Padania does exist. It’s a territory of Northern Italy without national borders, even if politicians of the separatist party Lega Nord would appreciate, but its landscape was strongly determined by political and entrepreneurial decisions. After 30 years of rule this is visible to everyone.
The red and white plastic cows graze by the side of the road, vacuous traffic ushers that appear to reproduce by roundabouts then wait patiently to be herded to pastures new. They live in communities of different sizes, move in groups and build fairly faithful relationships, on the whole. Perforated orange plastic sheeting flutters in the wind, separating this side from the other side, where the building site is: these two areas are in fact often interchangeable, as construction projects can be fluid and spill over their own confines. The orange plastic clings to galvanized mesh fencing, and stands out starkly against the landscape of the Macroregion, offsetting the grey, shadowless days or reflecting the sun’s victories over the plains.
Sometimes it is replaced by synthetic green sheeting that guarantees discretion and censors the explicit sight of work in progress. On the other side: scaffolding, a hole dug in the ground, tarmac under some red and white barricades, coloured tape that has been broken by some passerby, orange plastic cones, a sign indicating that helmets must be worn and pile of old tyres reflected in a puddle. And yellow route detour signs.
Without building sites the Macroregion would not be Macro. Motorway sliproads, partition walls, sewerage needing replaced, McMansions and apartment blocks to dot the landscape: in Italy it has been calculated that the land has been used up at a rate of eight square metres a second from the 1950s to the present day: in the time it takes to sneeze, a new toilet has sprung up, no doubt amid general incredulity at such a prodigious feat. Among the many records they hold, the central and western areas of the Macro-region are number one for relentless overbuilding.
A building site is a sign of vitality, according to the old Italian adage “when the trowel whistle the economy sings”, and entire choirs belting out hallelujahs are industriously engaged in converting money from dusty investment funds and false bottom briefcases into gravel, sand and clay, laboriously excavated to produce new concrete with a filling of steel reinforcing bars, buried in a shroud of bitumen that piously veils what is left of the plains, up to the foothills of the Alps.
The epic song of the building site sounds louder than any alarms raised about land consumption, a term that hardly does justice to the voracious, all-consuming progress of the built environment. Albeit a noble clarion call, alarms about land use cannot compete with the powerful sensation of Abhoring a Vacuum, the impelling need to leave no piece of land unturned. Land is seen as a resource at our disposal, something to put to use, be it to host a brick barbecue in the garden or a new viaduct by the industrial estate. The Macro-region is one giant building site, and construction activities generate a twentieth of its wealth. The current recession-related malaise is being treated with an intravenous drip of public works, wherever possible, defibrillators at the ready in knowing private hands.
The latest, greatest manifestation of Abhorrence of a Vacuum is the massive slab of concrete between Milan and Rho laid down to host Expo 2015, the Universal Exhibition devoted to the theme ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.
The Province of the Macroregion counting more building sites is Brescia, with 2715 declared in 2014, followed by Milan with 2550.
Fittingly, the site chosen is a 110 hectare piece of agricultural land, not forgetting the other 1,600 hectares of land used for roads linking up to Expo, from the Brebemi motorway to the Pedemontana motorway to the outer Milan ring road. Food, the focus of the jumbo fair, will no longer be produced in this area: after the environment has been built on it is impossible grow anything. The light does not filter through to the soil, water does not flow, the earth bears no fruits and the lifeblood of the land runs dry: that space is lost to us forever. In a classic twist of fate, what is actually being fed by the event is a merry-go-round of legal inquiries investigating incidences of corruption and bid-rigging. Expo is the definitive building site, though it won’t be the last, in this Macro-region devoted to relentless accumulation.
The Macro-region’s Abhorrence of a Vacuum is not only ubiquitous, but also irreversible. This is plain to see in those places where time and the recession have transformed buildings that were once signs of progress into flags of decline. There’s no way to convert a factory that has lost its workers or a building site paralysed by its developer’s bankruptcy. And there will be no way to convert the areas occupied by Expo, which for the time being have nothing to tempt budding property developers, and which face an uncertain future once the autumn comes round and this vast area is abandoned. The symbol of the event is an artificial tree called the Tree of Life, some 35 metres high:
Since 1950 to present day overbuilding grew by 166%, while the population of the 28%. (ISTAT)
a wood and steel structure which bears no fruit, designed to symbolise birth and regeneration, but essentially an emblem of the indomitable need to do something for the sake of doing it, to build something that will take up space, to wave flag that is an end in itself. And what will become of it, once Expo is done and dusted, remains to be seen. In the macro-region monuments do not put down roots: they aspire to be eternal, but flourish for the duration of a building site.