The town of Gibellina in western Sicily is an attempt to realise a Utopia through art and architecture. Gibellina’s special story is well known. In 1968, the Belice valley in western Sicily where the town is located was devastated by an earthquake that wreaked death and destruction. The desire of survivors to rebuild their communities was thwarted for long years, marked by heated polemic over political intrigue and unethical practices.
Rebuilding a town is not just about urban plans and construction. It is about “replacing” what has been swept away and “inventing” a new context to foster a social fabric with its baggage of human ties created through family and work, consolidated habits and community relations reaching back into the history. It is against this backdrop that architecture is called to play a decisive role to recreate the everyday and exceptional features that together make up the particular identity of historic communities that are the expression of our civilisation.
Recreating a vital ensemble of this kind, once it has been wiped out, is a complex task, requiring perhaps more than mere architectural and artistic acumen, however excellent. And yet the attempt to build “Gibellina Nuova” perpetuates an idea that architecture and art can trigger a higher quality of life within the urban context and do so through the creation of physical urban systems. The optimism and high ideals that fired the project and underpinned what has been achieved down long years during which reconstruction waxed and waned, have never faded. The Utopian ideal that Gibellina could be rebuilt as a place of art has persisted despite the setbacks. Artists and architects have answered the call to do their bit against the inertia, feet dragging and lack of resolve. The hope has never faded that a Utopia can be physically built, that after destruction by earthquake, a new civil entity can become a reality. Responding to the appeals, architects and artist have demonstrated they share the hope that reality and Utopian ideals can come together.
Like a capital city, any new town is asked to meet lofty ambitions in terms of symbolic urban spaces redolent with significance. Similarly, Gibellina sets itself the ambition of being “rebuilt” as a capital city and a living symbol of project and political best practice. More specifically the goal is to build a polis, a crossroads of cultures that is the essence of Sicily, its history and way of life.
The ambition to rebuild Gibellina harks back to the idea of the city dear to the ancient Greeks: a series of areas that designate and interweave the real and the spiritual into a matrix of forms and materials making up the tangible city precincts. By the same token, the new Gibellina is not just a series of squares, collective urban spaces and buildings to be adorned with artistic symbols. Nor is it about accumulating elements to create what has often been disparagingly dismissed as an “open-air museum”. Gibellina is an attempt to demonstrate, propose, renew and innovate. It is sustained by the belief that memory and the contemporary can be combined, that the here-and-now can live alongside what is to be, and that the business of everyday life can respond to the requirements of beauty.
The obstacles in the way of reconstruction are all too evident and the realisation of this Utopia has been fraught with difficulties, starting with the collapse in 1994 of a roof section of the Gibellina Chiesa Madre, designed by Ludovico Quaroni. Still today the situation has hardly improved with many buildings and art works sorely in need of upkeep.
Gibellina is the receptacle for a wealth of statements. Burri’s “Grande Cretto” has frozen the remains of the old town and thus its history in a stark concrete straitjacket, creating a memento to the past. That the porous, cracking concrete has deteriorated and is in need of restoration is perhaps further proof that this, like any other work of art, is a fixed point in time and, like all things, subject to change with time. More important, however, is the fact that the work achieves a conceptual abstraction from a material site. The Grande Cretto brings home the fact that the earthquake was a real event; the topography of that human tragedy is a concrete reminder to all visitors to this “open-air museum” of what the people of the Belice valley can never forget. It is essentially apotropaic, an object to ward off evil, so that it never happen again.
Yet this concrete cast over the ruins can never be a symbol of life; as a place, it can never be lived in again. Reconstruction has started and continues a short distance from here in the form of a project that may well be from the realm of Utopia. Reconciling meditative architectural intuitions with the specifics of these undulating hills is more than a mere academic exercise. The new “system of public squares” conceived by Franco Purini and Laura Thermes for the urban fabric of Gibellina Nuova is the concrete expression of a particular concept of what an urban fabric should be: based on a backbone of public and community buildings and facilities – religious buildings, schools, the museum, sports facilities – that mark out the cardinal points of the urban layout.
The basic assumption underpinning the whole concept of the new town of Gibellina is that the place is part of a Mediterranean culture, itself a continuous blend of different cultures, and as such to be continued. The new town is simply another step in its long history. It follows that Gibellina is quite capable of assimilating the artworks scattered among its urban fabric; in returning to life once more, it is quite able to take in inhabitants and visitors as it grows and spreads. Like a continual solar rite, it unfolds before the sun.
This is the essence of the star-shaped sculpture of Pietro Consagra and the stone sun of Mimmo Rotella. It is behind the medley of art and architecture that is the tower by Alessandro Mendini. It is what drives the sculptural architecture of Paolo Schiavocampo, the materiality of Giuseppe Uncini’s expressive sculptures, the harsh material quality imparted by Giusepe Spagnulo and the complexity of the work by Fausto Melotti. It sustains the works by Mimmo Paladino – the felled horse and sculptures set against a slope – and all the artists who have contributed to the present day Gibellina. It is also the force that drives Gibellina’s longstanding mayor, Ludovico Corrao. He was the one to forge the re-build project on the concept of a Mediterranean culture with its roots in Greek myth. The same concept is also behind the town’s successful international festival known as the “Orestiadi”.
The Gibellina project is an attempt to blur the confines between Utopia and reality and create a passage from desolation to hope. It is a landmark endeavour of recent history despite all the practical limitations that have thwarted efforts by art and architecture to achieve reconstruction. Gibellina is also a call to pursue the same Utopia in our contemporary cities where the question of quality of life is posed in a different, yet no less conceptual, fashion.