Artists Controversies News Italy

Conceptual artist’s designs for public square in Italy blocked

Leading the opposition, the art critic Vittorio Sgarbi has convinced the culture ministry to backtrack on its approval for a project by Daniel Buren

Piazza Giuseppe Verdi in La Spezia as it looks now

A heated row has erupted in the coastal town of La Spezia, southeast of Genoa, over the planned redesign of one of the main squares, Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, by the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren.

On one side are the organisers of the Palma award, a competition to commission EU-funded public works and installations that blur the boundaries between art and architecture. On the other side is a vocal environmental group, lead by the notorious art critic and polemicist Vittorio Sgarbi, whose campaign has been so effective it caused the ministry of culture to backtrack on a project it had already approved.

At the moment, construction is on hold. Those supporting the redesign say the delay is costing the city €2,000 a day and that the project, which is estimated to cost around €2.8m, could lose all EU funding if it is not completed by the end of 2014.

The competition to redevelop the square was launched in July 2009 and, the following February, Buren’s design, conceived in collaboration with a team of architects, was picked as the winner out of 89 entries. In 2012, well before work was due to begin, Genoa’s Superintendency (the regional arm of the ministry of culture) was asked to approve the plans, which it did.

However, in June this year, during a visit to the town, Sgarbi was approached by citizens who were unhappy over the impending removal of ten pine trees in order to make way for 75 orange trees that would be planted around the square as part of the redesign. Sgarbi quickly became the leader of the opposition, calling on the new minister of culture, Massimo Bray, to investigate. The latter responded by blocking further construction and calling for a reassessment of the project.

The architect Alessandro Mendini, who led the jury that awarded Buren with the redesign, has circulated a petition against the ministry’s u-turn. It has been signed by many well-known figures in the art world, such as Jack Lang, the president of l’Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, the artist Jannis Kounellis and the Pritzker-winning architect Jean Nouvel. Mendini could not be reached for further comment before this article was published.

Daniel Buren has created many public art interventions around the world, including an installation of striped columns of varying heights, Les Deux Plateaux, 1985-86, in the inner courtyard of the Palais Royal, Paris and The Red Arches, 2007, on the La Salve Bridge, commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Daniel Buren's designs for the redeveloped square
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21 Sep 13
15:26 CET


Mr. Newton, Sgarbi is "notorious" by any definition of the word and works hard at earning the label, no doubt revelling in it. He certainly has been called much worse.

9 Aug 13
16:5 CET


To see Lang and Nouvel supporting the project of their friend Buren means that the citizen of La Spezia must really stay vigilant. It is what we call in France "copinage", just two old friends helping a third one to win an other commission. They do not care about La Spezia, the italian life style, old trees, they just want to help Buren which is also an a posteriori justification of his status of "official artist" in France during the Lang years… 20 years ago. Hopefully, Buren is not doing anything important in our country anymore. La Spezia must resist to this esthtetical nonsense.

8 Aug 13
18:17 CET


I totally support the community in wanting to keep the character of their piazza. I know these towns well and it would be horrific to install such a pretentious modern art for, as stated, the elite. I love modern art, but in its place. This is another version of the UN Sustainability /Agenda 21 project imposing its nefarious agenda on a community.Behind the backs of the citizens..Good for you LaSpezia for stopping it, who knows what strings are attached to that grant...

7 Aug 13
21:50 CET


Buren's project is an attack on La Spezia's ancient square beauty and on the identity of people. Aesthetical crime. Please help us to stop it.

6 Aug 13
14:43 CET


Dear Sir, I happen to live in that costal town of La Spezia and I must remind you that the protest started from local citizens, who totally dislike such a "far away from our lives and remembering" project. It is imposed on the population without any participatory approach or explanation. It is very untrue to say that Mr. Sgarbi leads the protest. He was here maybe twice or thrice and we do not care about him, but about our memory and our city. I find this article very biased and incorrect. Of course there are people in town who are happy about Buren's proposal and there was an open bid, transparent to all. I just wonder why instead of dividing the population like this our local Governement does not see the need to mediate and negotiate and just blame whoever is against this project. Last but not least Piazza Verdi was not degraded at all, especially in comparison to other neighbourhoods of the city that are falling apart. My warmest regards

6 Aug 13
14:44 CET


I live in La Spezia and I'm in favour of Buren's project, because actually Piazza Verdi is not a real square (a place in wich we can meet in the city) but only a big streat full of pollution from cars. In Buren's project there is attention to ecology (increased green areas, excluding cars) and attention to join the city to the near seaside. In my pinion is a good idea who promotes the quality of our life: I like the design too. Some citizens are afraid to change a thing that now as not a rule in this city.

6 Aug 13
14:45 CET


Hello, Project Buren / Vannetti I find it pleasant and modern. it is my opinion, but, I find this view is also shared by other citizens. The city of La Spezia is divided into three: those who are against, those who are in favor, some do not care! :-)

6 Aug 13
14:53 CET


The matter should not be read, as some try to do, as a "quarrel" between ancient and modern. The controversy focuses particularly on the ways in which the project was submitted by the local government to the various instances of approval: Place Verdi was presented to the EU as a degraded site (which is not), the presence of historical-monumental ties was neglected, the necessary permits were not requested on the basis of appropriate documentation. Rules must be respected. The popular consultation required by the EU never took place. The pine trees, having more than 70 years, are protected by law. As for the site: there is water underground... Buren's installations: we would not want to end up like Paris, where they had to pay € 4 million for the restoration of the columns in the court of Palais-Royal, degraded after only 10 years! Furthermore: In a small provincial Mediterranean town, many of us prefer symbols better integrated to the context than Buren's "triumphal arches".

6 Aug 13
14:57 CET


I am a member of the committee of citizens who fights against this project. In this article there are many errors. The European Funds for this project were obtained for the requalification of degraded areas of the city, which the square is not, by express admission of the mayor during a public meeting in June. In addition, the competition won by the project Buren Vannetti was based on completely wrong historical and artistic premises . The Committee is fighting strongly against a project that destroys one of the historic landmarks of the city. As for Mr. Sgarbi, his speech was providential, but he is not in charge of any committee. Thanks to all the people who, with their comments to this article, showed the madness of this project.

6 Aug 13
15:6 CET


sorry for my english. I am glad that in England there is talk of Piazza Verdi. I live in La Spezia. All citizens do not want the new square. It has a unique artistic style. Beautiful. In Italy There is no law that defends the old trees. They were planted during the 'fascist era. There are many squares to be redone in the city but not this one. thanks

6 Aug 13
15:7 CET


Too bad major&co have already butchered many place in the city and this last disgusting affair was the last thing citizens acnnot stand. Moreover it will charge each of us with debt to realize despite the crisis. Most people think this expensive project would conceal a "secret " job inside: the mandatory new sewage system which of course is not finaced by EU.

5 Aug 13
16:36 CET


The idea is dreadful an to my view very un-Italian and graceless. Keep your iconic culture alive as a great Nation please.

2 Aug 13
14:54 CET


Given that the courtyard of the Palais Royale was destroyed by the "installation" of M Buren (commissioned by M Lang) I sympathise strongly with those opposing M Buren's design for La Speiza.

1 Aug 13
19:7 CET


While I have no fondness for Mr. Sgarbi, who is to art history what Geraldo Rivera is to journalism, the two photos your article includes of the Piazza Giuseppe Verdi really tell a story. The former, shows an intensly lived-in somewhat over-crowded very Italian piazza with iconic pine trees, the latter an antiseptic, corporate looking space that will soon be scuffed up, covered with grafiti and rotting oranges, and motorini will be locked up to those fancy mirrors.

1 Aug 13
19:8 CET


Some people will never get a feeling of what art can do to chance daily life into a poetric space.

1 Aug 13
17:45 CET


Sgarbi is "notorious": a self-serving, power-hungry critic who fashions himself as a serious art historian, who is on record as disliking contemporary art, and who has pulled strings to have art he owns exhibited with inflated attributions. He is a menace in the art world. "Notorious" is, if anything, a mild adjective.

31 Jul 13
16:51 CET


I assume the reporter who wrote this article described Mr. Sgarbi as, "notorious" because he happens to disagree with his views. Please point out to him that this is editorializing, not journalism. I am sure he can publish his opinions elsewhere.

31 Jul 13
15:53 CET


I hope they can stop Daniel Buren from destroying an idyllic and cosy town centre. As this case demonstrates, conceptual art is for the elite. The local people have to live there.

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