Category Archives: Crime

Gomorra’s Neapolitan Estates

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Le Vele Estate, Scampia, Naples

Undercover journalist Roberto Saviano brought to light the uncomfortable scale and sophistication with which the Neapolitan mafia, known as La Camorra, operate. Such is the international appeal of neo-realist mafia dramas that the content of Saviano’s investigations inspired a Palme d’Or winning film and more recently two highly successful tv series. The overarching message of Gomorra is to convey the tragic, contradictory and brutal nature of crime brought out of poverty.

Directors Matteo Garrone and Stefano Sollima take us on a tour of a Naples outside the vitrine of the city’s historic centre to its periphery and beyond, to locations where the tributaries of finance have spread all across Europe. From these desaturated vistas a bleak picture is painted of the Italian south, one of widespread youth unemployment, a reliance on the black economy and the dominance of criminal organisations.

Architecturally, Gomorra expresses the failure of the state on the one hand and the unforgivable opulence of the criminal nouveau riche on the other. The Savastano house for example, was the work of meticulous research by the set designers on local clan bosses or aspiring members. The family house (below) is modelled on that of the luxurious villa, with bright pink plaster, ornate window surrounds, porticoes and palm trees. Plagued as they are with paranoia and suspicion, bosses opt for high boundary walls kitted out with CCTV cameras and lined with guards.

Casa Savastano

Many of the filming locations take place around the 1960s estates of Secondigliano and Scampia, north of central Naples. The link between Modernist, high-rise estates and the criminal underworld is one which has long been made in film to exacerbate the common stigma with slab blocks all over the urban West. However the use of architecture as a tool in Gomorra goes beyond merely connecting concrete with crime.

As often as crumbling pieces of prefabricated concrete may be used to denote decay and poverty, Gomorra’s use of construction sites in other cities such as Milan or Rome indicate the presence of progress, newness and, in the case of the narrative, corrupt building contracts. Property is shown to be the preferred destination for depositing illicit money as opposed to other financial instruments, a reassuring tactile object as the fruits of their labour.

The Modernist estates featured in the series are significant, primarily due to the willingness for mafia bosses to associate themselves as part of the working classes. The show’s protagonists function as the nearest identifiable form of governance or authority in the local community while living in relative anonymity within a typical tower block as a way of concealing visible wealth and status. The interiors are luxuriously decorated with gold, velvet and crystals, representing the fascination among the mafia elite with material goods and the influence of cinematic portrayals of the gangster.

One particular estate to feature heavily is the Le Vele estate in Scampia on the northern periphery of Naples. Designed by prolific postwar architect Franz di Salvo, Le Vele were built between 1962-1975 and represent the product of a vast housebuilding program to house between 40,000 and 70,000 inhabitants on previously fertile farmland. Seven 14-storey ‘sails’ make up the Modernist masterplan, each with a narrow internal circulation space modelled on the typical Neapolitan alley. The estate was, like many of its time, plagued with controversy over the construction process and additional community facilities, religious centres and public spaces were never delivered to the original masterplan. Problems began after a 1980 earthquake when local residents became homeless and began squatting Le Vele’s towers, while maintenance, public services and infrastructure plans all but ground to a halt as the estate developed a firm reputation as a place of criminality and widespread drug use.

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Original drawings for Le Vele – Franz di Salvo

The sloped profile of the concrete slab towers feature as a backdrop to many rooftop meetings in the series among clan members, with a connection made between crime, danger and architecture. Views are often taken down the internal spaces of the estate, where a long walkway is connected to a series of ramped access decks leading to individual units. In reality the estate is now only inhabited by around 300 people and the decant process is well underway.

Despite its portrayal, Le Vele has a convenient twin scheme to act as proof, as if there was the need for it, that its demise is not directly the result of its architecture.
Marina Baie les Anges was built around the time of Le Vele, at a similar scale and construction technique. Designed by architect André Minangoy, the vast blocks form part of what is now a luxurious residential resort on the French Riviera, benefiting from continued investment from the booming tourist industry. Tour guides of the buildings are even available at the cost of €3.

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Marina Baie les Anges

The built environment, therefore, takes on an elevated status in the way it can be used on screen. Due to the heavy reliance of the clans on manpower, the architectural fabric of their surroundings becomes a physically vital part of their activities. The use of infrastructure, industrial estates as safehouses for illicit dealings and meetings provides a setting for lawlessness to proliferate. Balconies are used as lookout points, apartments of ordinary ‘civilians’ are subdivided at the will of clans to create hidden rooms, false walls and passageways to allow for retreat and escape.

While Gomorra fulfils its obligation as a gritty, bleak representation of contemporary Naples, the series is keen to reiterate the importance of the local as a way of retaining a sense of identity to the organisation. Architecture is used and manipulated to express themes of power, struggle and danger which either confirm or challenge the cultural preconceptions of a place.