Italy planning fiasco: New ruins litter Sicily

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Giarre polo ground with Mt Etna in the background
Image caption,
Giarre's sports stadium, like many other buildings, was only half-finished

If you clamber over a fence in the Sicilian town of Giarre and push your way through some bushes, you come across an amphitheatre.

Blackened and covered in moss and grasses, it is like something from a lost civilisation, an archaeological relic, gradually being consumed by the encroaching jungle.

But this is not anything that might have been built by the Greeks or the Romans in ancient times.

The amphitheatre is the legacy of a modern madness.

It is one of a series of planning disasters inflicted on this small town, which sits on the slopes of the volcano Mount Etna.

Its people now have to live with a string of huge, half-built and abandoned buildings.

Creeping decay

Only the bones of the amphitheatre and its attached "multi-functional hall" complex are in place.

Through one gaping hole you can see the snows on Etna's summit, gleaming in the sunshine.

Just next door lies a half-built swimming pool, nearly Olympic size, where nobody has ever swum.

The roof is on, but vegetation creeps in where there should be doors and windows.

No work has been done since the money ran out nearly 20 years ago.

The architect who designed what became a ruin is Salvo Patane.

Looking around the desolate structure, he said: "I see these stands that could have hosted several hundred spectators.

"I see this pool that's never had a centimetre of water in it. I see plants eating away the building, and it gives me a strong sense of sadness."

Image caption,
The sports stadium was initially designed for polo, even though few people play polo in Sicily

Just down the road there is what was meant to be a sports stadium.

Almost unbelievably, it was originally designed to be a polo ground, despite the fact that there is no real interest in polo in Sicily.

A bit of football is played on the bare-earth pitch, and joggers wheeze around a rotting track.

But this is another of Giarre's abandoned building projects.

The grandstand's tiers of seats rise up, high against the blue of the sky.

But weeds grow where the spectators should sit. Beneath the stand, nearly all the rooms are unfinished and strewn with rubble, the way they were the day the builders walked away.

'White elephant capital'

You could add to Giarre's list of follies a flower market, a "children's town" play area and other schemes that were all abandoned long before they could ever be used.

"Several companies started the projects without the intention of finishing them," the architect Salvo Patane explained.

The firms were only interested in winning the tender and securing access to the cash on offer.

And according to Mr Patane, the local authorities in decades gone by had no idea what planning for a major building venture entailed.

"These were projects started so as not to lose funds that were available from the regional government," said Mr Patane.

"More than waste, this was bad politics."

You might hear similar stories in many Italian towns, especially in Sicily.

But with several large, failed projects concentrated here, little Giarre has come to be seen as the epicentre of the phenomenon - a kind of architectural white elephant capital.

Sitting in the ruins of the stadium, community activist Claudia D'Aita talked of how local people used to feel about this.

"We were ashamed of these buildings," she said.

"We were known across Italy as the town that had wasted a lot of public resources. We just didn't want to talk about it."

But Ms D'Aita says that today she and her fellow activists want to do something about the problem.

"Nowadays we want to reclaim these spaces, even if they're incomplete."

Ghost of buildings past

As a way of focusing attention on the construction scandal Ms D'Aita's group began with satire, staging a mock polo match at the stadium.

But gradually they came to see the existence of the buildings in a different light.

Ms D'Aita says that in a way they tell the story of Giarre's past, and serve as a warning for the future.

And she insists that the activists are serious when they go so far as to argue that the decaying buildings have taken on an artistic quality of their own

The group has even come up with a name for what they say can be seen as an architectural sub-genre; they call it "Sicilian Incompletion".

"Our idea is that these projects should all be joined in a park - a kind of open-air museum."

There could be guided tours, she said.

But Giarre's current deputy mayor, Leo Cantarella, hopes there can also be other ways of tackling the town's problem.

He says the council is trying to rectify the mistakes of previous administrations.

It is working to find practical uses for the abandoned structures and the situation is improving.

One colossal skeleton of concrete was recently turned into a smart and much-needed multi-storey car park.

And money has been found to complete a theatre in the town centre.

After 60 years of standing idle it might actually, one day, put on a show.