Having said basta in the early 1980’s, answering a cities failing fortunes with the formation of the Committee Naples Ninety-Nine. The cities leaders aimed to wake Naples from it’s slumber, and move forward from a place that was more famous for its Camorra and Vespa-riding muggers than it’s rich history and vast cultural foundations.
The turn-around can be said to have begun with Antonio Bassolino’s election as mayor – cars were thrown out of piazzas, churches reopened, and art galleries refurbished. Streets were cleaned and police numbers increased, the cities economic development was truly underway.
Using the two powerful weapons of investment in high quality infrastructure and the regenerative power of art – neither subservient to the other – the cities fortunes began reversing and heading in a wholly positive direction.
Art on the underground is not a new concept. In an attempt to deter vandalism and inspire commuters, metro systems worldwide have employed all manner of creative interventions to counteract the norm: Newcastle’s Four Lane Ends station has a neon interactive sculpture forming a collar around the stairwell above ground by artist Andrew Stonyer that pulses in reaction to approaching trains. Stockholm’s subway system is referred to as the longest art exhibition in the world at 110km long. Since the 1950’s the underground network has seen around 140 artists install works and intervene at ninety of the cities one hundred metro stations.
In Naples, architects Alessandro Mendini, Domenico Orlacchio, and Gae Aulenti converted four underground stations. The stations – Materdei, Salvator Rosa, Quattro Giornate, and Museo e Dante – are collectively known as Stazioni dell’Arte. In fact the concept of an ‘underground contemporary art space’ was the brainchild of the visionary Mendini. The architecture of the stations has been intrinsically stitched together with the art on display, making the transition from surface to subterranean a continual one. Each architect was responsible for a different station and surface entrance.
The artwork displayed in these stations is by no means ‘easy’, or frightened by it’s context as is so often the case with bad public art. The artists involved are international, and a number are of enormous calibre. Sol Lewitt has created a curvy, stalagmite-filled corridor for Materdei station (which houses a Luigi Ontani mosaic); American artist Joseph Kosuth created an installation with a neon quote from Dante Alighieri's Convivio, Greek-Italian sculptor Jannis Kounnelis nailed long rows of shoes to the walls with metal bars.
"These are true stations of contemporary art, places where citizens transit and their gaze comes to rest... the concrete construction of a large group of works which may be classified under the positive sign of public art," says Achille Bonito Oliva, the well-known contemporary art critic entrusted with the task of selecting the artists whose works were to be exhibited in Gae Aulenti's Dante station.
The city of Naples is not stopping there. The whole metro system is undergoing a transformation. Indeed, the city council have developed a series of commissions that read like a roll call of the current creative great and good: a station at the university by Karim Rashid and Sergio Cappelli, Garibaldi station by Dominique Perrault, Duomo Station by Massimiliano Fukass, Capodichino airport station by Richard Rogers, the cities main Napoli Afragola station by Zaha Hadid, and the Monte Sant Angelo Station by Anish Kapoor and Future Systems. Though not all strictly metro projects, all but one involve the metro itself, and all demonstrate an impressive collected architectural investment by the city.
The latter of the three projects is one of the most intriguing. Not least, because the City of Naples approached the artist Anish Kapoor directly. The artist has expressed his surprise, when rather than make a series of interventions to occur throughout the station, it was actually intended that he build the entire station.
There is no mystery to the councils choosing of Kapoor for this project. The artists’ work of late has included massive structures. His Marsyas installation at the Tate Moderns Turbine Hall as part of the Unilever Commissions consisted of a huge 150 metre long sculpture constructed with the help of Arups Advanced Geometry Unit.
He’s cut the banks of Lake Michigan to install a giant silver sculpture the size of a house, the piece will be fabricated in California and shipped to Chicago in small pieces and assembled on site.
For the project at Mont Sant Angelo Kapoor has enlisted the help of Future Systems, the visionary practice responsible for the Selfridges store at the Bullring in Birmingham. Surely amongst the most qualified company to help realize the artists vision: “I’m trying to make a piece of sculpture that you enter.”
They began the process by stretching and moulding plasticine forms. This in tern leant form to initial ideas, giving inspiration material to support computer visualization of the internal spaces. The site itself features a network of tunnels and vaults that were built and subsequently abandoned midway through a previous tube station project, the architects themselves state, “these dark and brutal concrete shells have been inspirational to our formal and material approach.”
The resulting entrance defies easy description. A volumous tube wraps itself into a sphere and surrounds the entrance to the station. Raised at one end it allows passage beneath it, announcing a dramatic entrance into what is sure to be an impressive project. Set in the shadows of Vesuvius, the station is anticipated to be the central element in the functional and cultural regeneration of the Traiano district that has suffered in its recent history from infrastructural isolation and neglect.
The collective projects underway in Naples must surely stand as an example to any governmental body engaging in any form of town planning and regeneration. Their combined principles of quality and aspiration should be congratulated, and the subtlety and power of the interventions and constructions whilst looking forward do not detract but add to the layers of culture and history that make up this fascinating city.