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A Small Town in Abruzzo

October 3, 2010

This blog entry is an abbreviated version of the text of the catalog Il Progetto “Borgo Abruzzo” a Castelvecchio Calvisio which was just published by EXÒRMA EDIZIONI in Rome.

Arriving in Abruzzo for the first time with a group of American architecture students, leaving behind the intensive blocks of the hinterland of Rome, the occasional factory or abandoned farmhouse, and ascending into the mountains to the tiny town of Castelvecchio Calvisio, I prepared myself for the questions.  Why did they build here? Why did they stop?   Where is everyone? What happens here now? Why is this town important?

It is not just the uncontaminated countryside and clean air that draws the students, though after a month in the heart of Rome it is certainly welcome. After all, they come from a land of national parks and abundant green space. And our destination is not a single monument or work of art; we are not on a pilgrimage to see remote masterpieces.  What strikes us are the towns themselves, Carapelle, Calascio, Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Castel del Monte, and Castelvecchio itself, compact and well-defined, recognizable as considered though not necessarily planned human artifacts.  We come from places developed in the 20th century when, thanks to the automobile and cheap fuel, proximity was superseded by connectivity as an advantage, when physical limits became a liability and surplus surpassed  coherence as an organizing paradigm. Now that the “petroleum interval” is coming to an end, compact urban settlements like Castelvecchio Calvisio start to once again look like smart solutions. (Connectivity is great when, as with the internet, its environmental impact is negligible;  it is a different story when to physically move ourselves, our products and our food over huge distances we destroy our carbon reserves)

Although the workshop presented in this catalog was framed in the context of response to the 2009 earthquake (and inspired by similar efforts to rebuild New Orleans more sustainably after Hurricane Katrina)  my own involvement in Castelvecchio predated the earthquake.  In 2007 my archaeologist friend and colleague Dora Cirone called me, saying “you have to see this town.”  From her description I envisioned a kind of modern day Pompeii, a town abandoned but still intact. During my first visit I peeked into rooms open and still furnished but clearly not inhabited in years.  Yet the cause of the sudden evacuation was not a natural calamity or industrial disaster. Economic and social shifts had drawn people to larger urban centers, attracted by tertiary sector jobs, modern housing, and perhaps most importantly the perceived convenience of automotive-scaled development.  Ironically, as the world has become more “urban”, urbanized areas have become less concentrated and compact towns and historical centers of cities like Rome have seen their population plunge.

Castelvecchio Calvisio is unique amongst medieval towns for its particular urban morphology, characterized by its tortoise-shell outline and un-medieval orthogonal grid.  Yet it is also part of a regional system of towns, in turn part of an inter-regional economic system built around the transhumance routes to Puglia and wool-trade connections with Tuscany. In medieval urban planning, it is the exception that confirms the rule.

From the start, Dora and I saw the opportunity for scholars from multiple disciplines to learn from the area’s rich history. Archaeologists might investigate and document human settlements, which date back to Roman times at least in the plains. Architects and urbanists would learn from the vernacular building types and urban patterns. Ecologists could probe the relationship of human settlements to the natural environment. Economists, anthropologists, sociologists and others would find a wealth of material to study. However, we are convinced that these towns should not be reduced to laboratories or museums. While cultural or environmental tourism may play a key role in arresting the decline of the area, a resurgence of local economies based on agriculture, commerce and services is necessary to ensure that these towns thrive.

There are ever more reasons today for people to move to (or move back to) these small centers, especially if they are redeveloped effectively to ensure low-impact connectivity with the world through high-speed data networks and ecological public transit links and a minimum of quality local services. A writer, a financial consultant, even a designer can now access the same data from a remote village as they can from a downtown office building.  The resources that must, by definition, be local are those used daily: healthy food, clean air, reliable energy, secure shelter, and usable public places, all of which can be provided by a functional compact town. By contrast, today’s growing metropolitan areas, built in relation to the automobile, are having increasing difficulty satisfying these basic needs sustainably.

In October 2009, together with architect Cinzia Abbate, I accompanied seventeen students from the California Polytechnic State University’s Rome Program in Architecture for a three-day workshop in Abruzzo.  Using public transportation, we travelled first to l’Aquila where we were accompanied through the “zona rossa” by Prof. Giorgio Cota and representatives of the fire department and civil protection agency. For the students, having grown up in California, the experience of earthquakes was not new but the extent of the damage was for them unprecedented. Even more striking than the damage, though, was the experience of disrupted daily life, the silence, the absence of cars and shops and people.  Later that day, arriving at Castelvecchio Calvisio, the silence was no longer such a shock. I had to explain to the students that aside from some visible collapses and much rubble the town hadn’t really changed since before the earthquake;  its abandonment had begun long before for different reasons.

Over the next 24 hours we met with local residents, the mayor of the town Dionisio Ciuffini,  welcomed the students, architect Giuseppe Santoro led them on a fascinating walking seminar through the borgo, engineer Silvia Galeotta presented them her thesis project, and they were fed abundantly by the town’s trattoria, bakery and grocery store. The workshop began intentionally with no preconceptions and no concrete brief but by the end of the first day of discussions, through a participatory process involving students, faculty and local residents, four themes emerged and teams formed to address them:

  1. 1.Mapping and promoting cultural itineraries
  2. 2.Urban voids
  3. 3.The south edge (stables)
  4. 4.An outdoor space for events

On the afternoon of day two the students began working with speed and enthusiasm, brainstorming over pappardelle, lamb and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and then elaborating their ideas digitally well into the night.  The following morning each team projected its images and presented its ideas to a hall packed by the mayor and staff, local residents and students from IPSIASAR in l’Aquila. As requested, the work was not proposed as “solutions” but as “ideas”, and each group finished their presentation with questions to the Abruzzo students, seeking to further their local knowledge and test their hypotheses with real users. The work published here is thus the outcome of short, concentrated efforts of a handful of students but also, to a small degree at least, of input and feedback of a community.  Though these students have returned home they have all expressed their desire to return (with family and friends) to the town they have grown to love.

ABRUZZO SLIDESHOWhttp://gallery.me.com/tgrankin/100218  For more information on the project: borgoabruzzo.info
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2016 17:58

    Well Hello Tom!

    I am currently taking a Nodes and Networks course in grad school at SAIC and continually find myself drawn back to my time in your courses in Rome/Italy. Our trip to Castelvecchio Calvisio is especially pertinent to my current studies- as we are developing projects that are focused on using the internet to rethink/redesign how people connect.

    I am quite saddened to hear about the recent earthquakes in Italy, and hope that you are well.

    Warmly,
    Rebekah Trad

    Like

    • September 5, 2016 18:36

      thanks Beka, great to hear about your grad studies. Castelvecchio felt the quake but wasn’t damaged: I’m taking Cal Poly students there in a couple of weeks.

      Tom

      Like

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