Post-quake Art Therapy

Local problems are best addressed by local solutions, because only by acting at the local scale can we respond to the unique needs of local populations

As you know, I think there is a great deal to learn from late 17th and early 18th century Sicily, in particular from the recovery of the Val di Noto following the earthquake that struck the region in 1693. In this piece, I want to focus on two aspects of architectural design that I was unable to cover in earlier pieces. Both have to do with building features that were new to the Baroque style that developed in the region after the earthquake.

The first is the use of representations of organic forms that promised to lend resilience to the new buildings, if not in structural terms then in a psychological sense, which should not be considered to be secondary or inferior to structural integrity, for architecture serves to provide shelter and comfort to the spirit as much as to the body.

One example of these design elements is the spiral, which was commonly found in both natural and cultural forms, sprouting plants for the former, for example, and the shepherds crook for the latter, although certainly the shape had already been incorporated into Baroque artistic work by the 17th century, as well as in the period’s musical instruments, the scroll and the f-holes of a violin, for example. In fact, the phenomenon and naming of the fiddlehead fern nicely blurs the distinction between nature and culture as it relates to this geometric form, one that fascinated Leonardo of Pisa, otherwise known as Fibonacci, the 12th century mathematician who is best known for his discourse on the numerical properties of beauty.

What is unique about the spiral in the recovery of the Val di Noto after its 1693 earthquake was its deployment in the design and construction of building facades. Specifically, it was used to enhance the resilience of doorways in a visual if not physical sense. Imagine a two story building with a central front door — il portone. At the base of the door and extending up on either side about fifty centimeters or so there will often be found a spiral form, carved in stone, the bottom attached to the foundation and the long side attached to the jamb of the door, like a coiled spring under tension.

Again, the effect is only visual, but what the local artisans were trying to achieve and convey through the new application of this form was a sense of resilience in one of a building’s weakest points, a ground floor doorway. The use of the spiral in this way — and remember the craftsmen and builders were local and had experienced the earthquake themselves and suffered its tragic consequences — did not in fact make the articulation between the building’s wall and the jamb of the door more flexible in a structural sense, but rather in a psychological sense. A great deal of the trauma that is suffered by earthquake survivors is psychological, namely post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The architects, builders and artisans of 17th and 18th century Sicily did not use this 20th century term, of course, but they understood very well that their designs had to respond to the psychological, emotional and spiritual needs of local residents as well as to their physical requirements. Stone spirals were one of their solutions.

Another design feature engaged and deployed a similar logic, only using proportions rather than form to achieve its effect. Let us return to our two story building facade. Imagine that on the top floor is a row of four windows regularly spaced across the width of the building. On the bottom floor is the same doorway discussed previously, with a single window on either side, each the same size as the windows on top. In a typical building of the Renaissance, when architects rigorously adhered to the harmony of the Classical period, symmetry and balance were the desired traits. Buildings of the period evinced stability and solidity to produce an effect of placidity and timelessness.

What Baroque architects did was quite the opposite; their aim was to produce tension in the design of their buildings so as to provoke it in the local population who viewed and used them. If the Baroque approach can be summed up in a single phrase, it is to produce and resolve tension.

How appropriate then was the Baroque style in postquake Val di Noto, where stress coursed through the local population that had been so traumatized by the earthquake and the horrible death, damage and disruption it caused.

Local architects found one feature to be particularly apt in this regard. The oversized portone of Baroque buildings threw the placid facades — the brown imperturbable faces, to use James Joyce’s apt if anachronistic and a achoristic phrase — out of harmony and charged them with a prestressed tension, like the coiled stone spirals that were deployed on the sides of doorways. In this way, the buildings were standing ready for the next earthquake, prepared to resist the shaking of the ground with the energy that they had stored in the now distorted relations between door and window. Of course, this tension was visual and not physical in nature, but it responded effectively to the fears of people who had survived the earthquake. A more classically proportioned building, languid in its harmonious proportions, would have appeared vulnerable and flat footed rather than tense, nimble and ready to absorb a shock. The same logic is evident in the prestressed concrete sections of a suspension bridge, their convex form anticipating the weight of passing traffic. In this case the dynamic is very much physical in nature, but one can derive also a psychological reassurance upon viewing the arc of a suspension bridge; visually, it just makes sense and it feels right intuitively.

What are the lessons of this story? Here are two. One is that minds as well as bodies need to be healed after a traumatic event. Another is that local problems are best addressed by local solutions, because only by acting at the local scale can architects, designers, builders and artisans respond to the unique needs of local populations. Contemporary political and economic conditions often militate against this kind of local agency, but history has shown that it produces the best results.