Italy, Earthquakes And The Duty Of Rebuilding

Creation and destruction exist in an eternal struggle.

Italy has a lot of earthquakes. It also has a lot of fragile stone and masonry buildings that are centuries old and repositories of historical and cultural identity and meaning. This conflict creates a tension that contributes to the country’s ambivalent nature. In a land that is sanctified by so many architectural and artistic wonders, earthquakes are a curse, but they have often represented a reinassance.

Two minutes staring at a work of art

Studies show that a person can look at a painting for only a few minutes at a time, no matter how beautiful or rich in detail it is. Our senses evolved to spot an edible fruit in a glance, not to stare interminably at a work of art. Similarly, research has determined that constant exposure to any one stimulus eventually makes a person unsusceptible to it. Ask a friend to tap you on the shoulder repeatedly and you will forget that they are even there after a short while.

If you shift this dynamic to the scale of an entire country, you can quickly identify a problem. Italy contains so many outstandingly beautiful and important works of art and architecture, that it is impossible to maintain a constant appreciation for them, at least on a sensory level. While no one will ever say that the Colosseum has lost its allure, we are just not able to register its magnificence day after day every time we exit the metro stop to be accosted by its hulking grandeur. How many times can we stroll through Ragusa Ibla or drive past the Gran Sasso on the Parks Motorway before our eyes no longer register their stunning presence?

A sad part about being a human being is that we often do not appreciate something until it is gone. This is not for a lack of character; it is simply how our senses engage the world. To be completely attuned to the full value of everything in our environment would be overwhelming, paralyzing.

The second life of cities affected by earthquakes

This is where disaster plays a role, as a kind of catalyst for disruption and creative destruction, terms that hold as much salience in our digital economy as they do in reference to our changing climate and the extreme weather events that are becoming more and more frequent throughout the world. In the age of the Athropocene, the nonhuman world is becoming more active, and is striking back at human interference in its systems.

And yet, the fact that we always manage to turn disasters into new life, makes it possible, is not a new phenomenon. The rebuilding of London in the 17th century would not have been possible – politically, economically, architecturally – without the great fire of 1666, and so too with the 1906 earthquake of San Francisco. If these great disasters and tragedies had not occurred, and let me be clear that a great many people sadly died and suffered because of them, the rebirth that these cities experienced would never have happened.

And while many beautiful buildings were destroyed, the survivors of these catastrophes built even more beautiful ones, aided by the fact that the old cities had been leveled to the ground with decreased expense and effort, and also by the heightened sense of civic duty that arose in each survivor who felt a deep need to continue a particular instantiation of civilization and culture.

Unfortunately, in contexts where buildings are made of brick and stone, which is common although not ubiquitous throughout Europe, the natural cycle of destruction and creation is hard to perceive, because the intervals between construction and destruction are so long. In this sense, other parts of the world have something to teach us. In environments where stone is scarce and the climate is hot and wet, the tropics for example, buildings great and small are typically made of wood, bamboo and other materials that do not have the same resilience as stone. Building – and buildings – are therefore viewed differently. Whereas the great European cathedrals took centuries to construct and were meant to last forever, a traditional temple in regions such as Southeast Asia bear a different time signature. The builders of these temples never consider that a temple will last more than a few years, since the combined effects of heat and moisture quickly degrade relatively soft materials such as wood and bamboo. Therefore, the value of the temple lies more in the building (the act of construction) than in the building (the material structure).

The duty of rebuilding

So while the destruction of a building by an earthquake is a tragedy, especially given the damaging effects of falling stone, such destruction is an ineluctable part of the cycle of the planet on which we live, and the subsequent reconstruction is an integral part of human culture. Because our individual capacities are insufficient to capture this dynamic, institutions such as Unesco World Heritage (UWH) have arisen to help us realize what is of value, and what is endangered, in our built and natural landscapes. Born in response to the floods that afflicted Florence in 1966, the turbulent state of Venice’s watery landscape (of which we have a current instance), and the ongoing fluctuation of the Nile River (note the consistent theme of the uneasy mix of land and water), UWH has conflict – as well as preservation – encoded into its DNA. As recognized in cultures throughout the world, creation and destruction exist in an eternal struggle.

So maybe the next time you stroll by a building, you might want to take a moment to appreciate its beauty. To do so is to demonstrate that you have learned a lesson that was taught to those who came before you, and in so doing to pay homage to their wisdom and sacrifice born of tragedy, as well as to their talent, and to beauty born of courage and hard work. And if, or when, an earthquake causes that building to come tumbling down, you might have the duty of rebuilding it, or something else, in a way that will make your city, your country, and the world, better than before.