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I w o
Palermo has many layers
History of Palermo is closely tied with the history of Europe, southern Europe. The area has traces of
settlement already from 8000 BC.
The island of Sicily has long been at the center of the attention for the early tribes, the empires looking
for colonies and this is obviously connected to its good port and excellent position in the middle of the
Sicily has a history of 2 strategic settlements, Palermo on the hidden or sheltered northcoast and
Syracuse on the easily connected eastern coast.
Palermo was founded in 736 BC by Phoenicians from present-day Tunisia and later developed into a very
important harbour and trading port for both as a Greek colony, Carthagian port, Normannian city, seat of
the Arab Sicilian emirate, Roman Empire, Sicilian kingdoms, Italian kingdom and now serving as the 5th
biggest city in present-day Italy.
The population of roughly 1,2 millions started in the two clusters named Neapolis and Palepolis
between two mountains were 2 rivers ended in the east in the Mediterreanan seas.
The city of Palermo has followed 2 trails in its development, the both ancient and present roads Roman
Cardo and Decumanus. The Decumanus was initially a trail developed parallell to the rivers, and probably
got strengthened with the founding of the Arab Sicilian Emirate, with its seat at La Kalsa.
These historic paths and roads meet in the historic center of the city, the Quattro Canti and divide the city
in 4 parts - on of these is La Kalsa, in the southeastern part of city centre. Our site is in the middle of
The part of Palermo that houses our site and future project is actually one the very seats of the Arab
reign in Southern Europe. Palermo takes its name partly from the Greek word “panormus” meaning
“all port” and the Arab “Balarm” which was its name when it was comparable with Cordoba and Cairo.
Now, some important moments in history of La Kalsa.
The area close to the port of Palermo, the area close to the railway connecting to the Italian mainland since 1886 - that very
area is La Kalsa. And in the WW2 the Allied forces bombed this site extensively.
Sadly, the area did not get attention and did not get properly rebuilt, so as for large areas of Palermo. In the aftermath of the
war, the need for housing was desperate - so large green areas outside the city centre was developed to house large amount
of people. La Kalsa did not gain any attention, and as far as I understand - not until Mother Teresa put up a mission here,
this helped raise the awareness of La Kalsa and its population. Now there is actually several European Union-logos on
The rebuilding process of Palermo and Sicily is sometimes nicknamed “Sack of Palermo” and “scempio”, and it is a
popular belief that this process helped the informal economy and organized crime to its power today.
In present-day La Kalsa, there are several apartment projects and refurbishment projects underway. This is pretty strong
indicators on an ongoing gentrifying process of the area. Hence, the market fixes everything? Is it so easy?
La Kalsa is now in a poor state. As visiting students we recognize this place with lots of potential. As architect students
- we can organize the activities, we can contribute to other forms of services, enhance the public facilities - but we also learn
that the area is under severe influence from several Italian institutions.
First we see the churches. I counted 4 churches and we have registered some convents connected to them. Many pedestrians
and drivers passing the main church at Piazza La Kalsa, cross themselves. We also understood the importance of informal
economy, probably organized crime. In addition to this there is the municipalities and the investors behind apartment projects. I
heard that people in Rome are buying property in Palermo city centre..
In my project I want to emphasize the Arabic heritage of Palermo and specifically La Kalsa. I understand that the Arabic era
and also the Normannian era of Palermo the historic core of the city flourished and later made vivid stains. These stains are
what we architects and others truly appreciate.
In order to regain some proper conditions for the people of La Kalsa, I find it important to know the roots of its origin. Its origin
is Arabic and this is not notably present for us today. Of course, this is a evident of modern history - that left it without touch
of its origins. The Arabic heritage can give me inspiration - but also give the inhabitants a certain pride and connection to their
past and then stand stronger in the inevitable turbulent process of gentrifying.
I think an important and also pretty peculiar fact, is that there are 3 horses
on site. They make their neighs every hour or something.
And at 07 am the doves fly over their territory. It seems like they are
fighting away the seagulls. Is that possible?
And remember the dogs. Just as in Pompeii, dogs seems to be a part of
the urban furniture. And cats.
The Kalsa area was as I wrote earlier - initiated by the Sicilian Emirate. La Kalsa has
for centuries been in the center of attention in European history.
The Emirate having its seat in Palermo and in La Kalsa. The La Kalsa comes from
arabic name “al khalisa”, meaning “the purest”. This is probably connected to the sea-
side location and the bay here is named “Cala”.
It was established here with a castle in 652 AD. The chiefs of Sicily actually varied
between Arab, Byzantine, Normannian and other tribes in the next centuries - but the
Arab influence and rule was tolerant and fruitful for business, so the city of Balarm/
It was actually recognized just as important as Cordoba and Cairo in its time as the
biggest city in Europe, in 1050 it had 350 000 as population, then only second to
Cordoba but some decades later passed it.
Roman Empire and later history made its mark on Palermo, the Romans very strong with their
Decumanus and Cardo streets. The east-west bound Decumanus probably was already
established by the predescessors and the strongest connection, but the last century with the
bombings and invading under the WW2 strengthen the role of the Cardo, the north-south
connection. The modern city now centres north from the historical core we are studying and
Now the city has no strong connection with the sea, perhaps the connection is more industrialized
and mechanized with the port facilities in the northeast of the city centre.
Strong roads block of the central Palermo from sea access, but when you reach it,
it is nice.
But where are the ancient rivers? Where are the ancient east-west connection?
The site is framed by the east- and west-bound traffic on the roads connecting to the ring road
and the Decumanus. This in two levels.
1) In north the Via Vittorio Emmanuele is fencing the connection to neighbouring Vucciria and the
Via Lincoln is dividing the Kalsa from the Botanical Gardens on the southside. Furthermore, the
ancient connection to Cala Bay and the Mediterranean sea is blocked by the 4-lane Foro
Umberto, but as mentioned a genereous seaside promenade awaits the pedestrians.
2) The Via Spasimo and the Via Alloro are also framing our site with its frequency of scooters and
small Fiat cars.
Generally the north-south roads seems to be more quiet and the area is getting more and more
exposed to traffic, noise and public life in the southwestern corner. This is probably connected to the
more intimate nature of the public space in the northern and upper part of the site, and the more
predominant traffic and parking areas in the lower, southern areas of the site.
seen towards west
seen towards north
The site is clearly divided into 2 zones, one
more extroverted and one more internal and
The internal zone is filtered through a ruin
of an apartment building which is currently
on-hold in a demolition process.
This ruin is interesting as a piece of public
or common ground for the local community.
My program for the project in La Kalsa of Palermo takes in consideration facts from the near and the far history of the city and Sicily in general.
I recognize that all persons of a certain age need a “3rd place”.
As far as I understand, this often is covered by services like restaurants and churches. But in La Kalsa, the kids do not have enough “3rd places”. That is what I register as a
need for the kids in La Kalsa. At the football fields that are available in the general surroundings, younger kids toss small rocks at the older kids using the football field. Also,
small girls are not seen as often as boys playing outside. This last fact might be understood with cultural aspects, but that do not hide the fact that every kid needs to run
around and play also in a wider area. This is connected both to development in physiological and psycological abilities for the young person.
The intention behind the project is to create more areas at groundlevel for kids to play at and to offer a possibility to focus, to study.
In order to house my intentions, the activities for my project will be located at the ruins east for the existing football field. I want to pursue a split approach:
1) Designated area for outdoor play
2) A puppet doll workshop and an upstairs reading room. The puppet doll workshop will revive a tradition i La Kalsa and at Sicily in general.
Puppet theatre was fiercely challenged by the advent of television and videorecorders. People got used to see massproduced and repeated actions, instead of the play and
life of manually controlled and handmade puppet dolls in a satirical and sometimes political piece.
When introducing the puppet theatre in La Kalsa, it is as mentioned - reviving a Sicilian tradition. This tradition is connected to the “cantistori” and general culture of Sicily.
The “cantistori” is singing stories and the rythm and presentation means might be connected to the Nordic “stev” or “saga”. In present-day Sicily and Palermo, it is alive in
several areas. La Kalsa had its puppet theatre also, but it closed down in the 1970s.
A puppet theatre and cantistori program of the project will perhaps also contribute in bringing the young girls of the area more into the public, and detach them from their
somewhat private and secluded appearance as far as we registered. This will not only bring positive aspects to the individual girls, but also to the local community in
general. A large share of the family fathers are involved in informal economy - and hence, the male rolemodels are sometimes not there, but in imprisoned.
1) The outdoor play area I imagine could be equipped with cushioning surfaces or vegetation, that will for sure facilitate movement and play for the kids in the area. I also sin-
cerely believe that this part of the project should not be to thoroughly planned, I believe it is not so nice to plan the process of play.
2) The space requirements for a puppet theatre workshop is flexible, after a talk with puppetmaker in the Capo district I understand that there is basically only a need for a proper
workshop that can house some facilities connected to the materials they work with making puppets and scenography. The mostly work with wood (mahogny, heavy woods), metal
(brass, copper and silver-alloys) and textile (cotton etc.).
Also the shows can be hosted in an ad-hoc manner, and my project will not cater for a scene - but only a workshop.
I think the upstairs volume of the existing ruin could serve as reading rooms, or focus rooms. I have thought of moving the reading room facility to above the restaurant in a
neighbouring building, but came to that this will have a negative impact on the overall concept and form.
My formal project focuses on keeping the existing ruins, to some extent. I am not certain to what extent
all of the ruins will be taken further into my project and its form. But in the present phase of the project,
the serve as interesting pieces of outside furniture - that could be enhanced by certain moves in the
I want to keep the ground floor level accessible and not built on. I imagine that this field will be a new
playfield for the kids in La Kalsa.
These model photos show 5 suggestions on what to keep on the site.
When the project is to house a reading room for kids doing homework - the existing 5-floor building will
be kept. The same I think about the southern wall of the second ruin north of the first and primary ruin.
This wall can be used for screening movies for the community or serve as a scene for a local Kalsa
I also find it intriguing to establish a better piazza for the people at the area.
The formal project is currently being
developed in digital and analog means.
In the digital model I have pursued the
method of “tunnelling” or “puncturing” the
In the models by-hand I want to add
elements (clay) and see how it develops.
I have also diagrammed in plan and
I want to work in different mediums
because perhaps it can be fruitful when
I am stuck or the process develops slow.