Kevin McCloud reveals a project soon to be gracing your screens and champions the everyday in architecture.
It’s not often that the camera crew for Grand Designs strays beyond the mud and scaffolding of British building sites to film inspirational projects in beautiful climes. For the upcoming series, we’ve been lucky enough to spend a day in the French mining town of Lens to look at the Louvre’s satellite museum by Japanese architects Sanaa (sanaa.co.jp) in collaboration with the American practice Imrey Culbert, built as a counterpoint to a woodland villa in the same glassy Modernist style. Lens is not an obvious tourist destination, hence the French Government’s decision to regenerate it with ‘high culture’. The museum’s arrival in the town bears the heavy hand of Paris’ controlling determinism, but the building is anything but heavy-handed. It’s an inspiring sliver of glass and anodised aluminium that is so subtly reflective, at times it appears to morph into the sky.
In complete contrast is another woodland project – a modernised cave dwelling in the Wyre Forest belonging to Angelo Mastropietro – for which we headed off to Italy for inspiration. The city of Matera in Basilicata is one of the oldest inhabited conurbations on the planet; its hundreds of excavated caves have been lived in since Palaeolithic times. Although once a monastic community, Matera’s dwellings grew in number to support hundreds of households. Now the old town resembles a jumble of stone boxes, arcades and terraces haphazardly piled on top of each other. However, each decorated stone building is merely the front end of a tunnel; behind the dressed quoins and classical windows is a hole in the hill from which that stone came. (Families built as they tunnelled, extending their homes in two ways at the same time.)
The town consequently has a mysterious and ambiguous character. Every restaurant, church and house to some degree extends backwards, up and down. Once rooms cease to be naturally lit and take on more cave-like proportions and shapes, the confusion really sets in. Matera is beautiful. So it’s therefore hard to believe it was a slum and abandoned in the middle of the twentieth century. At that point its population had swollen to accept migrants from displaced communities in the Second World War. Sanitation was poor and malaria was common. As a result, the authorities effectively shut the town down and moved its residents out. Mercifully, we have to thank the hippies, squatters and heritage enthusiasts of the late Eighties and Nineties, who understood the historical and architectural value of the place.
One conservationist-philanthropist I met, hotelier Daniele Kihlgren of Le Grotte della Civita (sextantio.it/grotte-civita/), told me that Matera’s rehabilitation was still vulnerable, because of over-restoration as much as anything. He detests the interventions of well-meaning architects who want flush floors and whitewashed walls; he prefers to repair the most ancient dwellings in the city gently, leaving the bare stone walls as they were, and the floors as softly undulating jigsaws of stone and brick.
Interestingly, he also feels that the architettura povera, or architecture of the poor – the vernacular farm and peasant buildings of the country – is being neglected by Italy’s cultural bodies in favour of the big-ticket items we all know and love so well such as Pompeii, Renaissance Florence and Classical Rome. Such dazzling behemoths of empire and state will always overshadow the buildings of the everyday – but only until such buildings become rare and, if we are lucky, championed by the likes of Daniele. He is, thankfully, not alone; there are small groups of enthusiasts in every country who fight for the vanishing vernacular. Neither is he alone in recognising the wider beauty and historical resonance of places like Matera. On the opposite side of the gorge to the old town, the slope is peppered with ancient abandoned cave dwellings.
Pasolini chose to film his Gospel According to St Matthew here. Mel Gibson also chose Matera to depict Jerusalem and Golgotha in The Passion of the Christ. Matera is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and is due to be a European City of Culture in 2019. Cultura povera rules.