VIN­CENZO MELLUSO’S PALERMO

Domus - - FEEDBACK -

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).

Feed for­ward.

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 de­stroyed in the 1943 bomb­ings forms part of the new res­i­den­tial build­ing

Pre­vi­ous spread, right: Plan for the Rede­vel­op­ment and Ex­pan­sion of the City of Palermo, by Felice Giar­russo,1866, wa­ter­colour print, 115 x 165 cm

This page: views of the new Depart­ment of Sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Palermo, de­signed by Vittorio Gre­gotti and Gino Pollini, 1969-1984. The com­plex is made up of six pav­il­ions for re­search and teach­ing placed along the lon­gi­tu­di­nal axis of the Univer­sity cam­pus

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