Disaster Postcards

Through a series of postcards of the Sixities and Seventies describing the, then, Genoa's new buildings – similar to other European cities –, Daniele Belleri analyses the re-occurring floods on the Italian coastal city and the physical fragility of our cities and culture.

It happens more often than we think and typically in summer or autumn.

For more than 50 years now, the city of Genoa has been engulfed by floods about once every two or three years and pictures of its water-filled streets and piles of cars dragged into road junctions are beamed all over Europe.

You may think we have become inured to images of flooded cities. Why should we be surprised after seeing Hurricane Sandy ripping through Manhattan? Yet, there is something extraordinary about what happens in Genoa. Not because its flooding is any more dramatic than elsewhere but because Italy’s major port, seen via the portrayal of environmental disaster, offers a unique vision of this urban space.

Cartoline da Genova
Paolo Caredda, “In un’altra parte della città”, ISBN

Let us run through records of the most recent catastrophes, those of October 2014 and November 2011. Visual sequences such as this one reveal very few signs of the horizontal transfiguration that normally follows flooding the world over. Genoa’s fabric does not turn into a liquid expanse dotted with anthropic islets. It is in the vertical hierarchies that we see the disarray.

If we focus on those photographs, we come across cars perched on steps, narrow streets with no sky, chasms in which whole vehicles drown beside a dry pavement, slopes congested with buildings, buried rivers erupting through the tarmac, cascades of water and rural houses resting on viaducts as tall as skyscrapers. To the outside eye, there is no interruption between the elements overturned by the deluge and the local everyday urban framework. If the environment was inconsistent before the flood, what happens – paradoxically – is that this is simply underscored. The concrete backdrop surrounding the disaster restores a specific dimension both solemn and perverse to Genoa. Every time the city’s rivers overflow, this lays claim to the otherwise invisible existence of entire sections of the city.

Genoa’s fabric does not turn into a liquid expanse dotted with anthropic islets. It is in the vertical hierarchies that we see the disarray
An unusual photography book was published a few months ago. Entitled “In un’altra parte della città” (Elsewhere in the city), it is edited by Paolo Caredda for Milan publisher ISBN. It is not an investigation into real-estate speculation or an essay on our twisted urban logic. It is simply a collection of old postcards that are, frankly, technically and aesthetically quite second-rate. The postcards do not reproduce places of art or the maritime capitals of a nascent mass tourism. They focus on districts spawned by the economic miracle. They were produced to celebrate the suburbs; in some cases, exactly the same ones that have found themselves drowning in recent Ligurian autumns.
From the early 1960s to the late 1970s, the optimism of a country experiencing turbulent growth gave rise to a business initiative that now seems almost absurd (and presumably also occurred elsewhere in Europe). What does it matter that north of Genoa’s old city centre, in Via Gaulli, a “Rome [real-estate] company tried to jam five apartment buildings into the side of the hill instead of four,” and indeed – as local resident Caredda remembers– “one collapsed immediately and the hill split in two.” A postcard was created from the balconies of number 9/11 one sunny day, as too from Piazza Guicciardini, Via Monticelli and dozens of other city locations.
Today, we would like to explain away those buildings as monuments to builders and administrators with no scruples or, at best, as the madcap heritage of a metropolis born in spite of a hostile territory. But something else also mattered about those apartment blocks back then: they were new. “Today, the blocks are grey but the concrete shone in those days. We have many records of this take on the city”, writes Caredda alongside a dedication from Quezzi, a district marked on Genoa’s municipal maps as one of the zones most at risk of flooding (and it was built over a buried watercourse).
Paolo Caredda, “In un’altra parte della città”, ISBN
Paolo Caredda, “In un’altra parte della città”, ISBN, Genoa
For decades, people living in those districts have known they were risking their lives at every torrential downpour. For a while, however, those unfortunate dwellings personified feelings of hope, feelings so common that someone started wondering how they could be financially exploited. It was the printers who came up with an idea, and this is it: manufacturing tangible signs in which the recently citified families could reflect their pride. At this point, others came into play: travelling photographers and local tobacconists. The latter directed the former to the spots for the best pictures – and if there was money available they could even hire a microlight and immortalise the view from on high.
After a little hand retouching of the colours (to brighten up grey render, dull skies or badly dressed passers-by), they went to the printers for runs of 5–10 thousand copies. Was that not a huge number for the marginal appeal of a flyover in Taranto or apartment blocks in Bresso, Mirafiori, Fontanafredda or Zingonia? Perhaps, but we know for certain that these products remained on the market in those years, a sign of an entrepreneurial undertaking not lacking in reason. We also have examples of postcards actually purchased and posted to friends and family, and some senders took a felt-tip pen and drew an arrow on the window of their own home. Others posted the silhouettes of unappealing port apparatus and wrote “Thinking of you with love” on the back.
“A Rome [real-estate] company tried to jam five apartment buildings into the side of the hill instead of four, one collapsed immediately and the hill split in two"
What is also striking is the nature of the subjects portrayed. Among grotesque discoveries and views of brazen speculation, you sometimes come across Modernist constructions, from Forte Quezzi in Genoa to Milan’s Gratosoglio. So, in weeks when an exhibition at the London Barbican is celebrating exceptional architectural photography of the 20th century, exploring the ambiguity of a medium torn between social criticism and public relations’ tool, we here can fantasise on the temporary coincidence of popular taste (and business acumen) and the design world.
Surreal and morbid, these postcards reproduce a view of the city that is both naive and greedy, a function performed today by the newspaper pictures of the floods, a rare collective testimony (alongside Google Street View) of a certain type of landscape that is, to all effects, Italy. Although no one sends postcards anymore, we shall always need images from elsewhere in the city in order to, in the words of Edwin Heathcote (quoting Bricks and mortality, Financial Times, 2006, editor's note) retrieve a vision of architecture that troubles us and reminds us of the mortality – the physical fragility – of our cities and our culture.
© all rights reserved
Cartolina da Bresso, hinterland di Milano
Postcard from Bresso, Milan's hinterland


Daniele Belleri is a journalist who lives and works in Moscow. Among others, he has contributed to Afisha, Corriere della Sera, IL Magazine, Reuters, Volume and Wired Italia. He graduated from the Strelka Institute and has taught at NABA in Milan and at the Faculty of Journalism of Lomonosov Moscow State University. He is a co-founder of Granger Press. Twitter @dajamog

Latest on Opinion

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram