Some time ago I attended a play staged in Casale Cervelletta in Rome. The show was attractive, the format original, but what is interesting for me is the shelter: the house is not restored, partly ruined, not permanently used, and – maybe because of that – likely to be “lived” in a poetic form. On arriving I can’t see the mass of the building, but only the main facade on top of a little rise. It is still daylight, I get my ticket at the kiosk and drink a beer. I’m alone in the crowd and perhaps this amplifies my emotional perceptions. At dusk, I can see from the ruined windows hands and faces watching us and waiting for us. The show takes place partly in the spoiled courtyard of the house, partly in darkish rooms, some of which still littered with old furnishings.
The magic of theater animated the space and awakened its genius loci, transforming the walls and windows into tracks and thick roots of the civilization I belong to. And a question arised: would that happen if the complex had just been restored? My answer is no – otherwise this post would have had another title – and I honestly asked myself if my impression was due to an “aesthetics of ruins” from romantic remembrance. But I don’t think so: the point is, the location of our life is like our body, which carries the signs of our personal history in the form of scars, wrinkles, a gait a little bit crooked or curved, a light in the eyes that tells the happy moments and the painful ones. Also a house tells its story, the one of those who lived there, generation after generation. It shows it in its cracks, in the plaster peeling, in the worn floors, in the lopsided windows. It tells stories that can be heard only through a poetic catalyst, that is why they emerge only when it is inhabited by art.
Restoration aims precisely at destroying all this: it is a facelift, a refusal to accept that time passes, it is the desire to forget our own story, a story of poverty.
But the one who hasn’t a story cannot have a future, and the capitalist and consumerist culture demands us to be in a permanent present where past and future do not exist. Indeed, there is not even the present: there is only something that is “going to happen” and never does. Each one of us has the opportunity to choose to stop for a moment to listen, to take up the legacy of all the generations that have gone before us and make them revive in himself.
Not all of the restoration is to be rejected, of course: if we stopped taking care of our relics, like anything else, they would decay much faster. This actually happens, as we all see too often in our precious historical centers, until the buildings can no longer be called so, but become ruins. I’m amazed thinking that the church of Santa Sabina in Rome is almost coeval to the Basilica of Maxentius (or Constantine, if you prefer): stately and magnificent the latter, modest in comparison the former. But that one is still standing, while of the other there only remain a side aisle and a few pieces of conglomerate (the famous Roman concrete!), scattered on the ground. Why? Because the church has been used continuously for the past 16 centuries, while the roman basilica has not. Indeed it was plundered to build all the other beautiful churches in the eternal city.
But this carefulness, this continuous and solicitous use is not called “restoration” (at least for the insiders), it is called maintenance and has been an integral part of our cultural DNA until it was supplanted by the frenzy of the ‘new’ that has its matrix in the industrial revolution and its hub in consumer capitalism. That came first in the advanced countries, then in the others, first in the capitals, then in small towns and finally in the villages. The city of Sana’a, Yemen, is plenty of earthen “skyscrapers” 8 to 10 storeys tall, built centuries ago and, until a few years ago, protected by a layer of painted lime continually refreshed; by women, to be precise. Now they don’t do it anymore, nobody does it, and the historic city of Sana’a must be restored, with UNESCO funds (which contribute to GDP growth a lot more than women who whitewash their own home). But there is no need to go that far: in Sperlonga, southern Lazio, up to twenty or thirty years ago all the houses were painted every year. Here too, by women. Here too, they no longer do so. Indeed, the women are no longer there: they left with their families, to live in modern houses in Fondi, Gaeta, Latina. The old town is inhabited three months a year by Roman or Neapolitan vacationers who don’t give a damn about whitewashing. And the walls crumble, until one has to intervene (without UNESCO funding, in this case) with chains of iron and cement.
This is all to say that architecture is a living thing, living the life of those who live in it, and alive as long as it is cared for by those who use it. When no longer used or cared for it dies and decomposes naturally, unless it is “frozen” as those bodies in formalin that it is in fashion to display in exhibitions that meet great success. It is okay for the Coliseum or the Parthenon, much less for all those buildings – even very old ones – that may still live a pleasant old age, taken care of by their inhabitants, without scientific parameters and consequent budget, but with their stories, their passions and – why not – even their mistakes.