Architect Mario Cucinella talks to Manuel Orazi about “Archipelago Italia”: a journey across Italy and five projects for the future of the country.
Manuel Orazi: Why have you and your team decided to dedicate the Italian Pavilion to “inland territories”, for the upcoming Venice Biennale? What is it that characterises them and why should they be paid particular attention?
Mario Cucinella: The pavilion is dedicated to inland territories because our country is not only characterised by metropolitan areas. 60% of Italian territory is not urban and it is precisely from these inland areas where Italian culture originates: its municipalities and small cities, which throughout history have been the nodes of cultural production. It is in these areas where the DNA of this country is hidden. For the upcoming Biennale we want to investigate and study the relationship the small cities have with the territory. What other countries don’t seem to understand about the Italy’s development is that in reality the small cities, even in a rural setting, are themselves expressed via an urban space. Since the middle ages the city’s foundation lies in the creation of a citizen’s status, a citizen is someone who lives with and amongst others creating communities, from which the word commune derives.
MO: What were the criteria with which you chose the projects and areas of study? Can you introduce us to these architects?
MC: We put out a call (putting big cities aside) to find out who it is who is actually living and working in these inland territories and what exactly is going on there. We received over 500 different projects, providing us with first hand evidence that we live in a very fragmented country with a great divide between the North and the South. From the point of view of production, even small projects, the North is infinitely more present and productive, the South is elusive and in the Centre there is completely nothing. In Central-South there is an area, which stretches from mid-Lazio to Calabria where there is practically nothing, at least we didn’t receive anything apart from a series of rather ugly residency projects. Nothing which matched the criteria we were after – empathetic projects which were preferably based in historical centres.
We then called five architecture studios: AM3 Architettura, BDR Bureau, Diverserighe Studio, Gravalos Di Monte Arquitectos, Modus Architects, Modus Architects e Solinas Serra Architetti, to see if together we were able to come up with an original project: to work on 5 strategic areas in the country which I believe are particularly sensitive, an experimental project in order to revive Italy’s interior territories.
The first of these five is the Casentinese Forest (between Arezzo and Cesena) where the Camaldolese community have been living for 1000 years, a community of friars who live in the woods to take care of the forest. In the last few decades that economy has disappeared. The issue of the forest is of great significance because we import 80% of wood from Austria and Slovenia, when we have more than enough wood for our needs in Italy. We have created a project called “Live with the wood”, which involves a contemporary sawmill.
We then turn our attentions to the area of the earthquake, a reoccurrence that crosses from the Apennines from the north to south. Camerino is a bit of an extreme case because the city is completely closed and no one can enter it.
Then we move down to Matera, not the city itself, but the Basento valley, which stretches across all of Basilicata from Potenza to Taranto. In this valley, which is unfortunately renowned for its pollution, there are many railway stations, which are in disuse. Here we have designed the restoration of the railway stations, due to the way the valley is formed they have always been seen as places of departure. For this project they become places of arrival from where activity can originate.
Then moving further south still we arrive at Gibellina in Sicily, another story where an earthquake took place, leaving incompleteness in it’s wake. In Gibellina a very courageous venture was taken on after the earthquake in the 60s, Pietro Consagra’s theatre. Consagra is an artist who had taken on a strong position against modernism and functionalism and expressed a concept which is more current than ever: art should play its role in the construction of the city. We have therefore worked on a project, which sees the restoration of the building, with the idea of going to live in an artwork, which is not necessarily functional, but – once the building is finished- by adding the finishing and fundamental touches, it will become a public place, a centre dedicated to agriculture of the highest level and art.
The last stop is in Sardinia where we worked on another question of unfinished business: the Ottawa industrial hub in the heart of Gennargentu, which was built to revive an industrial economy and immediately failed. The core is five times as big as the host town and has left behind pollution and the sensation of a dramatic failure. Here, in one of the oldest towns in Italy, we have put forward a project, which consists of a health centre, in order to underline this hybrid. A place where to cure chronic illnesses (for example diabetes and heart diseases) combined with educational activities for the young and a nursery school.
MO: Will any of these projects be realised?
MC: This is not main objective; but we’ll see. The aim of the Pavilion is not to realise a project but more to bring to the table a previously unexplored debate. The problem is the often the administration doesn’t confront certain problems because it doesn’t have the right vision, the regions are very dispersive in what they pay attention to, while we are trying to focus our attentions on very precise issues. We have decided to tell these stories in an institutional pavilion in order to re-launch architecture because the question we have sought to answer is: “can architecture be represented as an operative tool in re-vitalising territories?” I think so.
MO: The Italian Pavilion at Tese delle Vergini is the largest by extension of the national pavilions, always at risk of becoming a Biennale within the Biennale, with the risk of suffering or overcrowding or of horror vacui, how have you positioned yourselves in order to face this problem?
MC: It is a Biennial within the Biennale because in the end, by extension and for its importance within the system it is necessarily so. In order to create logic within the space and not lose the plot we have made two simplifications: each Tesa has its own theme. The first are the eight itineraries, which are laid out in extensive books, through the pages of these open books the ideas around Archipelago Italia are introduced and explored. If the first theme develops on a vertical plane, the second instead is horizontal and develops through five enormous wooden tables designed to resemble an archipelago, on which hundreds of small project pieces are laid. Eventually we have analyzed the theme of the future, how will demography change? What will be the consequence of climate change on our fragile territories?
MO: You are personally involved in the areas of the earthquakes in the regions of Emilia and Marche. Has this experience helped you in realising the ideas for the Pavilion? Do you believe that the Biennale can produce projects or implement ideas for earthquake after-math restoration?
MC: I think so because we rarely treasure our lived experiences, so the issue of earthquakes always opens the same debate: how, what happened, where it was… On the other hand there are two important issues: one is that restoration requires a strategic plan and a vision to look forward and not back. The other issues is that of the temporality, because if houses of wood are built, but they are constructed on reinforced concrete, the temporary nature lapses as we have seen in Sicily, where imposing concrete terraces have been left where before there were vineyards and orchards. We need therefore to think about reversible construction and urbanizations systems, more flexible and which take into consideration the context in which they are built.
- Mario Cucinella, Portrait. Arcipelago Italia – ZUP
- Model detail, Sala dell’Arcipelago – Staff Mario Cucinella
- Rendering of Stretch 2, Sala dell’Arcipelago – Staff Mario Cucinella
- Schematic axonometric view of the exhibition – Staff Mario Cucinella