In the middle of the Italian town of Giarre on the eastern coast of Sicily, there is a park known as the “children’s city.” In the mid-1970s, local administrators had a dream that they would build a fabulous playground to be enjoyed by their youngest residents. They secured one-million euros in funding, hired construction crews, and began pouring concrete.
Today, according to Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places, the playground is “a wasteland of grasses, graffiti, and wild fig trees as well as a huge stash of brown glass bottles.
It is adorned with a broken central fountain, a rustling orb shaped like Sputnik, a ring of dried-up smaller water features, and a weed-infested sculpture of the nineteenth-century cleric Don Bosco instructing street children.”
But Giarre’s children’s city is just one of the many large-scale public works that were abandoned mid-construction in the city over the past five decades. In a town that only has 28,000 people, a total of nine massive projects (think giant sports stadiums and a pool that is nearly Olympic-sized) were begun—corrugated iron assembled, concrete poured—and never finished, deserted and relinquished to the encroaching nature.
These symptoms of the oversized dreams and thirsty pockets of the city administrators were seen as shameful eyesores for years. But in 2007, an artist collective known as Alterazioni Video launched a campaign to reclaim the legacy of these buildings, both in Giarre and throughout in the rest of Italy.
They advocated to have a new style recognized in the architectural canon—Incompiuto Siciliano—and to reclaim the husks that dot Giarre not as abandoned blights of municipal incompetence and greed but as valuable architectural relics in their own right.
They rebranded Giarre’s series of nine unfinished works as something of a sculpture park. It would now be (unofficially) known as The Archeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion.
Following World War II, the Italian government launched a campaign of modernization throughout the country. They offered funding to local governments who wanted to build new public works projects under the assumption that fresh buildings and recreation areas would usher in a new age of prosperity.
Of course, what town could resist the prospect? Partly fueled by city administrators wanting to scoop up large sums of cash, and partly by towns whose pride and sense of competition caused them to dream bigger than their need or capacity, hundreds of projects were begun and never finished after money and political will ran out between the mid-1950s and the 2000s.
While this building frenzy was embraced throughout the country, Giarre has the distinction of being considered the capital of the Incompiuto Siciliano movement given the impressive number of projects that were started relative to the small size of the town. Alan Johnston, writing for the BBC in 2012, calls the result a “legacy of a modern madness.”
In this small, coastal town watched over by the still-active Mount Etna volcano, there are now husks of a massive amphitheater and a large multi-purpose building; a flower market and the aforementioned children’s playground; an almost Olympic-sized pool and a large athletic stadium and polo grounds, a sport that many have pointed out is not widely played in Italy.
“I see these stands that could have hosted several hundred spectators. I see this pool that's never had a centimeter of water in it. I see plants eating away the building, and it gives me a strong sense of sadness,” Salvo Patane, the architect of many of these projects told the BBC.
It was a feeling shared by the Italian artists of the Alterazioni Video collective who decided in the mid-aughts to introduce a new way of seeing these buildings. They were no longer signs of greed, incompetence, and failure, they were now authentic Italian cultural products in their own right.
In 2007, the collective published the Incompuito Siciliano manifesto and introduced the new Archeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion in Giarre complete with a guide through the ruins for tourists. The traditional tourist map they created is accompanied by gorgeous, museum-worthy photographs of the buildings taken by Italian photographer Gabriele Basilico.
“The smugness of many Sicilian town councils has generated an architectural style that conveys the many-faceted nature of the culture that fostered it,” the manifesto reads. But it's not all about municipal mismanagement. They point out that “imagination and exuberance were the driving forces behind a reconfiguration of the land” and the results as they now stand are worthy of study and appreciation.
The vegetation is not overgrowth, but a natural interaction between the land and the manmade structures, a sign of “an exuberant community overrun by equally exuberant natural forces.” The reinforced concrete is “the bone structure of modernity” and an evolving reflection of the passage of the seasons as it can “assimilate the scars of time; take on new colours and shades.”
In a talk for Brut Europe, Pablo Arboleda, who has extensively studied the Incompuito Siciliano movement, takes the idea of redefining these structures as something of an anti-ruin even further.
He points out that the accepted architectural wisdom is that form follows function. But “what is a building that has the form of a stadium if it has never been used as a stadium?” he asks. Or, for that matter, a giant city pool that has never seen water, much less a swimmer.
Arboleda quotes artist Robert Smithson, saying that these buildings are “the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.”
But preserving these ruins just as they are is not the point, either. Rather than being a stuffy museum, The Archeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion is meant to change and evolve, and not just through the weathering of materials and ever-expanding invasion of nature.
Changes to the structures and renewed purpose for them is encouraged. As part of their Incompuito Siciliano roll-out plan, Alterazioni Video even staged a mock polo tournament on the polo field. These buildings are living ruins and architectural works, not just relics to be admired from afar.