Paesaggi Abitati

Monditalia – State of Exception: Margherita. Story of a theatre whatever the coast

Siamo tra i Guest Editors del progetto, curato da Spacelab Architects per i Monditalia Weekends della Biennale di quest'anno. Per l'occasione, abbiamo raccontato la stranissima storia del Teatro Margherita di Bari

Monditalia – State of Exception: Margherita. Story of a theatre whatever the coast

Siamo tra i Guest Editors del progetto, curato da Spacelab Architects per i Monditalia Weekends della Biennale di quest'anno. Per l'occasione, abbiamo raccontato la stranissima storia del Teatro Margherita di Bari

Margherita. Story of a theatre whatever the coast

This story sets in Bari, a medium-sized city that lies on the southern Adriatic coastline of Italy or, as someone would like to define it, that sort of a “small metropolis” which exactly holds the scale of objects, facts and events shaping the very identity and tone of the Italian things.

Here, it is not uncommon to hear the elderlies shout out in the local dialect «ddo, ié tutte nu cinematografe!» (here, it’s all a cinematograph!) when something messy, noisy or just funnily complicated happens around. The delightful naiveté of the metonymic confusion of the tool – the cinematograph – for its outcome – the cinema, with the astonishing fascination effect it surely caused on people at the time this sentence started to be used – has something to do with the series of events we are going to tell.

It all started in 1910, when someone V.B. asked the Port Authority for a temporary license of one year to build «a confortable and elegant restaurant with cinema concerto» in a water area of 1000 square meters at the end of corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of the two main boulevards of the “new city”. Many similar structures yet existed, at the time, in the same port basin. However, since that area was still inserted in the great town plan to be transformed in public beach and tree-lined seaside, the answer of the Port Authority was, instead, a building permission for another water area nearby, behind the then called Margherita Garden. In the same days anyway, the Municipality expressed positively on the original V.B.’s request.

Bari, Teatro Margherita in the early ‘900

Maybe on purpose or maybe by a simple misunderstanding, in just a couple of days V.B. began the construction works where he had originally planned, in the water, at the edge of the boulevard, giving birth to a violent debate that was destined to outlive him long. Soon, the works were drawn to the dislike of many: of the counselors of the Port Authority; of all the other builders whose intentions for that same area had been rejected formerly; of some intellectuals, thinking that a quite rough wooden structure wasn’t worth obstructing the panoramic outlet of the boulevard towards the sea; and finally of the several skeptics disbelieving in the honesty of V.B., especially because of his will to invest so much for a one-year-only license, in addition to the suspect shortness of the bureaucratic process. Nevertheless, no executive action was started, and the structure was quickly built.

Teatro Margherita 1914, interior view

But as quickly as its birth, inevitably, was its death: even less than one year later, the wooden building was destroyed by a fire, whose causes are still unknown. Yet, the show had to go on. Persevering, V.B. presented another request to rebuild the structure as an «Amusement Theatre», with cinema and café chântant, in reinforced concrete, twice the size of the wooden one, with a 30 years license. Again, a jading back-and-forth with the authorities began, for the same reasons, with the same questionable misinterpretations, about the same two areas. And again, it all ended with V.B. winning the match and building his theatre where he desired, and three times the size of the burned one. The reasons of this at least surprising victory are yet blurry. On one hand, a big push was given by an agreement the Municipality had with the owners of the Petruzzelli Theatre, which implied the impossibility to build further playhouses in the public soil of the neighborhood. But water is not soil: hence, the quibble. Or, at least, the public version of the story. One fact above all can explain the very nature of the happenings: in the meanwhile, some former members of the town government had become designers and shareholders of the theatre company. The interest in the affair is then clear.

Therefore, the structure was built in 1912. And, if its genesis is clearly due to a pure speculation, the building itself was realized as one of the best eclectic-liberty examples of cine-theatres in Southern Italy at the time. The technological solutions used were so cutting-edge that the concrete floor slabs are still commonly named “Margherita floors” in Bari’s area, not to mention the stilt construction itself.

Nonetheless, the number and variety of abuses that the theatre represented and physically embodied were too evident to its peers to be simply overcome by the qualities of the building. The j’accuse acts were many and keen, and all of them had no doubt reaffirming the need to demolish the structure just after the end of the legal concession.

One of the fiercest oppositors was Armando Perotti. Talented writer, journalist and poet, he was the first art critic in Bari and, in 1919, he wrote a famous letter to the Monumental Authority of Puglia and Molise, stating that the construction of the Margherita had been an act of «criminal insanity».

Anyway, the 30 years license was approved. Therefore, even the several, harshest attacks to the theatre during the 20’s could nothing but be ignored until 1942. Or, indeed, until 1948, since the war slowed down any will and process. At that time, V.B. was no more the chief of the company, but – almost like in a gattopardesque novel – he was succeeded by another investor whose initials were, once more, V.B.. And once more, the events were generated by a misleading alignment of elements, if not by a proper swindle. V.B.’s aim was to obtain a 30 years extension of the license: the war bombings had severely damaged the structure so, due to the heavy restauration works it needed, there would have been no economic advantage in any shorter concession. It is to be said that, in the meanwhile, the face of the city had changed radically. During the fascist regime, the seafront had been completely build, filled with a curtain of many, rhetorically monumental, huge public buildings that would permanently separate the city from its desire to reconnect to the seaside. All the dreams of beaches and promenades in the trees were just a memory. But, despite the evidence, the public reminiscence of that dream and some – yet remote – possibilities opened by the new town plan in progress, still oriented the Municipality’s will towards the demolition. Therefore, no license longer than 10 years could be issued. What happen then is close to absurdity. In the exchanges of copies of the license extension between the Municipality and the Port Authoriry, one line got mysteriously lost: specifically, the line indicating the license renewal for a decade «except further extensions». As a result, V.B. obtained a double license: a 10 years one by the Municipality and a 30 years one by the Port Authority, one unbeknownst to the other.

For thirty years hence, Bari had back its best cinema and one of the best buildings it had ever generated, In its full splendor. Gradually, the demolition issue was given up – except for some fundamentalisms that still exist today.

View from boulevard

The magic would end in 1978, when any possibilities of license renewal by the Municipality were shorted to just five years, sinking any entrepreneurial willpower to death. Consequently, the Margherita cine-theatre was closed and abandoned, and that is still its current condition.

View of the dome

Interior view with Jannis Kounellis’s art work

But the Ghost of Irony probably lives in Bari’s land. The 90’s witnessed two important events connected with the Margherita.

The first one occurred in 1991. In the same year of the Venice’s Fenice burn, the glorious Petruzzelli Theatre (the one who had officially caused the Margherita to be built on the water rather than on the ground) was almost completely destroyed by a tragic arson, for a public grief that no barese citizen will ever forget. Suddenly, the city with too many theatres had none left (except for the most ancient playhouse, the Niccolò Piccinni, yet considered insufficient for the city at the beginning of the XXth century). Luckily, in 2008 the restoration of the Petruzzelli would end happily, and the theatre would be given back to life after a sleep 17 years long.

Then, the triumph of nemesis. In 1995, one of Italian’s most famous and emblematic case of illegal construction could take place nowhere else than on a site entitled after that same Armando Perotti who so strenuously criticized the impact of the Margherita theatre on the coastline. Punta Perotti was, in fact, the name of a complex of three huge concrete buildings (for a total amount of almost 100.000 square meters) erected perpendicularly to the southern seaside of the city, with an extremely negative visual impact on the landscape. But it was not just a matter of unauthorized construction: the builders – the M. bros. – were actually fully authorized. That permission, indeed, was the guilty mistake: while issuing it, the Municipality had broken the national environmental rules for the preservation of the coastline. Therefore, the object created an abuse, but, paradoxically, its builders were not responsible for it. Anyway, the edifices had to be removed and, in 2006, their spectacular demolition was transmitted in real-time streaming worldwide, making it quite a successful media event. But, despite the generally diffused satisfaction for the erasure of the visual obstacle, the normative issue was unsolved: still, an asset belonging to not-guilty citizens had been seized and destroyed. It was the European Court of Human Rights, in 2013, to establish the right of the builders to be richly refunded by the Italian government – and, therefore, with public money.

Punta Perotti

Demolition of Punta Perotti

How it all ended (?)

To be exact, the Margherita theatre is not completely abandoned today. In the first 2000’s, indeed, the Municipality bought it back, and started a series of agreements to convert it to an exhibition space, the very sought-after “BAC – Bari Arte Contemporanea”, also asking David Chipperfield for a first concept project. But a theatre, and moreover a theatre on the water, is probably not the best place to host art products, unless with heavy adaptation, whose opportunity and funding possibility are still uncertain. The condition of the building is therefore suspended. Its foyer currently hosts some temporary exhibitions, even if the rest of the interior is mostly in the state of ruin.

Punta Perotti is now free of buildings but, in place of the “eco-monster”, only a poorly designed green area exists, surrounded by disrepair and neglected spaces. Many proclaims have been made, in different directions, for the future of the area but, only lately, it seems that the trauma of the demolition is being gradually overcome, along with any strategic inhibition to reveal new building plans. In 2014, the M. bros. have made a new proposal for the area.

There is a lesson to learn somewhere in this story. Maybe, it is that the conflict of authorities leaves very powerful spaces for things to happen, both right or wrong; maybe, it is that the value of a landscape and of an architectural object are not absolute, even in their reciprocal relationship, and can be understood and interpreted differently as the city evolves; or maybe, it is that perseverance is rewarded, if used to knocked the right doors.