We Used to Be Good
“We Used to Be Good.” Log 53 (2021): 123-127
The text posted here is different from the published version. Please only cite from copy in print
Can one tell, by sight, in the blink of an eye, that a city—a town, a place, perhaps an entire country—has fallen on hard times? Does it show? Is it something we can spot in a landscape, in buildings, in public spaces? Of course, some extreme cases—when entire blocks are blighted, for example, store-fronts boarded up and people sleep in the rough—are self-evident. But is there a way to detect the fainter, more elusive marks of a milder, managed, civilized, but still visible decline?
In the United States even minor or transient bouts of economic harshness soon show up in the built environment: when jobs dwindle or life in a given place becomes unpleasant, for whatever reason, people just leave and then the typical timber-framed American suburban house, left to itself, falls to pieces within months. Evidently, that shows. But in Europe the ebb and flow of economic life tend to be slower. Subsidies and various forms of public assistance, still known locally as “social shock absorbers,” do what their name implies: when the going gets rough they soften the hit, somehow, and then people stay on, often on welfare, even when jobs are gone. Besides, European houses, built in stone or brick or reinforced concrete, stand up forever, like medieval castles, long after their inhabitants are all gone. Yet, for the trained eye—for an architect’s eye in particular—there are signs that do not lie.
I grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s in a small town in the north of Italy—that sweet small town that I don’t say, to paraphrase Guido Gozzano, a local hero, who famously didn’t name his own in a line of a cheesy poem still studied at school throughout the country. My hometown was then a prosperous, thriving provincial capital. After a spurt of international renown as a medieval city-state, it became a sleepy military and administrative hub, and for long a frontier post for the House of Savoy; surrounded by fertile farming land, it profited vastly from the last infrastructural investments of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia: canals (for irrigation, not navigation), then railways, which linked it to Turin (1855), Milan (1859), and Paris (1871). Its population started to climb around the turn of the 20th century, and it surged under fascism due to a combination of agricultural prosperity and industrial development. But the real boom came after the war: in the space of 20 years, from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, the resident population rose by 50 percent, mostly due to newcomers from the south of Italy. As far as I can remember, all were welcome—as there were always more jobs than jobseekers.
Growing up in a place where everyone gets richer and everything gets better by the day leaves a mark. One becomes hardwired for a Hegelian philosophy of history from the start. When, in 1962, the new town hospital was inaugurated, the Italian president came all the way from Rome. Funded by the hospital’s private estate, the new hospital building was said to be, at the time, the most modern in Europe—I do not know what that meant, nor if it was true, but for days after the opening local residents (including myself, aged four) could visit it and marvel at the miraculously self-opening doors (the true and original automaton, according to Homer’s Iliad). Equally miraculous was the ubiquitous system of underfloor heating— as every room was pleasantly, uniformly warm at all times and nobody could see where the heat came from. Most rooms had only two beds, and single rooms were available for a fee. Those had air conditioning too.
At the end of the 1960s my father’s acquaintances in town included his best friend from high school, by then a world specialist in reinforced concrete foundations, who, when back home on holiday, told us fantastic stories of air travel to construction sites in distant lands and of emergency landings in the desert (perhaps inspired by Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, 1957); a retired British Olivetti manager who, I realized much, much later by collating the dates, must have been the man who commissioned James Stirling’s Olivetti Training Centre in Haslemere (1969–72); and an electromechanical engineer brought in at great expense by a local factory to design and develop a universal robotic harvester. Like most high-tech, cybernetic, and robotic projects of the time, that project was overoptimistic. Other coeval moon shots succeeded (one, famously, in July 1969; and to get there NASA used a batch of Olivetti P101 computers designed and made 20 miles from my hometown). That hapless harvester, however, never worked; the local company, which had bitten off more than it could chew, went belly-up soon thereafter, and what remained of its abandoned premises was recently converted into a “hard-discount” grocery store.
Overoptimism in the 1960s was not limited to technical professions. It was the spirit of the time. During my five years in primary school (1964–69) I saw the population of my hometown rise from 50,000 to 55,000 inhabitants, and I remember our school teacher claiming, with pride, that “we” would soon reach 60,000. That almost happened. Then, from 1975 to 2000, the town precipitously lost one-fifth of its population. The number of residents has been more or less steady since 2001, at around 45,000, but only thanks to a robust intake of immigrants, many from Maghrebian and sub-Saharan Africa or from Latin America.
Meanwhile many local residents have themselves become migrants—to nearby Switzerland and France, or even further. So the first thing one notices when arriving in town is that the town is literally half empty. Everything is still standing—still there, if not always in its pristine state —but oversized and underused. You can park your car anywhere. There are no lines. Wherever you go—to a store, shop, bank, filling station, public office, bar, restaurant, taxi stand—there is someone waiting for you, not the other way around. And there is space: one can see it and feel it in the flesh. One can sense it simply by walking around.
Yet, when I take a walk in town the first thing I notice is not so much the lack of human density (which in pandemic times was not unwelcome) as the general decay of all surfaces meant for human treading. It’s not just the footpaths, roads, public driveways, and sidewalks that are in shambles. The town where I grew up was dotted with public gardens of all sorts and sizes, all lovingly watered, trimmed, and manicured by an army of municipal workers. Children played there, families went there to take pictures among impeccable flower beds. Different and often rival groups of teenagers, each with bikes and mopeds, met there in the afternoon at their preferred benches.
Most of those gardens are still there, evidently, but so parched and forlorn, and so littered and inhospitable, that today even stray dogs (of which the population in town appears to have surged) prefer to keep off. At times, during recent despondent visits, I wondered, in moments of hallucination, whether by some health-related metrics even the general level of anthropological fitness of the local population had not taken a sudden and inexplicable turn for the worse. But then, on closer consideration, one can find many objective reasons why an impoverished population may look unhealthy or unkempt. As we learned during the pandemic, people who do not have to show up for work at regular times may become oblivious to their looks. And my hometown not only has a high unemployment rate; it also has a number of retirees or otherwise nonactive residents far higher than the national average (roughly 62 percent). When I was in high school all the students in town—indeed, everyone in town— seemed to me at times vain and excessively fashion conscious. Trends change and I may no longer be capable of reading the codes and languages of juvenile fashion, but I can see that students elsewhere still very much care about how they look – and many students in my hometown do not. That is the most ominous sign of all.
The numbers of the Italian GDP, aggregated at the national level, indicate that the Italian economy, albeit slowed down by the energy crises of the 1970s, kept growing till the turn of the century—but has not grown an iota since. As the great Italian stagnation, almost 20 years in the making when the pandemic struck, started in sync with the latest stage of the European economic and monetary union, the single currency has often been the scapegoat of choice for all recent Italian woes. Others prefer to blame the collapse of the so-called First Republic, followed by the rise of populism and of nativist (but in fact racist) politics in the mid-1990s. Albeit anecdotal, the decline of my hometown tells a different story.
The real hit there came earlier, in the last quarter of the 20th century. That was not degrowth; it was outright collapse. The two decades of zero growth that followed (2000–2020) were simply a much-delayed process of resizing and adjustment, perhaps more painful because smoothed out over time. In the case of my hometown, the collapse in the late 1970s was exacerbated by the contingent demise of a few local industries that happened to make stuff that nobody wanted anymore. That, however, would not apply to either computers or automobiles, which are still being made elsewhere—just not in Piedmont. As I argued in a small piece I wrote in Log 34 (2015), the reasons why most of Italy around the mid-’70s stopped believing in the future of factories, and simply decided to do away with industrial modernity as a whole, were as much ideological as technical and economic.
Italy’s adoption of the culture of industrial modernity came late by European standards. Earlier in the 20th century the modernist project was stifled by fascism and by the rural penchant of traditional Catholicism. Perhaps that created what economists would call a pent-up demand: after the war, Italy embraced industrial modernity— particularly the American version of it—with unparalleled enthusiasm. For a while, that enthusiasm was rewarded. But when the first headwinds came —–in the shape of two oil crises, civil unrest, and international terrorism—Italy’s fling with modernity came to an abrupt end. Most then concluded that modernism was a lost cause, dead and gone, and not worth fighting for. Industrial modernity in Italy was a flash in the pan—a straw fire, soon kindled and soon burnt. But since jettisoning the modernist project, so vivid in the 1950s and 1960s, Italy has not found another. That absence is seen not so much in the rarefaction of life and wares, so conspicuous when compared to my memories of a town bustling with both only a generation ago: the abeyance of projects—of any project—shows, first and foremost, in the run-down appearance of people and places. Countries that don’t repaint their window frames have no plans for their future.
“We Used to Be Good.” Log 53 (2021): 123-127