The surfaces of infrastructure

The city of L’Aquila is located within one of the most active seismic areas of central Italy. The quake that affected the city in 2009 reduced houses and roads to rubble. Over the last decade, the recurrence of earth tremors has dragged the past into the present. Dust, caused by reconstruction works, colonise the fresh mountain air and dirty city roads.

Roberta is 45 years old. She used to live and work in the historic centre of the city and has now moved to the nearby town of Avezzano. While describing life after the earthquake, she says

“It’s like-like you-you know when you are drunk and you lose contact with the ground. My life is so confused. I don’t know my way around this town anymore, I can’t even make sense of this city.”

In Roberta’s world, roads are not just the expression of the difficulty of putting a new future into being, but an aesthetic space where the slipperiness threatens the feet of local inhabitants, who today still walk the roads of the “red zone” to protest against the mismanagement of the reconstruction works. The very texture of space has changed, showing how the movement of the terrain as well as the colour of the road can influence sensorial, aesthetic and political experiences of the city’s urban space.

Roads are still slippery and unstable, regularly making you slide and loose your intended path. Mud and puddles soften them and, as a result, it can be hard to keep a regular pace. Roads have always been at the centre of ideologies of progress and modernity, in opposition to landscapes of decay and backwardness (Mràzek 2002). In L’Aquila, a hard and cleaned road has become the symbol of “a city re-born”. At the same time, however, dust still threatens the blackness of the asphalt and brings into view those damaged roads that remain closed, offering non-scenic views of the city. Being forced to slow down the rhythm of walking, you then see pipes nestling everywhere, establishing connections everywhere.

“Infrastructures”, the anthropologist Brian Larkin writes, “operate at the level of surfaces” (2013, 337). In L’Aquila, thinking the infrastructure of the city through surfaces, and the materials that bring it into being, leads to the question of whether infrastructure and ruins can at all be conceived separately from one another. Dust clouds, as well as the elusiveness of the terrain suggest, they can not.


Lucilla Barchetta is an anthropologist and PhD candidate in Urban Studies at the Gran Sasso Science Institute (L’Aquila, Italy), whose research focuses on the intersection of political ecology and urban culture. Her work is  qualitative, and is informed by an in-depth ethnographic approach to the everyday life of cities.