Friday, January 25, 2008

wish you were here: piazza centrale, sutri, italia

Space is a funny word, and we use it all the time. We talk about the space we live in, work in, the space we need; we covet more space. We talk about space as a room with four walls, or as the distance between us. We talk about outdoor space which may or may not have boundaries, as in “wide open spaces”. And of course, there’s outer space, the limitless world of the sky, or the nature of our minds.

It is human to define ourselves by the spaces we inhabit, whether they are mental, emotional, or physical. Spaces can comfort us, they can put us more inside ourselves, or take us out of ourselves. Caleb and I love spaces that draw our attention and make us think or feel, either in the scale and effort at design, or the happy way nature arranges itself.

One of our favorite spaces by definition is the Italian piazza, the French place, the Austrian platz. The communal center of a town, or a neighborhood, and the way it interacts with its inhabitants is full of constant visual intrigue and spatial notions. Piazze are the outdoor living rooms or ballrooms of urban life. Wasn’t it Napoleon who called St. Mark’s Square in Venice “the world’s drawing room’?

One of our favorite piazzas of all is a demure space in a small Etruscan village about an hour outside the city of Rome. It is the hidden heart of this village, the center space in which all the buildings radiate outward. It is enclosed by tall, elegant buildings in the washed ochre stone native to the area, but is wide and the presence of the sky above does much to make it feel expansive rather than claustrophobic. It is grand, but human in scale and feels comfortable with clearly defined and visualized streets and portals that take you out into the larger world. At the center, but not exact center, of the piazza is a fountain. A strong piece of sculpture its scale too seems to be in perfect proportion to the space, not too big, not too fussy. On the piazza, there are three cafes where you can sit and have a coffee or an early evening prosecco. The town hall and municipal offices, including the police barracks, fronts onto the square. There is a bakery, a small grocery, a bank, a chic clothing store, an all-purpose store typical to Italian towns that sells everything from lightbulbs and brooms to wedding registry. There is the tabacchi where you can buy cigarettes, matches, postcards, and ask Antonio where to buy firewood. Above the ground floor businesses, the grand buildings house apartments with old grandmothers and young children hanging out the windows. In short, it has everything.

The piazza in Sutri is a meeting place, a watering hole, it is the short distance between events or places. People stride across its openness getting from one place to another; children play soccer, or ride their new bikes and eat gelato in the dying light of an afternoon. We can sit there for hours, taking no note of Time other than the way the sky shifts.


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