Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Sienese Invasion

Years ago, when visiting Umbria for the first time, my brother exclaimed: “My God, what wretched lives these people must have lived!”. This was in response to his first sight of the once gated portals and crenellated towers enclosing Todi, an experience that more commonly evokes comments such as “How lovely” from the bewitched tourists.

He was right of course. Life in medieval Umbria was no doubt short, hard and cruel. City-states frequently attacked neighboring towns and those walls and portals were not there for decorative purposes, no matter how decorated they were, nor how attractive they may appear to us today. What escaped him was the irony of the fact that while the portals of Todi are no longer closed, those of his own gated community are not only closed, but also defended by armed guards around the clock.

The most popular anecdote routinely told to Todi visitors is about the façade of the Church of San Fortunato. It has remained unfinished since the late 1400’s when people came from Orvieto to put out the eyes of the architect, so that he couldn’t create a rival for the façade of their own splendid cathedral.

In the future, our children may have a sequel. While I’m unaware of any further threat from Orvieto, we may be under some sort of stealth attack from Siena. Why Siena? I can only guess. Tuscany received the first big influx of foreign settler money and after everything there has become overpriced and overcrowded, some of the surplus foreign money started flowing to Umbria. Just as Orvieto had its own great cathedral, the Sienese have had plenty foreign investment but perhaps, like the old Orvietani, they don’t want to see a neighboring territory share the wealth and the glory.

The evidence? In the past several years, an architect from Siena, Andrea Milani, has secured three major commissions in the Todi area: the Parco Fluviale in Ponte Rio; a new office building on the site of the old olive oil consortium in Todi; and the renovation of the old convent of San Bartolomeo in Ceccanibbi. This isn’t necessarily unusual, or evidence of an attack, given that once architects get their foot in a regional door, they always try to branch out with multiple local commissions. While I’ve studied neither the first nor the last of these projects in any great detail, and I continue to hope for the best, the new office/retail building (ex-elaiopolio tuderte), just across the street from the medieval wall, has raised the specter of a regional invasion. While there have been no news of bombings of Umbrian wineries, this assault seems more in the spirit and methodology of the Greek invasion of Troy. Rather than a crude attack on the city, say by sending 50 progress-crazed geometre to plan 100 new industrial warehouses on the farmland below Todi, the attack has been brought by a smooth talking architect speaking in glowing terms (on his website) of the opportunity to bring contemporary architecture to a site of particular historic/environmental interest. The florid descriptions of the rich materials to be used and their dialog with the antique walls are too poetic for me to adequately translate. If you can read Italian, I suggest you read it for yourself here under progetti, nuove architetture, No.2.

The emerging building is not quite complete, although a supermarket has opened in the basement this week. The building’s huge glazed areas are framed in gleaming, untinted aluminum and the walls, which were a dazzling white, smooth concrete, have been darkened down somewhat in recent weeks. Perhaps it really is possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear although at this writing, the silk purse has yet to emerge, and there is no trace of the delicately perforated weathered copper sheathing specified to cover the left side of the building. The deeply striated stucco surface of the right side of the building still seems as smooth as a plain sheet of paper.

There is some irony in the fact that the building houses a supermarket. We used to shop in a tiny supermarket just across the street in what we referred to as the hole in the wall, literally a simple unmarked door in the ancient wall of the town (first door on the right in the picture). That shop was driven out of business by the opening of four new and larger supermarkets in the Todi area.

Questions remain. What’s behind it? Has the ufficio tecnico of Todi been infiltrated by hostile Sienese? Have an architect’s noble intentions once again been subverted by a budget-cutting owner? Was the project submitted for approval as per description on the web site, or as built? If as described, what is the city doing about it? I visited the technical office hoping for answers. The clerks there told me that the director of the office who had approved the project no longer held that position. I don’t know if he was a political appointee who had been replaced after the recent change of administration, or was simply a disgruntled retiring employee taking revenge on the city for imagined slights. Those in the office conceded that there had been a flood of protests and they couldn’t imagine how such a building could have been approved for such a site.

Finally, a plea to our Sienese brethren. Please halt the invasion. Keep sending us your wine and your panforte and your ricciarelli and caciotta di Siena, but if it’s not asking too much, please keep your architects at home, or at least out of Umbria. Grazie.

Postscripts: While it’s in my protestant nature to protest more than most, I should say that in my years here I’ve been impressed with the efforts of Todi to keep new development compact and in reasonable harmony with the existing ancient city. Adjacent to the new building there's a middle school with a long parking lot several meters below the main road along the wall. A sidewalk has recently been built along the road supported by new columns, creating not only the sidewalk but also a sheltered area below, stairs, and a covered pavilion where kids can wait for a school bus or their parents. The concrete, brick, steel and glass employed have a modern look and feel, but seem to fit in comfortably with the old walls across the road. At the end of this area, a one-story nondescript computer shop was recently torn down, to be replaced by a two-story building. The ground floor has display windows, as before, but the addition above has a stone wall with a series of small square windows, with a sloping tile roof above. Call it post-modern if you want, or perhaps pre-modern, but it’s functional and fits well with the look of the town. Such developments make the big new building all the more mystifying and discouraging.

For any of you interested in urban issues, a friend of ours, Frank Gruber has recently reported on a Congress for the New Urbanism for Huffington Post. It’s a fascinating and informative series of reports.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Roberto, You would enjoy visiting Key West and observing the struggle we go through to preserve the character of our small island from the developers. Their ideal is the tackiness of Miami Beach. Our height restrictions provide their target. But our long two-lane road out of here, about 120 miles, with water on both sides justifies our restrictions based on hurricane evacuations. We just need a good hurricane every few years. Steve