Sunday, November 29, 2009

In Gomorrah

A brutal (neo?)brutalism, still from Gomorrah (dir. Matteo Garrone, 2008)

Admittedly, I'm a little late to the architecture here .... but just a brief post to encourage you to rent a copy of Matteo Garrone's excellent Gomorrah (Gomorra) (2008). The film is a dramatization of Roberto Saviano's book of the same name,
a best-selling (and also fictionalized) account of the Camorra, a criminal syndicate based out of Naples. The movie is a gripping ensemble piece depicting how the Camorra's operations affect the lives of people living in Scampìa—a part of the city infamous for its drug wars and frequent murders. It may be easy to lump Gomorrah with other films that want to implicate the built environment in societal woes. And it is in this sense that Gomorrah finds resonance in films such as in Mathieu Kassovitz' La Haine (1995) or Fernando Meireilles' and Kátia Lund's Cidade de Deus (2002). All these films use visual evidence of urban decay to stand in for greater observations about city life—as architecture crumbles, so does society. It is also easy to identify outer-ring suburbs—such as the Parisian banlieues depicted by Kassovitz and Garrone's Scampian vistas—as sites where housing just, for lack of a better term, went wrong. (And here, it goes without saying, but Le Corbusier becomes easy target, as proved by Theodore Dalrymple's laughable and entertaining screed against Corb's "ahumanity".) Some who have already written about how Garrone's depictions of Scampìa fall short of identifying the building where much of Gomorrah's action takes place, Franz di Salvo's Vele di Scampia (1962-75), as a Corbusian-inflected misstep (see, for example, this post). In fact, after watching Gomorrah, we come to realize how the Vele di Scampia is worse. Much worse. For starters, di Salvo's housing project eventually became the largest open-air drug market in the world. No high modernist structure can lay claim to this distinction.

Top: view of the Vele di Scampia, from Gomorrah (2008); Bottom: view of interior circulation (Source)

Briefly, the architecture rings somehow familiar—a ferroconcete neo-Brutalist fantasy in shambles. The Vele di Scampia consists of five units, each split into two ziggurat-like forms. An arterial walkway splits each unit in half, with stairs going off at near 30º angles to apartment units above and below. The result is a series of "X"-like sections that aspired to street-like circulation in each unit. Although a similar penchant for elevated streets can be found in Alison and Peter Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens council estate, in section, the Vele di Scampia reads more as a descendant of Paul Rudolph's scheme for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (1967-72).

Alternative modes of circulation, from Gomorrah (2008) (Source)

Much of the settings in Gomorrah feature the Vele di Scampia's state of disrepair. The reinforced concrete buildings now appear more like bunkers than unified housing scheme, with broken and soggy foundations, graffiti; and in some instances, whole units have been knocked out to show the building's skeletal frames. If the building is a barometer of sorts for Gomorrah, then judging from what Garrone frames carefully in each scheme, the Vele di Scampia is a doomed world of sorts. A doomed world in a city already known for its cave systems and its undergrounds, literal and figurative.

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