Place, Work, Folk is a fortnightly column in The Hindu Sunday Magazine by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, which is inspired by Patrick Geddes and analyzes current urban issues in India and beyond.
The world map as we know it today, presents oceans as great dividers, separating large continental land-masses. In reality, the seas were always unifiers — connecting different peoples and histories. Northern Africa remained contiguous with Southern Europe, which flowed into West Asia. As those historical moments receded, firewalled by national and continental boundaries, they left behind experiences that now speak to us from imagined spots of isolation.
La Maddalena, an archipelago just off Sardinia in Italy, saw ancient trade routes crisscrossing that part of the world for thousands of years. The ex arsenale was built in 1895 to support the Italian navy and it was an intrinsic part of the Italian military force. It was only in the second half 20th century, the American Military developed a base there with a thousand plus force, along with their families. They produced a world in which the local population, which spoke a dialect distinct from mainstream Italian, intermingled to create their own life-stories that involved love and war, preserving old memories and creating new ones. Neighbourhood bars became meeting grounds. Even today, locals speak about the American presence, which came to an end in 2006, when the island lost its strategic importance.
A couple of years later, the ex-Arsenal space, a former American navy base of the city, was redesigned and supplemented with a beautiful architectural statement made by one of Italy’s most celebrated architects, Stefano Boeri, to host the G8 summit to be held in 2009. The convention centre, boasting a five-star hotel and a marina, was built in record time and under huge constraints.
Now a ruin
However an abrupt, last minute political decision to shift the summit to a different region left behind a trail of debt and disappointments. The new complex, overlooking one of the most scenic and historically charged seascapes in the world, has been closed ever since. A cloak of melancholy still settles over the magnificent structures, which has, after nearly a decade of the fateful abandonment, come back into the hands of the regional government.
Broken glass, rusting steel, cracked concrete, wayward weeds, the site is a harrowing testimony to what happens when global forces come and go, leaving locals to deal with the mess. An investor was interested in converting the ex-Arsenal into an exclusive resort for wealthy tourists, but backed out when they found out that the American navy left behind a heavily polluted shore needing some heavy dredging at huge costs.
The story of ex-Arsenal’s abandonment is all too common. The artist collective, Alterazioni Video, has documented hundreds of unfinished public constructions all over Italy as part of their ‘Incompiuto’ project. These include highways, viaducts, schools, prisons, and retirement homes. According to them there are about 1,500 such sites in Italy. Corruption and mismanagement are the main culprits, with big construction projects irrigating pockets, whether they are needed or not. This is not unlike our own major canal projects in India, many of which lie dry and unused, a familiar story of failure indeed.
Discussions are ongoing about the future ex-Arsenal, ex-G8 site. The regional government is said to be willing to invest tens of millions of Euros to remove the toxic waste that was casually thrown into the sea over the years by the American occupants. Locals are sceptical and ambivalent. They desperately need jobs, and many of those who worked on the G8 convention centre were never paid. At the same time, no one wants to see another exclusive zone, where everything will be imported — including workers — and locals won’t be able to afford a coffee.
A group of young Italian designers and activists called ‘Eterotopia’ believe that the ex-Arsenal is the perfect launching pad for an alternative way of thinking about architecture, economic development, and local-global relationship. They are making a massive effort to reboot the place and the archipelago with a programme that draws its strength in its radical refusal of the kind of authoritarian, speculative and exclusive model of development they inherited from previous generations.
Their effort is echoed by thousands of similar groups worldwide who are trying to reclaim spaces that have been wrecked by decades of failure and abuse. What unites this new brand of creative practitioners is that they believe in the necessity of thinking from the ground up and producing with local people and resources. At the same time, just like the merchants and explorers of the past, they are driven by a desire to trade knowledge and skills with peers from other shores, who undoubtedly are dealing with the same challenges.