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The Architecture of Unhappiness

I saw the wonderful Cannes Grand Prix-winning gangster film Gomorrah directed by Matteo Garrone yesterday, and was struck at the level of decay and desecation presented. The film was set largely in Scampia, a suburb of Naples apparently riddled with the criminal activities of the Camorra crime organizations. It’s a fascinating portrait of how deeply the organization penetrates the lives of both average Scampians, Neapolitans and the thugs themselves, but it’s also a staggering use of architecture and landscape in filmmaking.

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The literally crumbling apartment blocks, terraced half-ziggurats paying homage to nothing, tell only half the story of paranoia and a life without opportunity. An earthquake in the early 80s terribly damaged the region, and this film suggests that things, socially, culturally, politically and architecturally, have been left to slowly rot ever since.

Eyesores of post-war brutalism, the facades of these buildings tell only half the story. Within their concrete passageways, crevices and bombed-out hollows lie passageways, hiding places and caverns prime for lookouts, hidden caches of weapons and the kind of subterranean malfeasance that so often surfaces.

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Still from Gomorrah of Gaetano being killed by rival gangsters

Still from Gomorrah of Gaetano being killed by rival gangsters.

Continuing on this theme of endemic, toxic rot, Gomorrah tells the story of Franco and Roberto, two more polished arms of the Camorra who launder money through large waste disposal contracts with European businesses (see this story from Reuters last year for more on how the Camorra do this). Acting with no fear of governmental oversight, they collect toxic waste and bury it in quarries, literally poisoning the very ground from which the buildings and their inhabitants spring.

It’s both a potent symbol and a very real demonstration of how the Camorra is so deeply entrenched with what impunity it operates. The end of the film says that cancer rates are up 20% in areas where the Camorra controls the waste management and than in the last 30 years they’ve killed one person every three days.

I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, which takes great strides and overweening prose to make the rather facile point that our spaces effect the way we feel, but this film is an exemplar of that notion. The film has an utterly hopeless, claustrophobic feel that wasn’t won through shaky, hand-held cameras or an unnerving score. Gomorrah is a portrait of a doomed landscape, one stripped of the built environment’s capacity to ennoble or inspire. This is squalor writ large, and if one accepts de Botton’s thesis, Scampia has managed to build, not build or disregard to the point of obsolescence, a society that strongly echoes its surroundings.

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Marco and Ciro testing out stolen guns at a swampy beach in Gomorrah

Marco and Ciro testing out stolen guns at a swampy beach in Gomorrah

One does start to wonder though, on a massive infrastructural scale, what micro-societies will spring up in these wastelands, and how to combat them through opportunity, attention and design. Housing projects in tough parts of American cities are often pointed to as isolated, and some would suggest, fixable, examples of design that has lost its sense of humanity, but happens when whole cities, right down to their toxic groundwater, lose their sense of progress, momentum and morality?

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