We began the European tour in the Italian island of Sicily, with the opening on 20 April of the exhibition at the SDS Architettura de Siracusa school of architecture (University of Catania).
We have discovered an island with an extraordinary heritage which is, nonetheless, falling to pieces. Perhaps therein lies the beauty of Sicily. A beauty which becomes more evident in the buildings erected by the master builders, made of stone, wood and limestone cladding, particularly when compared to the concrete blocks built as of the 1960s, with balconies protected with green mesh.
Presentation and round table
The presentation included the usual round table which enables us to discover the local resource map. Francesca Castagneto, architect and professor of Construction and Bioconstruction expert who has coordinated the exhibition on behalf of the SDS; and the experts in posidonia oceanica [seagrass] Benedetto Sirchia, marine biologist from the ARPA (Agenzia regionale por la Protezzione dell'Ambiente) and Salvatrice Vizzini, ecologist and professor at the University of Palermo were among the participants, along with SDS teachers and Drs. Giancarlo Bellissimo and Filippo Luzzu.
Francesca Castagneto explained the situation of bioconstruction on the island where the volume of new builds is very low (fortunately for the region). Courses are provided at architecture schools such as those on adobe building (usual technique used in areas such Cefalú) of the SDA, but with few examples to date.
We were surprised by the lack of prominence of types of local stone in the collective imagination, such as Etna volcanic stone, which is still evident in some streets on the island. What would you think if asphalt were to be phased out in favour of local stone paving able to maintain the water balance and prevent surface currents?
We were also surprised to discover Sicilian ‘sandstone’, present in almost all the buildings in the historic quarter. Few quarries, such as that of 'Pietra Sabucina’, are still in business.
In fact, the famous “Orecchio di Dionisio” (Dionysus’ ear) in the archaeological complex of Neapolis, in Syracuse, is a magnificent sandstone quarry.
Do you know why it has curved walls like a ship? Because of the extraction tool used: the hammer in the stone cutter’s hand. The curved angle allows the stone cutter to keep his fingers intact!
Greek and Roman culture has been recovered in theatre and literature, but not in construction. Perhaps because architecture is a lesser art? Or because traditional techniques are considered demodé?
For this reason, we believe it is necessary to reveal the conclusions of the project that connects heritage, architecture and climate change. Because we have confirmed that the recovery of these local and low energy use techniques, which form part of our culture and our landscape, complement and enrich the pursuit of new production models adapted to climate change, as well as those based on state of the art digital technologies.
Learning can be a lengthy process. In Majorca we had to wait until the arrival of Jorn Utzon in 1970 to remind us of the value of sandstone which, at that time, was being marginally used to build chicken coops and pigsties. Utzon showed us how to use it to meet the demands for comfort of modern society, with an air chamber for temperature and moisture insulation.
But even today there are those who question the benefits of sandstone given its (mis)use as a cheap building material in the 1950s-60s. However, it is one of the most environmentally-friendly materials available, as it reduces CO2 emissions by 60% compared to cement, as well as the cultural and chromatic wealth it brings to the landscapes of Majorca and Minorca.
Formentera is a large sandstone block in the middle of the sea, but it can no longer be quarried. For this reason, we only imported a small amount for the 14 social housing units for use in the domes of the water reservoirs and some paving.
But if these had been built in Majorca, they would have been made of sandstone. In fact, the next works of the IBAVI [Balearic Housing Institute] are made of this. We shall take the opportunity to present the project of five housing units in calle Regal 97 and eight units in calle Salvador Espriu 37, both in Palma.
So, if any follower of J. Utzon should have to refurbish a building in Sicily or design a collectively required new building (the only current options for resilient construction), he/she would most certainly consider using Sabucina stone or something similar. But using it properly: to build load-bearing walls, 10 and 20 cm thick, and not just to cover up cement. This Sicilian stone was formed in the Pliocene, 3 million years ago, and thus worthy of respect.
Another local Stone that is available is marble which, as a result of the economic crisis, has been ousted in favour of cheaper similar stone from countries such as Turkey; hence our emphasis on encouraging the use of local products, which enable us to verify working conditions. In the case of Turkey, for instance, obtaining a certificate of labour rights compliance would be essential, in order to avoid accidents such as the one that happened in the Soma coal mine in 2014, causing 300 deaths. Unfortunately, fair trade certified seals have not yet reached the construction industry.
The other question we addressed when drawing up the resource map of Sicily was: what is the condition of your seagrass meadows? Benedetto Sirchia explained the ecosystemic benefits of posisonia, the richest ecosystem in the Mediterranean in terms of biodiversity and largest scupper of CO2 to which we owe the transparency of the water and the white sand of the beaches. He also described how seagrass tends to concentrate in the western and south eastern coast of Sicily, with only a small presence in the north, in Palermo. Its state of conservation is very good, compared to that of other places we have visited, such as Catalonia. Moreover, he mentioned the existence of the LIFE SEPOSSO project, which includes measures to regenerate the meadows using transplant techniques.
But we were surprised by the fact that, in the absence of any seasgrass protection regulations in Italy, every city council decides on the collection system on the beaches which, in most cases, is done using conventional shovels that remove the seagrass and the surface layer of the sand, dumping them in a landfill at a cost of almost 1 euro per kg!
This system causes a serious alteration of the dune ecosystem and is forbidden in the Balearics by the Good Practice Protocol of the Ministry of the Environment.
Salvatrice Vizzini reminded us of the absence of the concept of waste in nature and in circular economy, and that therefore seagrass cannot be taken to a landfill. Moreover, she believes it is essential to know the amount of posidonia generated per year in order to calculate the percentage that can be used without damaging the dune ecosystem.
We at the Reusing Posidonia team could not agree more, and are therefore willing to act as liaisons with the Department of the Environment of the Government of the Balearic Islands which is about to approve the Posidonia Decree.
We hope that this collaboration will help to develop legislation to regulate the collection of seagrass on Sicilian beaches. The best option would be to help tourists and residents to learn to live with the posidonia, without removing it, as do the 4th grade primary school pupils in Formentera in the documentary ‘Reusing posidonia’. But if this option were not possible, the best is to leave the posidonia at the edge of the beach and return it to the water in autumn so that its leaves can protect the sand during the first storms.
As for the use of posidonia as an insulating material, we must point out that only the sand-free upper layers are used, which is why it is best to remove it before the city halls begin their beach ‘cleaning’ in May.
This has been our visit to Sicily. We hope that Sicilian cities maintain their beauty and no disasters such as the reform of the Ortea Palace ever happen again. For the time being, the more ancient buildings have rebelled against restorations using rigid cement.
We were surprised by the extension of Priolo Gargallo, a complex comprising industrial facilities for refining oil, located between Catania and Syracuse, over 20 km long, which, following the peak oil, will required a good team of architects, ecologists, biologists, environmentalists, landscape architects and sociologists to reconvert this future ghost town; so, no worrying about the future, as there will be work for everyone.