Architettura Povera as Arte Povera [series]: Borgo Giuliano, Cesarò (Sicily)

Poetronica \ Visual Poem \ Etimasia

The Upside-Down Fruit Bowl

Bonaventura Palazzo was built in 1927 by architect Giovanni Aiello[1889-1976]. It is located in one of the main streets of Giarre, a small comune on the slopes of Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano on the European continent. The building is a rare example of Sicilian Liberty; its mixture of Spanish eccentricity and Italian classicism makes it one of the most important town’s icons.

The dark red façade stands out among the placid buildings that surround the palazzo and creates a sort of theatrical background to the embroidery of balconies, mouldings, arches and columns that lay on a soft white Comiso stone. The symmetry of the façade is broken by a game of projections that pushes the rigid volume of the building forward, in tension, so as to interact with the urban environment and slowly become part of it. The floral ornament gives grace to the rigor of the mass and the two rose windows on the piano nobile, perfectly symmetrical with respect to the entry and main balcony, dampen the seriousness of the monochromatic structure. Similar to a pair of eyes striving for looking far away, the rosettes – made with local Caltagirone ceramics – are the only façade’s touch of colour. The distinctive crossing of blue and yellow petals that firmly bind to a thick cone-shaped centre, do not have the weakness of a simple décor, separate from the whole architectural composition, but rather help to shape the character of the artifact and its firm temperament.

Bonaventura palace has often been compared to Battlò House by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudì for the refinement of decorative motifs and complexity of shapes; the building’s geometric strictness maintains a Renaissance concinnity while using the compositional freedom of an early twentieth century Art Deco style. Rhythms are regularly repeated but the movement of volumes and light establishes an unexpected relationship between a rethought tradition and the modern spirit of the building. If walking along Kallipoli Street someone asks Giarre’s citizens about Bonaventura palazzo, after an initial hesitation they will probably respond by calling the building ‘the upside-down fruit bowl’, following the strong similarity of the two ceramic medallions on the top of the first floor with the shape of a traditional Sicilian fruit container. Whether the comparison is relevant or not does not matter, the detail is what everybody remembers.

‘ Whatever the air spaces, areas and dimensions involved, it is the precise study and good execution of details which confirm architectural greatness.

The detail tells the tale.’ [1]

 [1]: Jean Labatut, ‘An Approach to Architectural Composition’, Modulus 9 (1964): 55-63

Palazzo Bonaventura2_Sicily

Bonaventura Palazzo, Giarre, Sicily | Sketch Detail 

Palazzo Bonaventura3_Sicily

Bonaventura Palazzo, Giarre, Sicily | Sketch Detail 

Useless is what we believe Useless

Schisina villages were built in the 1950s; seven small hamlets designed to provide 158 homes for farmers and create a self-sufficient community that live by what the surrounding land offers. Every village is made of a residential area, a place of worship and a learning space. Church and school are placed in a central position, a sort of piazza from which the village takes form and expands; each of the six villages is also equally distanced from a seventh hamlet that works as an administrative and social centre, a space that might resemble an African kraal, an area in which the whole community gathers.

The villages remained most of the time uninhabited; only a few farmers decided to settle there for a short period of time, then in the 1960s they eventually abandoned them, as others had done before. It is thought that the living conditions of those small urban centres were not sufficient to meet the farmers’ needs. With no electricity nor running water in the house and only two rooms – a kitchen and a bedroom – next to a small animal stall, the seven villages have never been thought as an opportunity, but rather as a sacrifice for those who had chosen to live them. Farmers tacitly accepted what was considered at that time a form of isolation, as the nearest urban centre of Francavilla – 10km far from Schisina villages – was not seen as an accessible destination. The surrounding area also needed a land amelioration in order to be suitable for farming; the cold winter months that piled the snow on the flat roofs of the houses – mistakenly designed for a Mediterranean climate thus unsuitable for mountain weather conditions – encouraged the brave survivors to leave en masse the hamlets and never come back.

Schisina villages may have been labelled as useless in the 1950s as the circumstances did not allow a full involvement of the rural population; I wonder why such a form of futility needs to persist even today when making a difference only requires an imaginative effort. Useless is what lacks of creative thought. There exists always a reason for building; the meaning that lies behind this action does not always contain appreciable intentions, but the sense of a gesture might change over time and assume a quality that did not have before. The value that sometimes is temporarily missing needs to be found by us.

The following excerpt is part of a project submitted to ‘New Ways to Grow’, European Social Innovation Competition 2015. [Special thanks to Valeria Scalia and Gilda Torchia for the precious suggestions].

‘Many conflicts are currently plaguing several parts of the world leading to a steady increase in short-term migrations to Italy, first stopover in the difficult journey to Europe. Sicilian coasts are the starting point of such a process, but local holding centres – such as CARA Mineo camp – are now getting overcrowded and isolated from any social context, thus they do not provide an effective answer to the upcoming issue. It has been thought to involve 158 refugee families in the project of reorganisation of seven derelict ghost villages built in the 1950s close to Francavilla di Sicilia – 55.8 Km far from Catania port – and uninhabited since the 1960s. Migrants themselves will break the silence of the unused Schisina villages through a hands-on active participation in the redesign process of the new homes. One of the seven villages, central and equidistant from the others, will become a theatre laboratory with the intent of engaging local and migrants together in the creation of a performance that will then take place in one of the nine unfinished buildings of the nearby Giarre, a small comune that holds the record for the highest number of unfinished buildings in Italy’.[…]

Schisina Villages & Cinema :

[ The Adventure, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 ]

‘- What is the name of the place?

– Noto

– And Anna? Where does we seek her?

– In a hotel, there is only one here, the Trinacria.

– Is this Noto? What do you think?

– I don’t know, let me ask around.

– Hello? Oooooh!! Do you hear the echo? Why is it empty?

– Who knows! I wonder why they built it. Look, there’s another village down there.

– That is not a village but a cemetery. God how sad, let’s get out of here.

– Yes, let’s go. ‘

[ Idea of an island, Roberto Rossellini, 1967 ]

‘On the slopes of Etna, some villages have never been inhabited.

There is nobody there, neither a song nor a baby crying, nothing.

Those villages have been so carefully designed that houses have not been marked with numbers, but rather with ceramic tiles representing religious scenes.

But they are uninhabitable villages as too far from any fertile soil, from any urban centre that may become industrial, thus useless.

Are those villages the result of a wrong planning process or perhaps of absurd speculations? ‘

[ Schisina Villages today ]

Asbestos Hats : an architectural lesson

Asbestos is a fibrous material that for more than fifty years has covered the roofs of many Italian cities of a fine white dust, invisible to the eye but an insidious danger for public health.

Since 1992, asbestos has been banned in Italy and in many other European countries, but its production has not yet stopped in Brazil, Canada, Russia, and has extended its tentacles also to China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Thailand, which welcomed it with enthusiasm attracted by its appealing low economic cost and that vaunted eternity  ( Eternit ) that has made ​​it famous – today and in ancient times – for its indestructibility. [1] Before crossing the world of construction industry in the 20th century, asbestos was used by the Greeks in the production of fire-resistant clothing, and by Persians and Romans to weave the sheets in which corpses were wrapped before cremation. Marco Polo in his ‘Il Milione’ (1298) tells that in China this material was largely employed in the manufacturing of tablecloths.

If Italy is still counting the unnoticed deaths that ‘the Eternal’ has cynically spread over the entire territory, the unroofed artifacts that this virus has mercifully left standing up, are still clearly visible today. [2] As bony bodies, they are slowly losing the strength to survive, carrying on their pillars the weight of unsolicited speculations and lust for power; they ignore the reasons for their current state of isolation and, vulnerable leave themselves be hit by a penetrating rain of invective and a cold wind of disdain. Kept away from public, they lie dormant; although only a few brave steps walk through, they still hope that Architecture will save them from a fate that seems inexorably already written. These dejected skeletons no longer have any asbestos hat to protect them, they have lost an important part of their Being, but they have been stripped of a covering not of their own identity. [3]

If the Garden Chair by Willy Guhl (1954-1980) has been enclosed in a glass case and kept safe at the Vitra Design Museum for the historical contribution that his design has given to the world, [4] Architecture cannot let a case segregate the infected artifacts in fear of a global contagion; ‘use’ is what makes a combination of forms, a locus. However an ideal glass bell might be built, one that preserves History from indifference. Architecture has acquitted asbestos from the 1930s to the 1990s, despite the danger of this product was known many years before its final removal from the European market; why should now condemn the results of this slaughter instead of accusing herself of having supported an operation considered risky and ascertained harmful? Demolition cannot help to forget, but a transformation is necessary to do so.

Architecture may still bow to the audience and tipping her asbestos hat leave the scene humbly and without applause; a new hat might revolutionize her role so that the red velvet curtains may finally open to a new story. A story that is not written by Madame Architecture, she does not perform actions rather encourages them. Architecture does not play the role of an Old Master, she does not teach an absolute truth nor explicates predefined meanings. Architecture is ignorant, she teaches what she doesn’t know; it is the Public who decides to learn and consciously write a new plot.

‘Meaning is the work of the will. This is the secret of universal teaching’. [5]


[1]. ‘DUST, the great asbestos trial ‘, documentary, Niccolò Bruna and Andrea Prandstraller, ;

[2]. ‘Amianto, le morti silenziose’, documentary, RAI TV, ;

[3]. Siace Paper Factory after the removal of asbestos, Catania, Sicily,

[4].Vitra Design Museum, Garden Chair, Willy Guhl, .

[5] . Rancière, Jacques : The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 1991

SIACE Paper Factory after the removal of asbestos [ Catania, Sicily ]

SIACE Paper Factory after the removal of asbestos, Sicily

Siace,Sicily 5

Siace, Sicily 4