The Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion
My surreal trek through unfinished Italy
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.”
Giarre offers the extreme form of a condition found in most cities, making it a parable of urban planning. It is the epicenter not of merely an Italian but a global phenomenon of accreted unfinished visions. It is also a good place to think about how we live with the layering and churning of the city. Being surrounded by the sawed-off ends of the utopian plans of once-powerful people can be liberating, as it subverts the professional’s claim on the city; the architects, politicians, and planners all stand defeated, incapable of molding place to their will. Yet if this is a victory, it is a hollow one, for we are all left picking our way through the pieces. A more profound consequence is that we disconnect ourselves from place: provisional and incomplete hometowns inspire provisional and incomplete loyalty. In tumbling together half-realized projects at an ever greater speed, the city of incompletion disrupts the possibility of people building up a relationship of care, knowledge, and trust with the place they live in.
The artists who guided me around the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion are attempting to find a new and challenging way to reconnect people with place by embracing this sense of disconnect and tumult. It is a paradoxical project, both subversive and conservative, mocking the failure of effective governance in Sicily while suggesting that vaguely futuristic ruins can be the basis for a novel type of geographical allegiance. “The sum of these relics of never-attained futures,” they write, “is so vast that it can be considered as a true architectural and visual style, representing Italy and the age in which they were produced.” Incompletion comes to represent “the speculative munificence of Sicilians and all other Italians” and, even more grandly, the invention of authentically modern “places for spiritual habitation and contemplation” that are also “places of existential awareness, embodiments of the human soul.”
The idea of rebranding the modern ruins of Giarre as the Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion is an attempt to reclaim the contemporary landscape, to allow us to find within its spectacular bleakness both beauty and drama. While the aesthetic of ruins that this argument relies upon looks beguiling as a set of black-and-white photos, on the ground it soon gets wearisome. After I visited a few of the chosen remnants, they all started to look the same and I gave up. I’d learned that being a tourist of incompletion has diminishing returns, but I’d also been reminded that cities of incompletion are places that I have spent a lot of time traveling through. In some cases, I've even called them home.
This post is adapted from Alastair Bonnett’s new book, Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, to be published July 8 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the United States and Aurum Press in the United Kingdom.