Joe Morris

My Kind of Town: Gubbio is relentless, unflinching, solid, permanent, old, like an ancient, rocky landscape

Joe Morris

My town, my city, is one of contrasts. I have many memories, distant and present, overlapping and blurred, of historic European places defined by tight cobbled streets, squares, piazzas, churches, brick and stone. Of strange and exotic smells, shapes, accents and rituals. Each visit, often fleeting, offers a glimpse into another life, another culture, curiously familiar but always alien.

Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Zürich, Basel, Florence, Bilbao, Rome, Prague… there is something quintessential which marks each one in contrast to the city I have loved and lived in for over 25 years, London; the sound of a police siren, the shape of a taxi, the ritual of coffee and spirit drinking, people’s faces, hairstyles, clothes – even the sound of a dog barking in a foreign accent.

I am not from London, but I have come to consider it my city, and Shoreditch and Peckham my ‘home towns’, each with their idiosyncrasies, their uniqueness, their abundance of energy and creativity. However, as an architect, and as an urbanite, you can become perhaps too accustomed to the rules that define ‘city’. Your city. Our city.

Thus distance and contrast are important, because this allows sufficient perspective to open one’s eyes to what makes your own town special. Such contrast was made evident to me when I visited Gubbio, a relatively small commune north-east of Perugia in Umbria. It is hard to describe this wonder. A town built entirely from local stone, as if hewn from the side of Monte Ingino. The streetscape is muscular, tectonic, almost Escher-esque with its convoluted and contorted network of winding pathways, steps and alleys which ascend the mountainside with increasing gradient. Crampons won’t work here; the surface under foot is solid granite, worn smooth over millennia.

“The city’s fabric is congruous, relentless, unflinching, solid, permanent, old, as if the architecture is in fact an ancient rocky mountainous landscape”

The fabric of this town is an architect’s wonder. The articulation of facades a pure expression of the monolithic quality of building. Deep inset openings, seemingly haphazard in arrangement, correlate simply to internal functions. The fabric of the town is congruous, relentless, unflinching, solid, permanent, old, as if the architecture is in fact an ancient, rocky landscape.This composition is delightful, and unattainable in the hand of one designer or at one point in time; it is more geological than conceptual. At every corner you drift deeper and deeper into its maze-like network of streets. Like Theseus, you pray your thread stays intact to help find your way back at the day’s end.

At the heart of this cascading medieval townscape is the Piazza Grande, a huge elevated terrace flanked by the Palazzo Pretorio and its more glamorous sibling, the Palazzo dei Consoli, a gargantuan stone edifice of curious proportions and ornament. This public space is like no other I have encountered. It perches on the side of the mountain, elevated above the town on four massive stone arches. Even stranger is that you can gauge the physical thickness of this plate with rare glimpses of its underbelly when viewed through the arches below.

“What struck me most about this place is that time appears to have stopped”

This red-paved space is vast, its scale made more impressive by the buildings which enclose it on three sides. Standing on it, you feel like a god, glancing upon your domain, the Umbrian countryside and the red-tiled roofs of the humble townscape at its foot. Approaching from below, it disappears, engulfed by the gothic-ness, the stone-ness, the mountain-ness of its surroundings. Atop the mountain, 900 metres above sea level, sits the Basilica of Sant’Ubaldo, its little bell tower like an apostrophe over the town.

What struck me most about this place is that time appears to have stopped. It is a time capsule, buried for future generations to find; people like me, whose daily purpose is the shepherding of their own native city through the tumultuous process of contemporary life. This contrast enables one to reflect on the passage of time and the more manifest ‘evolution’ of the city, a place which does not stand still, but which is constantly shaped by the hands of its living citizens.