I recently discovered the phenomenon of the umarell. The umarell is one of those things that are somehow familiar but only when they’re given a name do we recognise their ubiquity. The umarell is an old man (and it is always a man) who stands around, hands often behind his back, watching roadworks and construction sites and occasionally giving uncalled-for advice. 

The word is taken from a Bolognese dialect (it means “little man”) and you can even buy little umarell figures. But it is not a phenomenon limited to Bologna. We all know the type. Turkish building sites are apparently beset with unofficial advisers and I’ve seen them in Spain and in Chicago (more there than in New York, where even older men seem to hurry past building sites).

Cities are always under construction and to want to watch is natural, particularly if you’ve spent a lifetime walking the same streets. There’s also the conditioning, going right back to childhood. Like most boys my age, I enjoyed filling my yellow Tonka dumper truck with earth and envied my best friend’s digger, which had an articulated arm. Labouring on building sites in my teens put a temporary end to the fascination but it always returns. Construction is exciting: its scale is impressive, the tools are remarkable and the sense of the earth being churned up to prepare it for a huge structure can be awe-inspiring.

Deere machinery stand at the Bauma trade fair in Munich © REUTERS

There was a time in the UK when demolition became a kind of spectator sport. Tower blocks, power stations and industrial chimneys in a dance of destruction, watched by people over whose lives those structures had loomed. Perhaps now there is more reverence for the past and, in a housing crisis, an uneasy awareness that demolished blocks of public flats will be replaced by private property.

A crowd watches the demolition of a block of flats in Henniker Road in Newham, east London, 1981 © Getty Images

Construction lacks the bang of demolition, the dramatic moment of collapse and the cloud of dust. On the other hand it is positive, a symptom of economic activity. And, although it is slow, hard and laborious, there are moments of drama and tension. In the 2013 film Locke, Tom Hardy gives a solo performance as a man whose life is falling apart, but the central tension is the huge concrete pour of which he is in charge while his marriage collapses behind him. When construction appears in a film it is often as a backdrop, associated with Mafia or union corruption, inflated male ego or dodgy developers. The drama of the building process is, as usual, hidden away behind hoardings.

A construction site in London in May © REUTERS

Now, structural engineer Tristram Carfrae of Arup is suggesting that sites be opened up to the public and that the construction world celebrate its drama and complexity. He will be taking part in an online discussion on the topic with artist Antony Gormley and designer Thomas Heatherwick on July 9.

Carfrae’s current project makes his argument easy: he is working on Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona, one of the world’s most visited, most recognisable and most insane buildings. Over almost 140 years its construction has become a permanent sight on the skyline, an unending homage to the city’s most visionary architect.

Sagrada Família in Barcelona, still under construction after nearly 140 years

The Sagrada Família reopened on July 4 and part of the reason for tourists’ continuing fascination is its status as a masterpiece still under construction. It gives a glimpse into what the medieval cathedrals must have been like while they took generations to build — living sculptures, growing in scale and complexity by the day.

“We’re doing big lifts of 20 tons of stone craned in like pieces of Lego,” Carfrae tells me. “It’s incredibly dramatic. Now with building information technology, we are able to be very precise and manufacture off-site for assembly. It’s cleaner, quieter, less polluting and easier for tourists to visit the site while construction continues around them. And with all that we can make it a novelty to watch the pieces being put in place.”

Tom Emerson of 6a architects (and professor at Zurich’s ETH university) brings up the scaffolding at Notre-Dame in Paris. “During the fire, the scaffolding became a central character,” he says. “Scaffolding is ephemeral, it just suddenly appears and has a different logic to the rest of the city. It’s nothing to do with beauty or planning, it just does what it does.” It’s notable, too, that mass live entertainment, from the music festival to outdoor theatre, adopts the temporary language of the scaffold as the armature for spectacle.

For Emerson, though, there is more to it than the spectacular. “At the small scale, there’s a performative quality to the work of a good builder. It’s like watching a sportsman with no movement wasted. There is an incredible embodied knowledge about how things work and where things are.”

He points me towards the Instagram feed of a builder he often works with, John Perkins: “He posts a concrete pour and it’s incredible to watch.” Construction can be fraught with danger, replete with skill and perfect timing. “Frank Gehry said that a building is most satisfying when it’s not complete,” says Emerson, and it’s true. A tower glowing with construction lights as a concrete skeleton is an amazing sight. When cladding is added, it somehow takes the rawness away, making the building blander. 

Crossrail construction site at Farringdon station, London © Getty Images

I talk also to artist Richard Wentworth, an acute observer of processes that most of us in cities take for granted. “I think it’s free cinema,” he says of construction, “a movie which Walter Benjamin would recognise, witnessing comings and goings, risings and fallings. Even when not the manual labour of the pick or the maul, the remote ballet of the crane and usually invisible driver is totally admirable.”

He talks to me about the Irish labourers in “their chalk-stripe suits bought in Camden” who reshaped postwar London from a ruin into what it is now. “They’d stand on a building in army surplus boots taking the walls out with pickaxes and sledgehammers. It was the spectacle of a city being transformed. Heroic gents, the crafts, the trades, the knowhow.”

A man watches renovation of a bridge in Florence © Alamy Stock Photo

With theatres closed, football stadiums empty and entertainment thinned out, the city might yet turn to itself in a quest for new forms of culture. There may not be an infrastructure in place yet, there may be no banks of seating set up around construction sites or street celebrations for the erection of a crane but, like the umarells, we might just find some solace and appreciation in the skill of labour and the remarkable spectacle of conjuring architecture from a hole in the ground. 


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