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Going up Things

“People like visiting things, they like going up things”. A simple, straightforward idea, as simple and straightforward as building a three hundred metre high tower in the middle of nowhere, serving as a landmark to attract people to a shopping centre built on foundations that date back to the days of the Roman Empire. Meet the Desman Column, the grandest undertaking in the era of Commercial Megaliths, in which the old shopping centres that multiplied in the Macro-region in the 1990s have been replaced by gargantuan, paradoxical, extreme structures embodying the magical concept of multipurpose. And preferably unfeasible: in an era devoted to The Bigger The Better, the infinite lifespan of the project is as important as the first casting of cement.

“The Desman Column has the ambition of becoming the tallest building in the Macro-region.”

Standing three hundred and ten metres high, this majestic Greek/Roman column will grace the countryside between Padua and Venice, in the western part of the Macro-region, with the ambition of being the tallest building in the Macro-region, and Italy as a whole. In the surrounding area satellite photography shows a Roman grid system based on cardo and decumanus, bearing witness to the arrival and continued presence of the ancient colonizer. With this in mind a group of architecture and marketing professionals decided to reference the historic domination in the style of the building. It is designed to host shops, offices, the headquarters of research centres and foundations, hotels and a restaurant. At the foot of the Desman Column, which takes its name from the dialect word for decumanus (a main street in Ancient Rome) there will be a huge square to use for concerts, surrounded by a courtyard of commercial units presenting the excellences of the local area. From the top, reached by a lift, visitors will be able to enjoy sweeping views over the surrounding landscape, from the Venetian lagoon to the Alps, from arable fields to industrial warehouses to the mammoth parking lot that is, naturally, part of the development.

So will the Desman Column become a reality? Its prime movers, those who cleverly identified people’s tendency to go up things, have not gone further than the original proposal. But this behemoth of a project remains a definitive example of the outsize conception of land management in the Macro-region. And while locally, in the area of Mirano, the tower has always been viewed as an over-ambitious undertaking (but not without the usual politician jumping on the bandwagon), just round the corner another monumental commercial site is taking shape, this time in horizontal form. It’s name is Veneto City, from the original name of the eastern section of the Macro-region, and it promises to be a hub for leisure, retail, services and business on a site of more than 700,000 square metres between a link road of the mother of all motorways, the Autostrada Serenissima, and the railway line.

To sweeten the pill, which locals are finding hard to swallow, a few hundred square metres of greenery and a Science Park have been tacked on, yet the local papers continue to describe the built area as the equivalent of a warehouse measuring 12 metres wide, 7 metres high and 23 kilometres long. And all of this just a stone’s throw from where the Desman Column is supposed to be erected. The Macro-developer’s dream is to see both projects come to fruition, but even the Veneto City site, which has the blessing of Macro-region authorities, is still having its fair share of problems.

Commercial Megaliths rumble across the Macroregion with little regard for administrative boundaries. Hundreds of miles from Veneto City and the Desman Column, the Western Macro-region has come up with another colossal project: Mediapolis. This too evokes the concept of city in its name, and is conceived on a scale that the human mind may find hard to compute: 148,000 metres of theme park with roller coasters and water features in a setting designed to recall the Northern Europe cities of the early nineteenth century; an arena with seating for 15,000, a covered area measuring 25,000 square metres for cinemas, restaurants, attractions and hotels; commercial space of 36,000 square metres with 1,000 square meters for the inevitable local excellences. This polis is to be plonked next door to Albiano d’Ivrea, a village with a population of 1,800 situated in the country north of Turin, with the promise of a thousand jobs and more than a million visitors a year. The project, which has been doing the rounds between supporters and protesters for years, following the classic script of The Bigger The Better, is beleagured by economic woes, but will never really die.

“In the Macro-region were surveyed 1007 kindergartens and 1141 malls.”

The Roncadelle Strip
The strip of Roncadelle, in the Central Macroregion, has a shopping centre density of 8,700 square metres every 1,000 people. These numbers are intended to double, thanks to the new Ikea mall now under construction.

“The Commercial Megaliths Movement is not unlike the game of draughts, where kings can knock off normal pieces.”

The Desman Column, Veneto City and Mediapolis projects would appear to indicate that the Commercial Monoliths movement has a tendency to leave unfinished business, fueled by the economic crisis, but this is not entirely accurate. In Roncadelle, a town with a population of 9,400 in the central area of the Macro-region, IKEA is opening a new store – with a surface area of 55,000 square metres – right next door to its existing premises, which occupy an area of 30,000 square metres. An investment of €100 million in a town which in the 1990s was blessed with the arrival of one of the largest shopping centres in Padania, known as Le Rondinelle: 45,000 square metres of retail space, with a mega Decathlon store – 4,000 square metres – just around the corner. This retail park attracts six million customers a year. Le Rondinelle is just a five minute drive from the Ikea superstore. Among other things, the new structure will have 160,000 square metres of parking, and planners have estimated that in rush hour 4,000 cars an hour will transit on the surrounding roads. Work is already under way, and once completed there will be 16,000 square metres of retail space for every inhabitant of Roncadelle: the Supersize era is a reality, and one that sets out to break all existing records.

The Commercial Megaliths Movement is not unlike the game of draughts, where kings can knock off normal pieces, and it is a response to the crisis of the normal-sized shopping centre. Constructed over the years with the idea of providing everything everywhere, and often within walking distance of each other due to the presence of competing supermarkets, these centres are slowly starting to crumble: the first victims have already been witnessed. The first to fall are the massive ones located in limited catchment areas, with insufficient connections and untempting offers. One of the most glaring examples is the centre known as Le Acciaierie near the town of Cortenuova, which opened in 2005 and is now halfway to oblivion. Once a source of pride for The Bigger The Better era, it features a wood and glass dome 30 metres high and 90 metres wide, hailed as the largest in Europe.

Zingonia – located in Bergamo, in the Central Macroregion – is a project realized in the 1960s by the entrepreneur Renato Zingone, and was conceived to allow workers and employees to live near the production plants they were working in. Initially designed for 50,000 inhabitants, today it hosts slightly more than 4,000 people – half of which are immigrants – and is afflicted by serious social and urbanistic problems.

The Germans, who have a better sense of proportion, built a structure of this kind to host their Parliament. This, on the other hand, is a mall covering 44,000 square meters with a hypermarket and 175 retail units smeared over the plains in the centre of the Macro-region. For nine years people waited for the opening of the Brebemi (Brescia-Bergamo-Milan) motorway to revolutionise road connections to the Acciaierie: once built it became evident that no-one was going to use the motorway and the shopping centre was on its last legs before it had even finished paying for its compulsory purchase orders. Not even its stalwart industrial name (Acciaierie means Steelworks) could save it, and it was usurped by another 42,000 square metre mall a mere seven minute drive away, which opened four years later and still looks to be in good health.

This game of big fish eats bigger fish (or vice versa) leaves the countryside littered with abandoned mega structures which are entirely unusable, unless you count scavenging for copper, iron and other materials to sell on the black market. Sites like these are growing in number in the Macro-region, and the crash as they bite the dust is usually preceded by a few warning signs: the shops on the upper floor close down, the crisis spreads to the lower floor, off goes the multiplex cinema and then the supermarket. When the hypermarket or supermarket in question kicks the bucket there’s usually no-one else to pay for maintenance on the building, which means it’s game over.

“What were initially hailed as opportunities for development become hulking embarrassments.”

What were initially hailed as opportunities for development, surely destined to breathe new life into the local area, become hulking embarrassments, disintegrating wrecks surrounded by roundabouts. Surveys of the Macro-region record the presence of 1,141 shopping centres, half of which are in the central part, divided between small neighborhood malls and vast structures with prime views over the ring roads. The phenomenon exploded in the early 1990s and the race to lay claim to new plots continues to this day. Inside the malls, the only signs of the passing of time are new product launches, in an Eternal Temperate Season, the fifth. After all, people need to eat, and the supermarket is the main draw for more than half of the customers. And they need to socialise: this aspect accounts for a quarter of visits. And if there is something to go up, well, even better.