Entering a subterranean marble mine.
Blaine Brownell Entering a subterranean marble mine.

Carrara is synonymous with material perfection. The Tuscan town of about 60,000 on the western coast of Italy is home to one of the most venerated material histories in art and architecture. Carrara marble has been extracted for more than two millennia—since the Roman Empire first occupied this territory along the foothills of the Apuan Alps. As a result, more marble has been harvested from this region than anywhere on the planet.

A primary reason for Carrara marble’s popularity is its quality, exemplified by the buttery white statuario-grade stone used in sculptures such as Michelangelo’s David and Pieta. Carrara marble is also a prominent façade material on some of the world’s most exalted buildings, including the Pantheon and the Duomo di Siena in Italy. It is therefore fitting that the International Union of Geological Sciences designated the stone as a Global Heritage Stone Resource in 2015.

Yet the history of Carrara also has a less celebrated side. Centuries of quarrying stone from more than 650 sites have significantly impacted the environment. Surface extraction disrupts existing ecologies and causes biodiversity loss. In addition, mining requires significant quantities of water and produces large volumes of debris consisting of fractured rock and dust. The resulting slurry can easily clog mountain streams and degrade territorial ecosystems.

Evidence of surface mining and accompanying ravaneti deposits, seen from a distance.
Blaine Brownell Evidence of surface mining and accompanying ravaneti deposits, seen from a distance.

At the beginning of the 20th century, writer Day Allen Willey remarked in Scientific American that “Few, if any, industries in the world have a greater percentage of waste than marble quarrying as it is done in Italy.” Since then, increased demand—facilitated by technological advances such as diamond wire cables and robotic machining—has dramatically accelerated extraction. The massive scale of operations has increased the attention of photographers and filmmakers such as Andrea Foligni and Edward Burtynsky. The 2019 documentary “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” which Burtynsky co-directed, features striking scenes of the denuded Apuan Alps that form Carrara’s backdrop.

I recently had the chance to encounter this spectacle first-hand while traveling with architecture students and faculty from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The experience was an uncanny combination of historical pilgrimage, outdoor adventure, and disaster tourism. Based on popular demand, a secondary industry has emerged to guide visitors to the quarries in convoys of Land Rovers, retracing the path of James Bond’s car chase in Quantum of Solace—albeit at a much slower speed.

Carrara’s active surface mining locations appear as patches of snow from a distance. Up close, the massive cliffs of exposed stone are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Colossal terraces, ramps, and pits form a subtractive architecture governed by the mechanics and economics of extraction. The sublime sight conjures striking and contradictory visual references—the majesty of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple near Deir el-Bahari in Egypt, or the devastation of Australia’s Mt. Isa copper mine. Below the actively trafficked terraces lie vast deposits called ravaneti, composed of residual fragments and particles that cover approximately 60% of the surface of the mined areas. According to environmental scientists, the “anthropogenic geomorphologic complexes”—or human-manipulated geological forms—of these deposits contribute to Carrara’s unique landscape.

Inside a mine, complete with marble-cutting machinery.
Blaine Brownell Inside a mine, complete with marble-cutting machinery.

Back inside the Land Rovers, our intrepid drivers escort us via a tunnel deep inside a marble mountain. This subterranean quarry is equally awe-inspiring: a series of voluminous, interconnected chambers reveals yet another form of subtractive architecture. Enveloped entirely in luminous stone (driving on marble!), one confronts a sequence of spaces that embodies both the utility of an underground parking garage and the grandiosity of a hall of worship. These lofty spaces exhibit immense spans of gravity-defying, unreinforced stone that appear to elude all structural logic.

Inside the mine, diamond cable-outfitted machines toil away to extract truck-sized blocks of marble from deep within the mountainside, their runoff water creating a slurry of white, calcite-rich mud. Even this residue is a desirable resource. Increasingly, many industries are taking advantage of the calcium carbonate dust produced in vast quantities at Carrara—utilizing the mineral in ceramics, toothpaste, cosmetics, and even food products. On closer inspection, occasional patches of surface-bolted wire mesh indicate structural weak spots in the mine—an unsettling reminder of the predicted safe limits of subtractive activities inside this marble labyrinth.

Surface mining creates an architecture of subtraction.
Blaine Brownell Surface mining creates an architecture of subtraction.

In a recent invited lecture at UNC Charlotte, geographer Kathryn Yusoff, author of A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), described the mine as negative architecture. “For every building, there is a mine,” she stated, describing the direct material and spatial connections between the extractive and additive counterpart operations we call mining and construction. Taking the concept of architecture’s connections to Earth’s resources to an extreme, she argued that “the building is the planet.”

The ambitions of our ever-expanding designed environment constitute the invisible, yet palpable, driving force at Carrara. Architecture, interior design, industrial design, and various other fields continue to motivate the harvesting and redistribution of material from this part of Tuscany to other parts of the globe. In Carrara, we witness this prized marble in stark relief; in the Apuan Alps, humanity’s conflicted values—desire, awe, utility, and conservation—are all simultaneously present.

Carrara is a symbol of cultural heritage, high art, technological achievement, and material perfection. Moreover, its mines have served as the economic lifeblood for the people of the Massa and Carrara province for millennia. And yet, one wonders: What is Carrara’s long game? Will the city endure as a cultural and geophysical destination despite confronting environmental limits? Or, will Carrara—in the ceaseless act of supplying the world’s most desirable stone—consume itself?

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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