1934 - 1999: From the colony to the restoration project
In the early 1930’s, the “Figli del Littorio” foundation, in collaboration with the directorate general of “Figli degli Italiani all’Estero”, an organization working with the children of Italians living abroad, commissioned the Rome-born architect and engineer Clemente Busiri Vici to design a marine colony to be built northeast of Cattolica, in an area between the rivers Ventena and Conca. The plans for the nucleus of the project were ready by 1933, with a rigidly symmetrical layout comprising five buildings inspired by the world of ships, aircraft, flying boats, trains and submarines. The complex was built in nine months, and was inaugurated on 28 June 1934, in the presence of the head of government, Benito Mussolini.

Great attention was dedicated to this new complex in the Italian and international press of the period, with comments ranging from enthusiasm to amazement. In the context of the cultural and architectural debate of the time, which contrasted classical and modernist styles, meaning architects who preferring the model of the late 1800’s and those who proclaimed instead a new architecture more suited to the times, it is easy to see innovative forms in the “Le Navi” complex that bring it close to Italian Futurism. It very evidently offers in fact intensely symbolic contents linked with the modernist theme of machines and machinery, and strong emotional and psychological atmospheres deriving also from the Expressionist use of reinforced concrete. In late 1934 Busiri Vici developed a project for the extension and alteration of the colony, maintaining the naval references, even though in a more moderate form, in the two torpedoes on the landward side, which in plan and elevation are “Rationalist” citations of the four ships closer to the beach, in the restructured semi-underground chapel, and in the guard building. Between 1935 and 1943, the “XXVIII Ottobre Marine Colony” was a self-sufficient structure, with its own farm, still existing today, capable of accommodating about 2000 young naval cadets, living under almost military discipline. In 1944, after the passage of the front, it became a military hospital.

After the war the complex was restored to its former function as a holiday centre, becoming the “G. De Michelis Marine Colony”. During the years of the economic boom, the company Maraldi of Cesena planned to divide the entire complex up into construction lots. Cattolica’s new town planning regulations were approved in 1963, but excluded the area occupied by “Le Navi” from its development plans, initially protected but now left free for building as proposed by government authorities. This allowed Maraldi to obtain permission for its planned subdivision of the area, demolishing some of the buildings and building hotels and apartments in the area, almost halving the surface area occupied by buildings on which the colony once stood. In the mid-1970’s the activities of “Le Navi” as a summer holiday centre and ownership of its buildings were taken over by the Emilia Romagna Region, which assigned its management to the Municipality of Cattolica. In the mid-1980’s a start was made on an initial restoration of the entire complex, now destined for use as the “Le Navi International Youth Centre”, a student holiday centre for young people from the whole of Europe, making joint agreements with the municipalities of Bologna, Modena and Cattolica, and managed from 1993 to 1997 to the LE NAVI Cooperative of Cattolica.

In 1993, the Urbanistics Office of the Municipality of Cattolica prepared a series of preliminary studies and projects for the conversion of the complex into a multifunctional centre with specific educational, cultural and recreational characteristics, by restoring or regenerating the existing buildings, at the same time requesting once again the management of the entire complex from the Emilia Romagna Region. In 1997, the municipality obtained the transfer of the complex from the region for the creation of a themed marine park. Simultaneously, the municipality become the promoter for the constitution of a company with mixed public and private capital, to be called “Parconavi SpA”, the aim of which was to create the marine park. Work on the park started in 1999, and on 10 June 2000, after only eleven months of work, it was inaugurated and opened to the public.

From 2000 to today: Preservation and restoration
Today, the “Le Navi” complex, restructured and restored to use, is an important touristic and cultural attraction for Cattolica, also representing significant architectural values brought once again to life. The recovery and reutilization programme for the complex as a marine theme park has made a successful start, developing in four major directions identified as being fundamental.

The first direction was that of the development of a conceptually unified structure, respecting the original nature of the buildings as devised and designed in 1932 by Clemente Busiri Vici. The second direction was that of creating a park with green areas and public spaces freely available for use by the community, constituting nothing less than an important public park integrated into the urban fabric, also given its specific geographical location. A third aspect was that of display themes, characterized by an ample and articulated variety of contents. The final point regarded the conscious attempt to present a sophisticated interactive educational and cultural product, destined nevertheless for use by the general public.

The first of these issues was respected with great sensitivity by the designers of the Acca C Studio of Rome. In changing the use of the complex, all elements of the new project of a certain impact, such as the system of paths linking the individual buildings and the imposing seawater and aquaculture filtration systems, were installed underground, and more precisely at a depth of -4.7 metres below sea level. The only new additions that have been introduced, with great discretion, rest on the ground surfaces of the park, and are modular metallic structures of limited dimensions. Three of these, light and empty, serve as information points. The other three, with their different colours of light blue, yellow and pink, give external indications of the points where the three main underground itineraries meet the four ship buildings used for the marine park’s themed exhibits, destined to the discovery of the underwater habitat and its evolution from its origins to the present day. The spaces used for the other activities of the park, including hospitality, catering, leisure and shopping, were all obtained using structures already existing, by simply changing their utilization, and accommodating them in the Torpedoes, the Admiral ship, the former Chapel and the former Infirmary, which are accessed directly at sea level. The only new element can be seen in the tiered arena that leads visitors into the large covered square called “Templa Serena”, at a level of -4.7 metres, which is the starting point for the long itinerary that leads through the buildings “West Ship”, “East Ship”, “Mistral Ship” and “Admiral Ship”, now “Geopolis” and “Aquapolis”.

Taken from "Abbiamo fatto 13" by Daniele Fabbri (Director, Urbanistics Office, Cattolica)

Photo gallery: Buildings and history kindly provided by the historical archives of Cattolica Polyvalent Cultural Centre and Dorigo Vanzolini.

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