By Christian Narkiewicz-Laine
Like Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green and Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis by Minoru Yamasaki, the troubled existence and failure of modern brutalist architecture is a failure of policy, a failure of social engineering, and the failure of society in general; and its fate remains bound up with, and reflective of, the fate of many American and world cities from the mid-20th century.
Over the years, Chicago crime, gang violence and neglect created deplorable living conditions for the residents, and “Cabrini-Green” became a metonym for the problems associated with public housing in The United States.
Such social disasters as Pruitt-Igoe also gave “urban renewal” such a bad name that the term has never again been used to define “urban rebirth” or “urban regeneration.”
Like Cabarini Green,” urban renewal” has been relegated to the dust bins of late the 20th-Century.
Just the mere mention of the name makes even Kafka shutter.
Now today, the same fate awaits for the next demolition of what remains of Le Vele (“Sails of Scampia” in English) in Scampia, a suburb in Naples as crews have begun tearing down the infamous Naples housing estate thought to be part of one of the largest drug-dealing centres in Europe.
Le Vele di Scampia is the project of architect Franz Di Salvo (1913-1977) for a residential complex formed of seven volumes and built between 1962 and 1975 in the Naples district of Secondigliano.
Di Salvo’s work was inspired by Le Corbusier’s “Unité d’Habitation” and adopted for what at the time were Italy’s highly innovative compositional solutions and techniques in architecture and urban planning.
The project was built on the northern outskirts of Naples between 1962 and 1975 to provide homes for residents decanted from the medieval city center.
It was named for the triangular-shaped buildings, reminiscent of a sail, as they are wide at the base and narrowing as they rise.
The design followed the housing unit principles articulated by Le Corbusier for the design of public housing.
Di Salvo was also influenced by the trestle structures proposed by Kenzō Tange.
He proposed a plan for the district, which was based on two building types: a “tower” and a “tent.”
The “tent” type provides the dominant impression of sails.
The buildings were designed following the idea of “existenzminimum” (subsistence dwelling): the dwellings
themselves were deliberately minimal, with many shared exterior spaces where life would take place.
Di Salvo wanted housing that would reconstruct the spirit of ancient Naples and evoke the historic alleyways and courtyards of the old city with added green spaces. Some of the blocks were left unfinished and to deteriorate.
In its heyday, the complex consisted of seven massive apartment blocks, and the project housed up to 40,000 to 70,000 people.
When many families were made homeless by the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, they started to squat in the Sails and the housing complex fell into decline because it was totally abandoned by the State.
The Camorra crime syndicate took control of the Le Vele and turned it into their own space in which drugs could be sold or hidden from the police. Large metal gates on some of the walkways and stairs in the blocks of flats had been placed there, not by the council, but by the Camorra itself, so they can be locked by drug pushers as they flee the police.
Crime rates soared as the Di Salvo’s uniquely designed internal alleyways and corridors were taken over by heroin dealers and Italian-styled gang bangers.
In 2008, the four tower blocks of Le Vele reached international fame as the setting for the film “Gomorrah,” directed by Matteo Garrone and centered on the book by Robert Saviano.
The film was based on the activities of the Camorra crime group and stripped away the romantic qualities of what you expect from the mob and delivered an intense picture that was raw, gritty and ugly, using the Sails as an appropriate backdrop.
The actual raw, gritty, and ugly housing complex was also the battleground of rival crime clans in real life, as well.
In order to solve the blight of “social problems,” Le Vele was slated for demolition; three of the “Sails” were knocked down in 2016 and replaced by undistinguished apartment buildings without providing any improvements to the community social services.
The demolition of the remainder of Le Vele stopped when vast amounts of asbestos were discovered.
This decision left no room for a reasoned, sustainable recovery, there was no second chance for one of the rare examples of Italian brutalist landmark architecture, just as some designers dreaded.
Marina Borrelli, Eduardo Borrelli and Aldo di Chio owners of the Naples-based firm, Vulcanica Architettura state: “knocking down Le Vele is like burning witches in the town square; it doesn’t address the underlying social problems and is purely and simply ‘window dressing’ where shoddy building replaces architecture that tried to think big.”
Thinking big, for sure, requires too much time and too much effort.
Last year, remaining residents began moving into new apartments built nearby.
The demolition, now billed as the “final fall of Gomorrah,” is being achieved with the help of bulldozers and a 45m-tall hydraulic claw crane.
At a press conference before the demolition began, Luigi de Magistris, the mayor of Naples, said: “For years this area has been equated with ‘Gomorrah,’ but it is not so.”
“There has been struggle and dignity of the citizens of Scampia, and a new page of collaboration between the government and the administration has begun.”
Omero Benfenati, the spokesperson for the Le Vele Committee, commented: “Le Vele represented a negative brand, but today we tell another story.”
Let’s see how that story unfolds.
Excerpted from a larger text by Architecture Critic, Christian Narkiewicz-Laine ©2020