VERY happy to be back in my stomping ground of Melbourne.
Just love the energy of the city and the schizophrenic nature of the place over the New Year Period.
In the city's central business district, there''s a great building known as the Nicholas building. It's full of artist studios, speciality and bespoke stores, and wandering around it over these last few days spotted these remarkable pins!
When I work out who actually made them, you'll be the first to know.
Event Horizon, a city wide installation in Central, Hong Kong by Sir Antony Gormley has got more than a few Hong Kong residents hot under the collar.
What's the issue? Is it that the 31 lifesize and anatomically correct bodies are basically like illegal immigrants? No, that's not the case: they've been commissioned by the British Council and paid for with the public purse. And they'll be around until May 2016. And the statues have all been modelled off of Gormley himself, so technically it's just one person we're talking about. Sculpture I mean. Sheesh.
Is it that the placement of a few of the statues atop of tall buildings set off a spate of panic from some residents who feared they were witnessing people who were attempting to plunge to their death from great heights? No... Well, that happened in the sense that police allegedly received calls but these boys are a bit too stable to do anything rash. And besides before arriving in HK they were temporarily resident in Rotterdam, NYC and in Brazil. They're way too street smart for that nonsense.
Hong Kong is full of sophisticated people and more and more is becoming seen as one of the main artistic centres of Asia- not just the financial one it has long been.
That said, culturally there isn't much of a precedent for these kinds of works in this area. So they're pointing out the statues - 31 of them in a city that's home to 7 million people (?- fact checker?) are variously creating a nuisance, an obstacle or other health and safety issues. Basically that the presence of these figures is interrupting the bustling nature or Central.
Remember this is Hong Kong, not Rome or Rio. People move faster in HK, they've got things to do, don't you know? As much as the idea of these sculptures has to be a little confronting for some, I've a feeling that Gormley's goal of having residents reassess their setting, and looking at the urban environment they live in with a sense of wonderment will win out.
The idea that they attract the eye up and down and all around the city, with each statue being visible to another, sounds like a winning city walk in the making to me.
I'm calling it c*ckgate.
Or should that be c*ckgrate.
Lecce, where I currently reside, is famous throughout Italy. It's a Baroque jewel which with each passing year becomes a little more appreciated and loved by Italians and visitors.
Its old town is a gleaming, cobbled town full of sandstone buildings that shimmy in the light here. It's a sophisticated Southern Italian town. But it has its own salacious past.
For the most part, people from around here are considered to be laidback by most other Italians. But, there's been a lot of fuss here over the past few days.
Well, most of your guidebooks won't point it out: they're too busy pointing out the jewels of the city's crown: Il Duomo, Piazza S. Oronzo and the Santa Croce church. Refined and elegant examples of excellent workmanship and the mastering of the local limestone (pietra Leccese) if ever you'll see them. And those places along with the ampitheatres attract a lot of camera happy visitors.
But there are other sites to behold in the city, that go beyond the religious history of the city. After all, it's become a city synonymous with aperitivos, live music and the booming university crowd that has added a much younger and playful dimension to the city.
One place in particular offered up a window into the soul of the old town.
If you stalked or crawled the city's back streets you may have been fortunate enough to stumble upon the most phallic window dressing that you'll see this far south from Amsterdam.
In Via Palmieri one of the city's most unlikely icons has been sitting and attracting its own subcultural visitations. You see, the building on which the pleasure grate is positioned was purportedly once a pleasure quarters. A place of fun. Of...oh you know what I'm talking about. Well actually, no one is so sure of that, but it's the going theory.
And at its peak, the house of fun commissioned a local blacksmith to create a protective window grate for the street facing window. And, to do the place justice, the craftsman created the wonderful phallic window grate that sat in front of the window, where it stayed, seemingly forever. It was a rare example of purpose built architecture and design dedicated to fun. Quite a departure from the more conventional religious expression which while wild, was always used to express religious ecstacy and not the joys of the flesh or other more playful aspects of life - but one that was immortalised in art and poetry.
The window grate, like much of the city's other attractions, attracted its fair share of visitors who liked nothing more than to photograph it and move on, sometimes incredulous, sometimes simply ticking another thing of their lists. So what's the problem? The problem is that the building that the window sits on is now privately owned. And although the windows are reflective, the owners found it intrusive that their building was under 'constant' siege by camera wielding maniacs. Or something like that. So, they took it upon themselves to have the window grate replaced (during the night?) so that their privacy wouldn't be compromised any further.
Enter huge social media shit storm. Leccese (if you're from Lecce you're Leccese) were up in arms over the owner's decision to remove a layer of the city's otherwise intangible history. And in subsequent days the city has been abuzz about city hall's reluctance to do anything about the removal of a prickly part of the city's history.
Leccese, being Leccese, were up in arms and there's nothing like a bit of social media upheaval to get logical decisions made. Turns out that the heirs of the original owners had decided the grate was of dubious moral value and she didn't care much for the unwanted attention her window awning attracted. But the moral of the story? She's been instructed, by order of the city, to restore the original grate back to its original place. Because it's an important symbol of a vanished part of the city's history? No. Because she didn't have the necessary approvals or paperwork to remove it in the first place.
Thank god for heritage protections. I'm gonna go snap me a shot of that grill as soon as it's back up (and as soon as I know the new owner's home and my popping camera flash can annoy the hell out of here.)
There are certain things that we all consider necessary in the big smoke. Transport, medicine, sanitation, utilities...these are the kinds of essential services that our cities tend to revolve around. Some get it right- and that's often a matter for Monocle or whoever to decide as to how well- and others have problems with even the basics.
Having spent a really long time in Italy (and Rome in particular)I can tell you that some cities here get it right and that some...um...don't. Or can't. But if it's any consolation nobody seems to be happy about how things are run: those in service and those who use service are all often miserable.
The most noticeable thing that goes wrong in a place like Rome is the transport. Let's face it. It's really shit. If you were to set your watch by the next due bus you'd be the new Marty McFly. Honestly, it's the worst public transport system I've seen in Europe, but whatevs. One of the annoying layers of transport in Rome is that you often have to factor in strikes on a Friday (or Monday). Because transport is legally deemed an essential service though, even on a strike day there has to be a minimum service on offer and a minimum notice period advising of the upcoming disruption.
Rome's traffic is like those annoying accordions that you get held hostage to on the metro. It expands, gets noisier and becomes more unbearable on any day there's a strike when services are limited to the essential.That happens on days when things have been reduced to a bus an hour or, as often happens in Rome, morning and evening peak with a limited service and the rest of the day with virtually zilch.
Why the long talk about the minimisation of services to their essential? Because in recent days a new law has been passed in Italy. One which now deems cultural sites- or rather, access to cultural sites- as being essential.
Going on strike in a country like Italy where working conditions can be testing to say the least is something that happens in nearly every sector. Last week supermarket staff were on strike. But what made the news was a day a few months back when the staff at sites like Rome's Colosseum also went on strike, making the city's landmark symbol off limits to tourists. Workers in the arts and heritage sector here have it rough. There's very little money invested in sites and their upkeep, the average Joe works for a pittance and pay is often backpaid in many cases. But in going on strike, the cultural industry workers did something that not even the transport workers can. They literally robbed visitors of the opportunity to visit a site that many would have purposely made the trip to Rome for.
And in doing so, at least in this version of the interpretation, they harmed Italy's international reputation more than the endless train, airport and sanitation service strikes ever could.
The Italian government has decided that this is unacceptable. And as such, a very clear majority decided to pass a law that now renders cultural sites as part of the network of essential services in the country. This means that workers, regardless of how their issues may differ to those in the transport or other sectors, will now be required to file notice of their intention to strike, communicate that, and allow for some contingency which will allow the sites to remain open even on a strike day.
Is it a good thing? Tourists may argue yes. Nothing like a certainty when you're doing the greatest hits tour. But for workers in a field where competition for roles is fierce, remuneration is poor and there's a murkier distinction between public and private operation, does singling that sector of the tourism industry out as being essential really count as being fair or lawful? Enshrining the erosion of their bargaining power into law seems a little heavy handed in my books. Particularly because for all the wealth tourism brings into a city like Rome, I would hazard a guess that most Romans wouldn't see access to those kinds of sites as being part of the essential services the city needs to offer- particularly if the end benefit goes to foreigners rather than the locals who, for better or worse, manage the sites.
I PERSONALLY have some very good memories from Checkpoint Charlie. I remember when I first went to Berlin in the summer of 1996 and first fell in love with that city, Checkpoint Charlie had some kind of effect on me.
Not in the same way or with the same gravity that seeing the wall or Alexanderplatz did, nor was it even comparable with being reuinted with my friends who lived there who I hadn't seen for over a year.
CC offered something intangible. Back in 1996 the streets around the area were already aligned with makeshift carpets, covered with pins and badges bearing old Communist designs, but the surrounding streets were oddly deserted in contrast.
The museum which was already in place there felt like a sobre reminder about how the world got things so wrong back in the thirties and forties, and although it had the authenticity of the Hard Rock Cafe, it had a spirit and purpose which couldn't be faulted, and a gift shop that made perfectly light of war paraphenalia and imagery.
Berlin is no longer just the whacky, cool city that inspired me back in the 1990s, a burgeoning place of beer gardens and awkward conversations and a Northern German mentality. It has become one of the premier cities of Europe again, where aside from the architecture, it gets harder and harder each day to distinguish the differences between Old East and Old West. The film Goodbye Lenin! is as good a summation of the new versus old mentality if you want to look into that further, but sometimes history and culture are intangible, especially when the representat structures have been razed or destroyed. Even when things are based on replicas or rebuilds, they can still be authentic homages to or reminders to another time, another event, another history, assuming that the surrounding area adds that otherwise missing authenticity.
So it was with complete dismay that I read this article about even more changes that seemed to have been made to the area around CC.
Where is it that we, as people, as cities, as governments draw the line between rampant commercialism and maintaining at least a semblance of dignity?
Firstly I want to say that there are a lot of architects in Italy. Official figures suggest there are close to 100,000 of them here. Basically, that's a figure that accounts for 25% of all architects in Europe, conveying just how competitive and widespread the profession is in this country.
As for those in Rome, I feel like every second person I meet is either an architect, or someone in the process of completing their architectural degree.
That said, being an architect in Italy can be a bit of a dog's life, so I don't envy them at all. Endless tales of customers (both private and government) who don't pay (until years after the fact if ever), having to deal with organised crime and corruption in a bid to secure lucrative tenders, and a society that often balks at new, challenging or experimental architecture makes it an environment where one often has to look further afield for job satisfaction and paying clientele (think elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East, and increasingly, China).
So much of what is written about Italian architecture focuses on the romantic, classical architecture that dominate its cities, particularly those traditional Grand Tour cities like Florence, Rome and Venice. But occasionally, domestic architecture in this country has allowed architects to indulge their sense of daring, imagination and utopian ideaology (including the Coppedè quarter of Rome).
A population boom in the post war period Rome (1950s-1960s) saw the city grow haphazardly, with a range of unplanned suburbs sprawling out, particularly to the city's east and west; 'suburbs' or makeshift urban environments whose lack of planning added great strain to the city's infrastructure and overcrowding issues. Millenia old Rome was simply not prepared for so many people. and the problems that surfaced as Rome's population boomed, continue today.
Interestingly, one of the approaches to the overcrowding that was already taking place in the 1960s was to build an epic, 'self contained' community, capable of housing some 8,000 inhabitants on the city's outskirts. The Corviale was built with the aspiration that the complex would be something of a utopian ideal, where residents could live in a community which had all of its services at the ready. The interesting part of this approach was not so much the idea of relocating 8,000 people to an unserviced peripheral area, as this was happening throughout the western world at the time, but more importantly, into one building which ran almost one kilometre in length. Yes. The Corviale runs almost a full kilometre in length. That would be something like the equivalent of a 250 storey building if it was standing upright.
B-type cities around the world commonly compete for the temporary honor of hosting the World's Tallest Buildings, but few I imagine would be keen to challenge on length. What's mistifying is how the architects and planners (chiefly Mario Fiorentino) could have thought such a project would contribute anything positive other than a roof and some walls to the lives of its inhabitants. The truth probably lies more in the idea that this was a social experiment, rather than a true desire to meet the needs of such a huge chunck of residents.
Public housing projects, especially those that are built on strata prototypes have traditionally been socially challenging places, the obvious consequence of stacking so many people on top of each other. Europe is home to a handful of these elongated buildings; in Vienna, the 1920-1930s built Karl Marx-Hof stretches a full kilometre, but rarely rises above 6 floors in height, but more commonly other buildings adopt the brutalist approach into which the Corviale seemingly sits, including Faloweic in Gdansk and Park Hill in Sheffield in the UK. These conurbations are as infamous to locals as the Corviale.
The Corviale, a set of twin buildings that span almost a kilometre a piece, are eleven floors high, home to some 7,000 inhabitants, who, enclosed in this building, remain shut off from the surrounding areas of the city, on whose periphery they remain. Elements of the building are reportedly unfinished, despite having been built in the 1970s, but these are not the complex's only failings. The absurdity is that people are also squatting in the unfinished parts of the building.
On paper and in theory I can see how the idea, as flawed as it was, was a concession to the imagination and daring of architecture. However, as cities around the world revisit their ideas of social housing, moving away from the failed brutalism concept towards a more resident friendly model, it surprises me that in 2011, not enough is being done to remedy past failures.
As you pass by the building, there is a sense of amazement that overcomes you, in a kind of creepy and foreboding kind of way. Imagine living in that kind of battery hen environment. Suburbs are often made up of long stretches of individual buldings, blocks, houses that are attached or semi attached, but generally they have their own entries, their own boundaries, something which the monolithic Corviale doesn't have. Instead, The Corviale, is relentlessly repetitive, color coded in part, but for the most part, its a seemingly endless labyrinth.
Transitioning of the Corviale's residents into more suitable living quarters should be a key priority for the city of Rome, as should the preservation of the building, both for aesthetic and cautionary reasons. The preservation and re-use of the building shouldn't be too challenging... But the movement of at least 6000 people into something more appropriate will be a huge undertaking in a city like this. Rome is a city where rentals, even in the city's peripheral areas are often prohibitive, forcing people not only to share apartments, but commonly to share bedrooms in a system of posto-letto, in which, you pay a few hundred euro each month for a bed in a a room with at least one other room mate.
With a number of proposals already floating around for the transition, and 100,000 professionals at the ready to take on a meaty project, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Corviale and its residents.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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