By Sarah Rodrigues, Australian-born freelance journalist.
Tuesday 6 Nov 2018 8:00 am
Its only been a few months since a 200 metre stretch of Genoas Morandi bridge collapsed, killing 43 people, leaving hundreds homeless and sparking debate about accountability and Italys infrastructure.
But as you descend into Genoa, you see colourful buildings backed by mountains scattering down to the sea, where huge, hulking cruise ships are berthed, and the industrial practicality of the waterfront has the glossy sheen of regeneration.
The bridge, a thing of two parts, is all the more jarring in this Italian idyll, its missing section a scar on the landscape.
Within days, Renzo Piano, globally acclaimed architect and Genoa native, stepped forward to say that he would design his city a new bridge, a commemorative symbol of loss and hope.
It must be a place where people can recognise the tragedy in some way, he said, while also providing a great entrance to the city.
Goodness knows the city needs it, if only from a practical point of view. Traffic crawls as commuters make their way along alternative routes – and travel to and from the airport takes up to an hour longer than usual.
But, as the architect said at the preview of his new exhibition at Londons Royal Academy of the Arts, Its complicated.
Not only is there resistance to his plans from industry peers – who believe for reasons of speed and cost-efficiency that the bridge should be repaired rather than demolished and replaced – but also, perhaps, because of attitudes to Renzo Piano himself.
Speaking to the Genovese people, asciutto is a word that comes up again and again.
Its literal meaning is dry and its a word, accompanied by a hand gesture that draws down a long poker face, is used to describe a particular Genovese characteristic, a certain reticence, a sternness – even a lack of enthusiasm or warmth.
It manifests itself, in this case, in attitudes ranging from hes an architect, not an engineer – what does he know about building bridges? to who is he to make suggestions – he left this place; he is no longer one of us.
Yet, its not as though Piano has not given back to the city that spawned him – he revitalised the waterfront in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of Columbuss (another of the citys successful sons) first departure to the New World, with three of his creations – the Aquarium, Biosphere and Il Bigo, a panoramic lift – in close proximity to one another.
Nor, for that matter, has he actually left – the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, his light-filled design studio, is located on the citys western edge.
Its built in a style that mirrors traditional Ligurian greenhouses, and slopes gradually down to the sea in a series of terraces around which greenery is abundant.
The Renzo Piano Foundation, located down the hill by the water, is open to pre-booked visitors on the first and third Saturday of each month.
On a more workhorse basis, Genoas Metro, which spans a minuscule 7.2 kilometres and comprises just one line and eight stops, boasts no fewer than five stations which are Piano-designed.
The trains are as dinky as one might expect from a metro of such toy-town proportions, but in this busy city – Italys sixth largest – crowds of people come and go on them, passing through Pianos strangely graceful spaces every day.
The use of light, perspex panelling, curved girders, sturdy steel and cool concrete are unmistakable, yet seem oddly accessible.
For a tourist, its the waterfront where youll best witness the joy and sharp grace that characterises the architects work.
This bears no obvious marks of genius, looking very much like a large shipping container from the outside – but its seamlessness within the setting is probably exactly the point; theres very little drama to its exterior but plenty inside, where sharks and manatees do their slow glide past huge panes of glass, against which unthinkable volumes of water are exerting their pressure.
The Cetaceans Pavilion, which was constructed partially offsite and tug-boated to Genoa, comprises seven levels yet only rises three metres above sea level.
Its a design component as clever in execution as sensitive in forethought, and deemed vital by Piano so as not to impede views of the city or the Old Port.
The Bigo, a short stroll away, makes no attempt to be low-key and is as playful as it is striking. Sculptural and many-armed, it is based on the structure of a crane, a tribute to Genoas seafaring history and a visual reminder of the loading cranes on the decks of the cargo ships of the past.
Ascending on a cable running up its side, the lift takes visitors to a height of 40 metres, slowly rotating twice to offer 360 degree views of the city.
Spires and domes jut from the jumble of slate rooftops above the narrow carruggi – the maze of narrow laneways that wind through the Old Town – all of which gives way to the airy space of the port and the busy waters beyond.
These waters, if Piano is to have his way, could become even busier.
At the Museo del Mar, which charts Genoas maritime history and more recent incarnation as a cruise port, a large installation, entitled How Genoa Could Be sets out the Genovese natives plans for his city, which include removal of the airport to an artificial island out at sea.
Other suggestions include creation of an urban park with 12,000 trees, development of nearby Voltri and reorganisation of the shipbuilding area in Sestri.
Some of the suggestions have been controversial but, as Piano himself says, this was inevitable for a project of such importance.
What matters, he says, is to strengthen the role that Genoa has always had in Europe and in the Mediterranean.
The plans are incredibly long-term (indeed, given that Renzo Piano is in his 80s, its likely that he has no expectation of personally seeing them fulfilled) and detailed.
On a larger scale, Piano was appointed Senator for Life in 2013 and has reassigned his parliamentary salary (estimated to be in the region of €13,000 per month) to young architects engaged in urban regeneration projects throughout the country.
…Advice to the young: they must travel, he says. But not to go away and never return!
Travel gives you three things. First, you learn languages. Second, you start to understand that differences and diversity are a form of wealth, not an obstacle.
And finally, you realise how lucky you were to be born in Italy, because if you dont go away, you risk succumbing to this great beauty and living here in indifference.
Surely even an asciuttissimo couldnt fail to see his commitment?
Other things to do in Genoa:
The old fishing village of Boccadasse is a candy coloured jumble of Instagram heaven, with houses picturesquely crowded around a small bay.
Walk along the Corso Italia to reach it from Genoa, or go by road if youre pushed for time – either way, its absolute postcard perfection makes it worth the journey.
More than just a place to come and take a few snaps, however, its also a working fishing village.
So after youve explored its narrow alleys and admired the view of those coloured walls against the seas blue, head down to restaurant GE8317, a fishing co-operative, where the changing blackboard menu directly reflects whats been caught that day.
It doesnt get much more authentic than this.
Where to stay in Genoa and how to get there:
Checking into a place called Hotel Bristol Palace when in Genoa may feel counterintuitive, but one look up at its astonishingly grand staircase will leave you in no doubt as to what country youre in, not to mention the sweeping and elaborately mosaiced colonnade outside, lined with shops ranging from H&M to Max Mara.
Rooms combine comfort with low-key opulence, and the hotel bar is an old-school gem, as is the Giotto restaurant, where gold and cream abound with typically Italianate extravagance.
In terms of centrality, the location is hard to beat, with the Ducal Palace, Carlo Felice Theatre, Old Port and most of the museums and historical architecture all within walking distance.
Rooms start from €119 per night.
British Airways flights from London Gatwick to Genoa start from £28 each way
For more idea about things to do in Genoa, see Visit Genoas website.