Modern places are made up of layers of incomplete visions of the future, and the result is a permanent state of impermanence. Giarre, a small Sicilian seaside town that lies in the shadow of Mount Etna, offers one of the world’s most startling concentrations of half-finished grand building projects. This town within a town was dubbed the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion by Italian artists, and the name has stuck. Here you will find 25 incomplete structures built between the mid-1950s and the 2000s, many of considerable size, such as a vast Athletics and Polo Stadium, an unfinished near-Olympic-size Regional Swimming Pool, and a tumbling concrete palace known as the Multifunctional Hall. Their concrete shells are slowly being taken over by meadow grass and cacti, but they still dominate the landscape.
In a town of only 27,000 people these edifices stand out starkly, as unmissable clues to local politicians’ habit of making impressive but ill-advised claims about what public works they could see to completion in order to secure funds from the regional government. Starting large-scale construction work has been a vote-winner and a way of creating jobs. It was also claimed to combat the recruiting power of the Mafia.
The landscape that has resulted from all these promises is surreal and has a melancholic appeal for those attracted to the idea that decay and inertia will always overtake the hubris of modernity. A collective of artists based in Milan, New York, and Berlin, called Alterazioni Video, devised the idea of the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion in Giarre, delighting in what, in a photo essay on Giarre, they call its “sheer scale, territorial extent and architectural oddness.” They define incompletion as the “partial execution of a project followed by continual modifications that generate new spurts of activity,” a process that produces “purposeless sites” that “dominate the landscape like triumphal arches.” Alterazioni Video collaborator and local community activist Claudia D’Aita, who once staged a mock polo match at the Athletics and Polo Stadium, explained to a BBC journalist that all of Giarre’s unfinished edifices should be seen as “a kind of open-air museum.” It’s a refrain picked up by Alterazioni Video, which announced in its photo essay that these “glaring blemishes on the civic horizon” should be “transformed into a tourist destination, giving new value and meaning to the monuments of a perpetual present.”
Alterazioni Video produced a map and guidebook to help visitors find their way around the various key sites of incompletion. I’d not heard of anyone using the guide in earnest, so I went to Giarre in July 2013 to see what it would be like to be a tourist of unfinished Sicily. It was, unsurprisingly, an odd experience, and I occasionally found it difficult to tell the complete and incomplete town apart. Just across the road from Chico Mendes Park, a half-built and fenced-off “children’s city” that is a central stopping point on Alterazioni Video’s self-guided tour, is another abandoned area, an elaborate 1980s roundabout that is now a wasteland of grasses, graffiti, and wild fig trees as well as a huge stash of brown glass bottles. It is adorned with a broken central fountain, a rusting orb shaped like Sputnik, a ring of dried-up smaller water features, and a weed-infested sculpture of the 19th-century cleric Don Bosco instructing street children. As I stood next to Chico Mendes Park, this large traffic island felt unfinished, but it is more likely to have simply not been maintained. Neglect and incompletion merge in Giarre, creating an extensive and continuous landscape of abandonment.
In its “Sicilian Incompletion Manifesto” Alterazioni Video argues that Giarre is the “epicenter” of a phenomenon that has “radiated out from Sicily to the rest of the peninsula, creating an Unfinished Italy.” Yet the way the incomplete parts of town mesh with the ordinary landscape reminded me that I didn’t need to come to Italy to find the remnants of once-heroic architectural visions. Standing in the shadow of the high concrete terraces and walkways of the Athletics and Polo Stadium, on a playing field covered in the ash and cinder thrown up by Mount Etna, I was reminded of my hometown of Newcastle, which has its own network of unfinished concrete walkways and a stub end of a motorway, both discards from 1960s plans to bulldoze the city and rebuild it as the “Brasília of the North.”