind us of the endless spaces in the borgate (Roman suburbs) as filmed by PierPaolo Pasolini. There is a backdrop of lonely figures that enter and exit the wings of public housing blocks. Here there are none. No one enters the Gela rectangle. People play there. They hide there. They have sex there. Or do dirty dealings there. At least until recently. The thing that makes Enzo Mari’s project so surprisingly pragmatic is the fact that it isn’t a project. It’s not the usual virtuous and fanciful surge of architecture. Rather, we find ourselves faced with an obsession that is both contagious and practical, created by Mari’s zigzagging around. Mari walks around and about the rectangle; he talks, he calls, he writes down edicts, he draws, he discusses things, he gets angry, he describes his ideas, and one by one he examines all the possibilities for each part of the big empty rectangle. Here a park, here a certain kind of tree, here a shop, here a bench, here a ramp, here no ramp, here nothing… And Mari’s obsession becomes everybody’s obsession. The obsession for that empty spot that day after day is filled with things. Expectations, more or less convincing promises, visions to share, criticise, demolish. Today, the rectangle has already become something new. It is a public space. Full of ideas. Confused, dispersed, complex and unpredictable, just the way maybe all public spaces that are worthy of their name should be. The architectural plan designed by Mari for the rectangle of Gela is the matrix for a project to reconquer a common space that until a short while ago was shared in the mind, but that now is finally shared in words, gestures and things. Now, things here in Gela’s Sette Farine neighbourhood are no longer waiting to change. They have already changed. Now it’s the turn of politics. Local government decisions. Plans that need to be adapted and funds that need to be allocated. Although it just might be that this toing and froing of listening and discussing while perusing the location is actually the best way to do politics in Italy today. Stefano Boeri
Voyage to Gela
September 2001, Nagasaki, Japan. Enzo Mari was struck by the portrayal of God in the Shinto temples. A shiny bronze mirror is placed behind the temple so that when visitors happen upon it they see their reflection as well as the natural elements at the front entrance. It’s a godly image that depicts everything. By itself, however, the mirror does nothing. Being partial to the artistic potential of archetypes, Mari decided to make his own “portrait of God”. It took him one day to set up his work in a park.
The decision was made to repeat the “portrait of God” experience in Italy when an opportunity emerged in the town of Gela in Sicily. Mayor Rosario Crocetta said that the creation of such a monument in his city (a place with 150 Mafia-related killings a year untill the early ‘90s) would have spiritual value. Built on man’s violence, the place needed a work that would look to the sky and suggest to others that God was in fact present here. “Has God abandoned us?” No, he has not abandoned you. That is how Saint Enzo Mari came to be walking about the land of Gela. In the company of local architects who acted as his escort, he surveyed the site before him. It was an empty rectangular space measuring 30,000 square metres, flanked at the sides by two long rows of what were originally built without planning permission homes, and with a church and railway line at either end. The square was just beaten earth and beyond the church was the countryside as the group of houses came to an abrupt end. Mari was astounded. He had come to Sicily to choose an urban site for a monument and instead found himself in a place that the editor-in-chief of Domus would later describe as “a room in a scattered city.” The houses were aligned just so; the people were in a square that didn’t have a square; and the mirror stood in front of the church.
Neighbourhood, houses, family
Unlike the vast majority of outlying urban areas in the world, the sudden construction of an unauthorised settlement in the Sette Farine district was not linked to poverty. At a certain point, the industrial activities of a petrochemical plant and local farming gave a large number of people the opportunity to build their own houses. For some it was their first home, while for others it meant a larger house for the whole family. According to Mari, it was a “fort where they could celebrate encounters with relatives, a dream house that could hold three or four generations.” Tiled garages decorated with Venetian stuccowork served as a kitchen-living-laundry room, a single space on the ground floor that was common to every home. Above the hand-painted picture in the living room, there was the air conditioning unit. These people were living in a house they had always wanted to live in, that is, small multi-storey residences in which one storey holds the parlour that is used on major occasions (e.g. funerals) and where the shutters are kept closed to prevent wear on the furniture. The upper floors serve for the family that resides there while the top floor, with its exposed pillars pushing upwards, has an unspecified potential. If you look at it through different eyes, without just classifying it under ”typical southern Italian illegality”, you could almost appreciate the poetry of the pillar-teeth, which are like fingers or large “jacks” on which many hope to build a future. A new reality could land and secure itself to these roofs to accompany its predecessor.
An alternative proposal
Mari immediately had two intuitions. The first was spatial. The large urban void in front of him was the strange product of a lack of social agreement since some of the unsold plots had created a large unbroken space between two rows of houses and the front of the church. For Domus, it is “a city that’s made up of individual acts, acts without any awareness - and hence consideration - for the public space. What has happened this time, in particular, is that a large void has formed. It is a place in limbo, something that has been interrupted. Mari’s idea of conserving this void as a first step was also a utopian gesture: it looks to transform a place which is the product of an individualistic situation into a public space, a place shared by all.” His second intuition was to get to know the residents. His repeated encounters with the local committee allowed Mari to get a feel for the homes and the local customs. While it gave him an opportunity to see their reality up close, it did not take the form of an interview or some sort of census on local needs. What Mari did when he directly involved the local inhabitants in the project was to draw up a tacit agreement, a pact singling out the parties involved and giving them an identity and a structure. It was a contract between those trying to express a collective solution and the community that was already responsible for the place. This conditioned the genuine execution of the project and, in particular, its maintenance. The designer needed the people as much as they needed him, and so this work of architecture became a phenomenon of collective responsibility.
Domus goes to Gela
A small delegation records the contact with reality. Our editor-in-chief is the director and Mari the witness, while the photographer Ramak Fazel and I try to capture it in images and words. Everything in Gela seems cliché: it is a famous Greek archaeological site; it is a southern Italian city renowned for its illegal constructions; and until a few years ago, it had upwards of 150 murders a year. But the economy, the landscape and the local traditions were radically changed by the arrival of a petrochemical plant on the edge of the built-up area. It has such a presence in the consciousness, in the pocketbooks, in the eyes and in the lungs of these people that it has become an entity with its own name: “the Petrochemical”. They take us to the Sette Farine district. Our editor-in-chief senses the force of the space before us. We tune in to his wavelength. The absent architecture provokes in us a momentary paralysis. But then we find ourselves in front of the church as a funeral procession approaches. It looks like something out of a film. We stare at the field of clay stretched out between the city and the rest of the landscape, with its toothless dwellings and kids playing football, and wonder out loud “if Pasolini had seen this place...” By this point all the local inhabitants know Mari. The first time he arrived in Gela he was seen as the “saint”, but now here in the flesh everyone just calls him “u Prufissuri” (the professor). He shakes hands and exchanges a few words. We are witnessing the resealing of the contract. With his repeated visits he is subtly demonstrating that it can be done. He explains that “this gentleman here is the editor-in-chief of Domus, a leading magazine that focuses on architecture and the city, and that is read in Canada, Australia, all over the world.” They reply by asking “Prufissuri, is the project really going ahead this time?” We start to walk around the perimeter of the huge clearing, which is surrounded by two-storey buildings that all look the same. Mari stresses that houses are an instrument of a population’s culture, that form and meaning are the same thing and that these houses are more genuine than the stereotypical villas of Brianza. They are two manifestations of a type of ignorance: that of the citizen with the mule and that of the interior design magazines, since architects have lost the vision and illusion of design and have become window dressers instead. The more adventurous professionals run the risk of following this sterile path of diversity. Then there is this attitude towards technology which views it as just a hammer. But this is an entirely different matter which is difficult to comprehend. So what is the position of Mari the architect? “My only tool is reading reality,” he says. It is clear that these inhabitants did not live through the historical construction of their city. That is why a square or a botanical garden will help promote structural and civic growth. Mari argues that “an architect can produce a signal but he cannot change the world.” He can only try to “convey at least part of what he thinks is right”. Mari the artist still gains pleasure from a metaphorical interpretation of the city. He says, “Democracy needs symbolic references, it needs a flag.” However, his memory and his instincts tell him that the representation of spaces can become a phenomenon of social identification. It can become a mirror. As a result, he sees his urban project as an alternative monument.
At the end of the first day, we manage to arrange a meeting with the mayor in the local committee’s offices. A debate with the local inhabitants and the others present starts. From the outset, it is clear that the mayor now has a very clear vision of the Mari- Sette Farine project. The inhabitants argue that it will solve the problem of disposing of rainwater quickly and easily. The administration thinks the project is extremely realistic and fairly simple to execute in a short time. The intellectuals, and history, see this modus operandi as a “new democratic phenomenon”. No prototype has been constructed to serve as a model, but it has provided a “system” for future schemes. Mari has forced everyone to put together a proposal that would present an overall vision of the district and its problems, one that would “control the passage from spontaneity to organisation”. On day two, the mayor meets with us in the place that has been chosen as the set where pictures will be taken with Mari. When the time comes to leave, he says goodbye and, with bodyguards in tow, gets into his car. He is in the centre of the frame with the door open. The old black Alfa 164 with Rome license plates is framed in three-quarters view with the bodyguards on either side of him. The whole thing resembles one of those cartoon cut-out photos that one takes at the fair. As he looks out of the car window framed in the cut-out, Ramak takes a Polaroid shot of the anti-Mafia fighter. Francesco Librizzi