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How An Earthquake-Shattered Town Rebuilt Itself Around Food Culture

After a magnitude 6.2 earthquake devastated a small town in central Italy, rebuilding the restaurants helped rebuild the community.

Food halls have proliferated to the point of almost annoying ubiquity. But in Italy, a new food hall has a higher mission: to mend a community that experienced a catastrophic earthquake.

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In August 2016, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck Amatrice–a town and province in central Italy, about 85 miles northeast or Rome–killing over 240 people. Much of the city was reduced to rubble and one year later, only 10% of the damage has been removed. But recovering after a disaster isn’t only about repairing and reconstructing structures; it’s also about rebuilding social ties and giving residents an avenue to get back on their feet economically.

The town’s mayor decided that the first buildings to be rebuilt after the earthquake should help the residents get back to their day-to-day lives and give them a reason to stay in the town rather than move elsewhere. In Amatrice, a popular tourist destination known for its food culture, that meant restaurants. Using money raised from private donations, the city commissioned architect Stefano Boeri to build a new town square surrounded by a school and eight restaurants.

[Photo: Paolo Rosselli/Stefano Boeri Studio]
“I always think the first thing to do after a situation of emergency is to construct places for work,” Boeri says. “That’s a precondition. If you are going to put a community back together, they need places to work. Decades of memory and family and centuries of history were destroyed. How could we expect people experiencing this tragedy to come back if we don’t give them an opportunity to work?”

[Photo: Paolo Rosselli/Stefano Boeri Studio]
Boeri’s design challenge involved constructing the project as affordably and efficiently as possible, so he specified wood–lightweight, easy to transport, and cost-effective–and a modular prefabricated design for the eight free-standing restaurant buildings. There’s also a refectory in the square that seats 150 people.

The city chose business owners whose original restaurants were completely destroyed to occupy the new spaces, and Boeri worked closely with them to customize the interiors. Some wanted the kitchens configured in a specific way, some wanted outdoor seating, some were happy with indoor seating alone.

[Photo: Paolo Rosselli/Stefano Boeri Studio]
One of the most difficult elements of the project was convincing the restaurant owners that being in close proximity to one another would be helpful to business rather than making it overly competitive. But Boeri and the city government agreed that creating a mini-community around food was essential to restoring a vibrant city life away from the destruction.

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“From the beginning, I was trying to construct something absolutely urban,” Boeri says.

The buildings feature expansive glass walls which visually connect all of the people who are dining in the restaurants, sitting in the public square, or taking in the public events hosted in the square. While the experience within the food village is defined by architecture, Boeri made sure that the buildings “never canceled the horizon and the panorama of the mountains,” he says.

[Photo: Paolo Rosselli/Stefano Boeri Studio]
“An earthquake is so hurtful because it comes from your own land,” Boeri says. “This makes the natural landscape very complicated. We have to build something that can guarantee a feeling of security within a landscape that is enigmatic and beautiful, but also tragic because of the catastrophe. We’re imagining a new collective psychology in these conditions.”

Now, all of the restaurants are open for business and some serve over 300 customers a day. Tourists are back in the region, which is helping the economy recover–all thanks to a food hall.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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