Umari is the plural form of umarell, and umarell is a jocular Italian term for a person – classically a man of retirement age – who pauses to observe work in progress. The term might be used as light-hearted mockery, but I think more people ought to umarell. 

To umarell is to take an interest in the built environment – the environment that our species creates, and in which most of us spend most of our time. An umarell turns their attention to that environment's creation, taking time to appreciate the materials, machines, and muscles from which it emerges. Umarelling is an act of respect and appreciation, and it is for this reason that I am proud to announce the inaugural Campionato Mondiale di Umari – the 2024 World Umarelling Championship.

This year’s Campionato consists of three categories. Winners will be declared in all events separately, reflecting the fact that there are many ways to umarell. Winners in all categories will receive prizes, recognition, and bragging rights. 

  1. Sketching: A sketch of a construction site in any medium. We discourage submission of, e.g., a painting, and will not accept photographic entries, but do encourage digital sketching.
  2. Notetaking: A written submission of up to 250 words, either in bullet points or full sentences, describing the activity at a construction site. Notes should focus on detail and fidelity.
  3. Open text: A written submission of up to 250 words in any format (prose or verse) about a construction site. Open text entries should focus on artistry rather than fidelity.

Each of these categories will be judged in both an open contest (entrants of any age) and for umaretti (ages fifteen and under). (For our youngest participants we also have a scavenger hunt, which is available for purchase or free PDF download here.) Our panel of judges have all spent a long time looking at, and thinking about, the built environment and how it got that way:

  • Drew Austin, author of Kneeling Bus, a weekly newsletter about urbanism and technology
  • Geoff Manaugh, freelance writer covering topics related to cities, design, crime, infrastructure, and technology; author of BLDGBLOG and A Burglar’s Guide to the City
  • Henry Grabar, Loeb fellow at Harvard GSD, author of Paved Paradise and columnist for Slate
  • Hillary Predko, founder of Desire Line Studio and longtime contributor to this newsletter
  • Ian Coss, producer at PRX and creator of the Big Dig Podcast
  • Mike Newman, instructor for Black Spectacles' AIA ARE Prep Curriculum and co-founder of SHED Studio
The scavenger hunt we created especially for this year's Campionato, available for purchase (and as a free PDF download) here.

Through this year's Campionato we hope to encourage a more active engagement with the infrastructure which underpins our lives. Take, for instance, this poem written by (Campionato co-organizer) TW Lim on a recent umarelling session:

On digging

So much
Holds up the pavement
And revelation

So much goes
Into defining void
By the effort of permanence

We empty the earth to fill it
This space will be a pathway

Or the notes I took while umarelling in early April:

CSO Project 2024-03-08 @ 15:00
It's very muddy. Concrete trucks are washed @ gate, especially tires; hose is running constantly, even btwn trucks, washing the steel plates & welcome mats
There are ~4 concrete trucks on site at a time; also 4 cranes, and 2 drilling rigs:
- 1 Keller
- 1 Bauer MC96
Perfume is being sprayed only on east & southeast corner... it smells like hardware store potpourri.
On the south side there's a big padded wall, at least 3 stories tall, attached to I beams. There are similar padded walls on the NW corner, ~16' tall
The pits they're digging for footings are full of frothy, boiling mud
|| Stein-Greifer ||
Oddly clean for something so dirty; beads all over the jaws

I maintain a low bar for my own umarelling, and I encourage you to as well. An umarell is not the star of the show; as I wrote a few months ago, I enjoy umarelling partly because it makes me feel small and set apart from the action. In this context I focus on simple observation: I observe the way that material flows through space; I observe the complex social interactions in a workplace; I observe the way that shapes intersect and play off of each other. I consider myself a novice at each of these activities, and I find pleasure in my inexperience.

Typical construction scaffolding, van, and tree protection. Sketched this very morning in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

This year's Campionato kicks off today, and submissions will be accepted until 2024-06-10. Over the coming weeks I'll include more of my own umarelling in this newsletter, and I hope to publish notable entries from the Campionato when judging is complete and awards have been issued. There are also sample entries on the Campionato's Taccuino page, which will be updated as the weeks go by as well.

So go forth into the built environment, and report back on your observations. The work being done all around you is ready to share itself; what will it say to you?

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks in advance to the judges of this year's Campionato, and also to all of you – who are, I'm sure, thinking of a few constructions sites where you might take a pause and jot down some observations today ;)

Love, Spencer.

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Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright is the (mostly accidental) founder of Scope of Work, which he started writing (as The Prepared) in 2013. Today he serves as its editor-in-chief and chief dilettante.
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