(above) A glimpse of the ‘wild building,’ on the hills overlooking the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria, in 1999. This illegal community has been named San Sperato by its new settlers, after the patron saint of desire and of hope.
On the coasts circumventing the Mediterranean, a type of construction has proliferated in the last thirty years or so that is usually referred to as “wild building.” What is wild about it is not the buildings’ designs, which are utterly conventional, but rather their lack of legal status in the towns and cities to which they are loosely attached.
Usually built in unplanned, shapeless clusters, they are like ‘squatter’ communities in the same sense as slums anywhere, except they are not like typical slums. The first big and most noticeable difference is the materiality of the buildings; they are constructed of reinforced concrete, with clay tile infill—very durable and permanent. The second difference is that the people who build and inhabit these structures are not poor, but rich enough to commission such sturdy construction. In fact, they are most often from rural areas, where as farmers they earned quite well, often benefiting from government subsidies as well as the profitability of their crops and livestock.
What makes the comparison with slums at all appropriate is that, when the new settlers migrate with their families to the city, they do so for the same reasons as all slum-dwellers: to improve their economic prospects. In these cases, though, they aren’t looking for low-pay factory or service jobs. They have enough money to open really profitable businesses that they plan to keep in their families for generations.
Another point of comparison is that they build on land not legally zoned by the city for residential construction, but in this case only for agricultural purposes. When they begin to build, inspectors and zoning officials tell the owners that they cannot continue, and levy ‘fines.’ Once paid, the construction continues.
Yet another similarity with slums everywhere is that these wild communities are not provided any services by the city—electricity, water, sanitation. To obtain these, the owner-residents have to find ways to generate their own or, more commonly, they simply tap into nearby city services and illegally take what they need. Once again, fines are levied and paid.
Family is the keyword in these ‘wild’ communities. The buildings are constructed one floor at a time. The founding generation of a family builds the first floor of the house, extending the concrete columns, with the reinforcing bars, above, ready to receive the next floor. This will be added by the eldest son or daughter of the family, when he or she marries and founds the next generation. The structure of the house is engineered (in most cases by ad hoc methods) to receive several floors over the coming generations.
This is a city, or at least a community, that grows from the inside out, according to rules that are informal at best. Without glamorizing it, we might say it is an architecture, and an urbanism, setting an example of ad hoc growth informing a future sure to be governed by uncertainty.
(above) A single family house in San Sperato, housing three generations of one famiky. It is interesting to note the differences of architectural expression each generation has made in the vertical assemblage of the house.