An Ode to Italy’s Absurdly Beautiful Modern Ruins



It was on a trip through Sicily, late in the summer of 2006, that the Palermo-based artist Andrea Masu first took note of the unfinished structures. In Giarre, a small town off the Ionian Coast, he met his friend and sometime collaborator Claudia D’Aita. She knew the area well and led Masu to the edge of town where a large, empty polo stadium rose above the coastal plain. Masu was astonished by the monumental scale of the sun-bleached, concrete arena — built to hold 20,000 in a city of just 27,000 — and how it seemed suspended in time. There was no green turf on which to play, and dry grass poked up between the seats of the bleachers. No polo match had ever taken place there.

Over the course of the afternoon, D’Aita showed Masu more: an Olympic-size swimming pool, a racetrack, a nursing home — all of them abandoned mid-construction, like so many half-formed thoughts. D’Aita knew that Masu and the other members of his art collective, Alterazioni Video, made work that concerned political absurdities, and she thought they might take an interest in the town’s strange landscape of forgotten public works. Masu had heard about Sicily’s unfinished buildings before, but he’d never seen such a dense concentration of them in one town. That evening, while sharing a granita with D’Aita, he decided he would devote himself to learning more.

It became clear that no one — not even the Italian government — knew exactly how many aborted projects had sprung up across the country during the postwar boom years. So, for more than 10 years, Masu and the other members of Alterazioni Video — Paololuca Barbieri Marchi, Alberto Caffarelli, Matteo Erenbourg and Giacomo Porfiri, who live between New York, Berlin and Milan — crisscrossed Italy to document them. The 696 structures that they have identified and photographed to date (the group estimates that there are more than 1,000) appear in the new book “Incompiuto: The Birth of a Style,” published by Humboldt Books in collaboration with Fosbury Architecture. Through photographs and critical essays, the book makes the case that these unused buildings constitute a new style, the Incompiuto Siciliano. “It’s a significant architectural movement,” says Marchi, “because it says so much about what happened in our country.”

At the end of World War II, Italy was in ruins — reduced to rubble by months of heavy bombing. But an infusion of cash, first through the Marshall Plan and later through the European Economic Community, touched off a period of rapid reconstruction. “The local governments thought of these public projects as an activator of the local economy,” says Masu, “but so many of them were completely disconnected from the communities.” Construction continued through the 1980s, which Marchi calls the “golden age” of the Incompiuto, characterized by clean-lined, poured concrete construction.