VINCENZO MELLUSO’S PALERMO
Feedback: fig. The effect of an action not on its recipient, but on the person who carried it out. This reversal of perspective is interesting. It is an inversion which proves to be particularly useful when speaking of cities and the choice of where and, above all, how to construct.
It took 3,000 years to build Palermo. Its completion involved many: an entire population of constructors driven by volatile and differing values and motives who, having arrived at a certain point, in an amphitheatre created by nature, began to build.
This overlaying is sensed in an explosive manner by those who live there today. One does not need a particularly trained eye, one that can examine settlements, the variations in character, the structural functionality of meeting points between urban and private space: just take a 15-minute stroll around Palermo and you will see.
Commenting on the work by Álvaro Siza, Vittorio Gregotti claimed that he was one of the few who says things that can only be said through architecture. Extending the principle to that formal self-determination that historical cities tend to spontaneously impose on their inhabitants, this therefore becomes one of the trying fortunes of Palermo: its buildings jostle against each other and continue to communicate.
They express a sense of explosion, of disruptiveness, allowing us, having been called upon to construct or rather add, to have a residual space in which to seek out the energy with which to try and communicate: a dialogue of emergence, which nowadays is focused on incoherence, dysfunction, and above all, on the interrupted dialogue between public and private space.
Beauty and unresolved situations — here, everything can be found in abundance. Distinguish, select, remove, to then make a clear decision on which priority to apply to the challenges: this is the first step, the first mark.
Due to my line of work, I constantly find myself “observing” through teaching and architecture, which are both deep-rooted passions of mine. However, I realise that I view Palermo with the light-hearted and natural detachment of one who profoundly loves this city, who has lived here, who has studied it, but who was not born here: in an emergency, when one has to act on the very brink of the reversible, as many, like myself, seem to find themselves nowadays, this is a slight advantage. It is from this point of view that the first, essential forming of an opinion becomes easier: you become open to not assigning value to things which once had it but which no longer do. You accept the responsibility of bringing these things to
light, in order to gather strength and unite the participants called on to work on that point, before going elsewhere, for the transformation. To carry out this transformation of city and language, the instrument is the same as always: design. In a city with an important history, which brings together almost one million inhabitants, to choose means to exclude, but also to distance oneself from alibis and immobility. There are three areas that I have chosen to examine on this journey. First of all, the old centre, which imposes on those who visit the need to understand how to keep it alive, how to manage its continuous turmoil, the losses and wear.
“Palermo”, as Gabriele Basilico wrote, “like many Italian cities, contains the well-being and the sickness which comes with the tormenting beauty of the past, as with the complex intermingling of history and contemporaneity which can be found not only in the recent history of Italy, but throughout Europe” (excerpt from Gabriele Basilico, Palermo andata e ritorno, edited by Elisa Fulco, Edizioni di Passaggio, Bagheria (PA), 2007.
On arriving in Piazza Marina, go a little further on. There, in Piazza Santo Spirito, an example of how the choice was made in the past to reconstruct and add, how intervention through empathic dialogue was interpreted. Examining the theme of modernity, of contemporary design called upon to recompose the form of a building where a reproduction of the past should not be the only option, BBPR expressed the concept of contemporary proximity. That which one can sense today is an undeniable form of harmony, an extremely high level of attention for materials and detail which draws attention and takes into consideration that which exists and which communicates. A project from the 1970s, in which the empathic dialogue now seems to us to be, above all, that between client, designer and administration, led to completion while in many other parts of the city the focus was on other languages and, above all, other methods.
Walking through the streets of Palermo’s old city centre, the thought that comes to mind is that contemporaneity should identify – through the experience of the ancient city, the strategies and attitudes, and a certain sensitivity for the requirements of places, necessary to formulate new modifications which are just as significant and balanced – with the delicacy and the design culture of the times.
Spaces for dialogue for the new city were also found by Gregotti and Pollini by designing — and constructing — a detail which is by no means
pleonastic – the Science Department in the Parco d’Orléans in the 1970s. The design constructed that particular space as a well-considered and integrated system of volumes, plazas, terraces and presences defined in a harmonious relationship between served and functional spaces, a system of relationships. In that fragment of the University campus, Gregotti and Pollini offer a meaningful example of how the city of modernity should behave in growing and conforming to the places and needs of mankind. On moving through the system of terraced plazas, observing the city and the surrounding mountainous landscape, we traverse the buildings which make up the entire complex, revealing and, at times unveiling, visions and relationships between the parts. Thus, we understand the important value that urban space – when well-conceived – can provide to human life, creating places which transmit strong feelings of empathy. Lastly, but no less strategic, the theme of landscape.
Nowadays in Palermo, there is a need to orient people’s perspectives towards the sea, which Palermo has, but which very few see. This was achieved, with great energy and deliberation, by Pasquale Culotta and Bibi Leone in the mid-1980s, taking on the redefinition of the areas of the Foro Italico: a veritable redesigning of the form of the sea-front.
It should be remembered that their project formed part of an initiative in 1988, led by Culotta, with regards to a programme which was to carry Palermo forward to 1991, the centenary of the National Exposition of 1891, held in the Sicilian capital.
On that occasion, Italian and foreign architects were involved in the creation of nine projects, located in as many focus points set along the city’s coastline. The objective was to create, through a single but articulated design, an urban system of communication between the coast, the city and the Conca d’Oro hill.
There however the dialogue was interrupted, and now?
“[...] The hell of the living is not something that will be. If there is one, it is what is already here, the hell we live in every day, that we make by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the hell, and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space” (Italo Calvino, Hidden cities, in Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1993).
Previous spread, left, and opposite page: detailed and overall views, and one of the two entrances to Palazzo Amoroso in Piazzetta Santo Spirito, designed by BBPR, 1967. A surviving entrance to the baroque building stood on the site and which was...