art/architecture sell/inhabit classic/anti-classic planning/opportunity memory/invention built/built on existing tissue iconic/aniconic extraordinary/everyday homogeneous/inhomogeneous built /voids
Cities never cease to change. Constantly and inexorably, they keep changing because they are the stage of human life and activities and as long as they are inhabited they express, just like any living organism, an instability caused by behaviors that react to the climatic conditions, the availability of resources, the decisions of those who govern, protect or simply pass through them. Consequently, cities are born and die, they develop or empty out, they undergo transformations or they are artificially frozen in time, thus ceasing to be cities and becoming gadgets, showcase objects, as for instance Venice, or amusement parks like Las Vegas. Or they may become the stage of genetic metamorphoses, as in Dubai where the desert becomes a lagoon and the open sea an archipelago.
Town planning, an indispensable science for urban government, is an ongoing task which must be continuously implemented through the observation of the reactions provoked by the experimentation of modifications and by events. As in every other scientific activity, it is therefore necessary to classify the behavior of the subjects under observation, to catalogue and classify the urban reactions from a physical, social, economic and climatic point of view with respect to the evolution of the changes, both spontaneous and induced. We may, or rather must, introduce a critical reading of urban phenomena in order to understand whether the slogan of the Expo to be held in Shanghai in 2010, “Better City Better Life” makes sense and, sharing it, realize that it means a better city and a better life quality because the transformations in progress are often motivated by economic interests or short-sighted strategies aimed at change, whose effects are anything but positive for the living conditions of the individual. Moreover, it is important to begin by underscoring that architecture as a discipline which comprises urban studies must be correlated with other scientific-methodological approaches ranging from economy to social sciences, from politics to behavioral psychology, from transport science to environmental engineering and that a viewpoint focused on the dimension of architectural design, regardless how decisive and instrumental, therefore cannot be all-encompassing. However, while architecture is a very weak opponent to the forces of economic pressure and politics of territorial management and government, it may, as a discipline, guide those very politics through a specific “urban architecture” and an interpretation of urban events that we may analyze, through simplification, by deciphering some key words correlated to as many concrete cases where effect, result and behaviors are evident. Otherwise, the variables and incognitos associated with the urban equation would be so innumerable as to prove unsolvable.
Beijing: iconic / aniconic
In its change of “state”, the city of Beijing has taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the recent Olympic games to “Westernize” itself through the construction of a series of symbolic cathedrals: the new stadium designed by Herzog and De Meuron, the new headquarters of the CCTV television by Rem Koolhaas, the new airport designed by Norman Foster; the list could go on. All these buildings are super-iconic objects, ideal images for glossy magazine covers, perfect for international diffusion. Inevitably, in the collective imagery, the predominance of the discreet and hidden imperial city with its countless enclosed spaces is threatened by the aggressive iconic images of gigantic gadgets which contradict its value. The introverted Beijing, secluded in courts protected by walls, with its low, sprawling tissue, few squares but many courts, has not found interpretative models capable of preventing a general feeling of “alienation” and loss of identity. The tissue formed by Hutongs has been unable to regenerate itself; it has been replaced by taller, more anonymous and banal buildings which are nevertheless more profitable. But the anonymity and banality of the latter is such as to call for a study of images, which has identified the exceptionality of extraordinary objects as the shortest way to assertion. Still, the true change of the city, beyond images and the search for new symbols to present in the world market, has been achieved through operations which are less visible but more powerful in terms of substance, as the renovation of the 798, an immense factory transformed into a culture and art workshop, an incredible melting pot of ideas and experimentation capable of launching the thought of contemporary China in the international scene. Moreover, the building of a more diffused mobility system linked to the new subway lines will make it possible to reduce the exceptional traffic congestion. We may therefore say that there is more than appears to the eye in Beijing, and that while the monumental design objects and the great and amazing architectures built in the last few years may be capable of diffusing a convincing image of economic prosperity, they do not contribute beyond marketing aspects to any overall improvement of the life quality within the city, where the pressing issues are clearly very different: pollution, mobility, recovery, urban regeneration, the loss of values and the pressure of speculation.
Tokyo: sell / inhabit
In the Japanese capital density is obviously an urban constant, but the exaltation of consumer goods, commerce and individuality has, in the most popular downtown streets, given rise to the development of a new kind of shop building linked to luxury goods, the “super-stores”. Buildings that act as logos, advertising the label sold within and flaunting their presence in the city. Analogously, the worship of individuality and property has given rise to new and unexpected kinds of detached dwellings. Selling and living seem to be the activities capable of defining new and unexpected urban scenarios. Selling and living are also themes of a conflict that is creating, and not only in Tokyo, a fracture and separation of vital activities that were once close and connected. And if the wealth of a city was, in history, determined by its trade and exchange of goods, today the creation of shopping malls that are independent of the living tissue destroy the city by depriving it of the lifeblood of activities along its streets. But shops need a city just as badly as an inhabited city needs shops; and as a result the market has, with the rapidity characteristic of avid economic principles, immediately reacted by developing ersatz cities in the shopping malls. The malls camouflage their true nature by streets and squares, fake facades and villages that merely mimic an urban image, cartoons exploited by commerce in order to sell. It is evidently necessary to return to a sounder relationship and to rediscover the value of neighborhood shops, and to understand that large size is merely a means of adapting to the needs of vehicle mobility, and that the fake medieval villages, both in Dubai and in Serravalle Scrivia in Italy, are nothing but multistory garages superimposed by shops pretending to be a city, that empty the real city of commercial activities. From this point of view the case of Tokyo is different. Thanks to its extraordinary subway network, shopping center and city center coincide even if the power of commerce tends to displace every other urban function in the most commercial streets.
Berlin: building / building on the existing tissue
The empty areas left behind by the “wall” have triggered a lengthy debate on the city and its design. Planners have proposed to build on the existing tissue, an ancient method on which basis cities have been built on top of one another in layers, where buildings have been replaced by new ones erected on the same sediments, on the same foundations, with the very stones obtained from the demolitions. The theme of memory and nostalgia has probably influenced the decisions and the urban choices; in fact, many of the new interventions assume the significance of a repairing gesture which picks up the red thread of continuity which has been interrupted by the brutality of the war. The mechanisms of real estate profit and renovation have often made it necessary to exploit the ground to the fullest and to develop buildings vertically, yet the reconstruction has remained faithful to an inalienable sense of permanence. Moreover, the value of the land must, from an environmental point of view, be considered as a general condition of every city and landscape, urban and rural; the natural territory must be valued as a non-reproducible resource which must be preserved with determination. This does not mean that all new building activity must be stopped, but that one should develop territorial management and government strategies which encourage building activities in the form of modification and transformation of land which has already been used in the past. This strategy obviously leads to a greater density in the existing city, something that cannot be anything but salutary if it is controlled, as it reduces the need for mobility and the social costs associated with the traffic and transports which a planning based on urban sprawl and rarefaction have produced and continue to produce.
Graz: art / architecture
Art and architecture have, in history, always been closely bound by a single urban destiny associated with the presence of monuments. Modernity, with its dogmatic goals defined for design, as solutions to the needs and functionality of living, has often banished aesthetic and expressive research from the city, creating a gap in the course of the Twentieth century that it is hard to bridge. In Graz a felicitous alternation between new projects as Peter Cook’s exceptional building, and installations as Vito Acconci’s fluvial work, bring expressive spheres formerly divided by zoning and urban neglect closer, within the same space. More in general, the new competition between cities has not only made it necessary to ideate attention-catching international urban marketing strategies; it has also reintroduced the themes of exceptionality and extraordinariness, the need for amazing and iconic new spaces or buildings where both the languages of architecture and the expressive codes typical of the figurative arts are used, indistinctly, in order to express these values. However, it would be senseless and unnatural to burden architecture with the entire responsibility for the urban image, because architects then come to suffer a syndrome due to which every building must necessarily be considered a monument or an object that stands out, thus foregoing the serenity and normality which a city needs in order to be able to recognize its architectural landmarks. To meet these requirements, the present-day city must return to use the figurative arts, in their contemporary dimension, as an opportunity to make art do what it is capable of, and play its true role, integrating it with the urban architecture but giving the latter an opportunity to realize itself in a civil manner; according to this approach an obelisk is an obelisk, a building a building and attempts to create hybrids between the models, the obelisk cum building, should be discouraged.
Milan: memory / invention
The “Velasca tower”, a building that symbolizes a thought, a poetic and an idea of architecture which is sustained culturally by its author, has in the history of the Twentieth century marked a virtual break with the dogmas of Modernism and its allegedly anti-historical character, reconnecting the evolutionary chain of the city and the urban elements and reasserting their value in terms of memory. Memory and invention are inseparable aspects of any architecture and consequently of any city, an opportunity for living without yielding to either oblivion or nostalgia; together they represent both an overcoming of modernist theories and postmodern historicist aims. The city cannot forget itself to chase the future, nor can it go on forever mirroring itself in the mummified image of its own past; this is the crucial issue today. Vice versa, some art cities are, due to the demands of activities and trade linked to tourism, suspended in an anti-historical dimension that freeze them in their past, preventing them from changing. And the more a city remains anchored to its image and history, the more does it wither and lose inhabitants. This is also associated with profit from location, and is a typical case of cities like Venice or Florence, but also Milan, where inhabitants of prestigious areas sell their homes at very high prices to buy outside the center at lower prices, making the oldest and most consolidated areas lost vitality. A strategy aimed at opposing these phenomena is possible and easy to pursue by requiring that, in building and renovation works and urban upgrading projects, a part of the recovered buildings are to be reserved for social housing. To do this in every case, it is necessary to find the right balance between the need to preserve the architectural heritage and the old town, and the importance of allowing the city to change in spite of everything; in fact, the damage caused by excessively restrictive regimes are in any case significant.
Barcelona: extraordinary / everyday
A city made wholly of monuments, of extraordinary and amazing structures would obviously be impossible to live in, because it would be hostile to everyday life. At the same time a city completely focused on ordinariness may be anonymous and inhospitable, reluctant and lacking an own distinctive image or iconography, regardless of how it may be divulged. For more than twenty years, in the period straddling two centuries and two millennia, Barcelona has fought against the uniformity and density of its urban tissue and an equally rigorous and repetitive town plan, through the design of every free space of land. This ambitious program is based on the upgrading of empty areas and consequently of the public space in the form of streets, squares and gardens. A the same time the search for special opportunities has resulted in the creation of the indispensable, and striking, landmarks. Towers, tall buildings as for instance Jean Nouvel’s project for the Agbar tower, do not represent useless flaunting and a concession to vertical development; rather, they bear witness to the need for landmarks, for ways to make a particular point in the city visible and recognizable from afar. In this dimension the exceptional becomes useful, the extraordinary commonplace, the monument necessary and the city intelligent.
Amsterdam: homogeneous /inhomogeneous
The demands for housing and urban transformations often call for large-scale projects which are superimposed on an urban tissue that is usually more minute, fragmented by hundreds of years of subdivision of the land into plots. Large homogeneous complexes, principally social housing projects, usually introduce an urban scale that differs widely from the existing buildings. This is why experiments with fragmentation and variation of building complexes, also within the context of unitary projects, have produced efficacious and reproducible solutions. The approach based on the “standardized measure”. Amsterdam has experimented both dimensions, the unitary and the fragmented, we may say with similar success, even if projects as the residential neighborhood of Borneo, characterized by an alternated sequence of houses, each designed as an individual unit, clearly demonstrate the importance of difference and variation of buildings within the city. Moreover, they prove that variation is even more efficient when it unfolds within the shared rules of a master plan which defines the environments and the desirability of a diversification which does not result in the chaos of the modern city but rather its opposite. In other words, a series of different buildings with non-standardized architectural designs arranged harmoniously with coherent heights, on the basis of a studied town plan, rather than identical buildings distributed casually in the territory.
Merida: classic / anti-classic
In the Western civilization and especially in Europe the conflict between classical and anti-classical, or modernism, has more often than not resulted in the surrounding and suffocating of the former by the latter, in the form of recent modern urban expansions. But the opposition between classical and modern architectures cannot continue today, because in the contemporary reality both represent historical contributions that bear witness to iconic conflicts that are a thing of the past. We cannot take any stand today, either in favor of the 20th century or of the contribution of previous centuries; the present-day city is per force multiethnic and multicultural. And so the categories of classical and its opposite, as the value of memory and invention, are merely two sides of the same coin: that of architectural design.
Bilbao: renewal / opportunity
Many contemporary cities take advantage of important cultural and sportive events to obtain funds in order to achieve large-scale urban transformations. However, these opportunities can only be exploited in a constructive way in the presence of an existing overall strategy of programmed renovation, attentively designed, and upgrading politics shared both on a national and international level. This also means that public and private players must per force act as interdependent entities, coherently with the decisions of the territorial government. By taking on the challenge of hosting Expo 2015, Milan has been given an opportunity to prove how an occasional event, analogously with the Olympic games or other great events involving the tissue, image and consistency of the city, can become the driving power of a general renewal capable of changing and improving the life quality of its inhabitants. Milan may also learn from the example of other cities as Bilbao, apart from and beyond the “Guggenheim monument”, that no renewal may be achieved without planning; the building of the museum in the Basque city was not a casual decision, but the result of a previous strategy aimed at transforming the city from industrial site to postindustrial city, and furthermore that the museum, while representing an “extraordinary object” familiar to everyone, is merely the tip of an iceberg of a more ample project and strategy, that is still being realized today.
Porto: built /voids
The urban tissue, even if it is consolidated, is intrinsically inclined towards design, or in other words to a continuous transformation. This clearly applies to the empty areas created by interruptions of the urban tissue, to the recovery and exploitation of tiny interstitial spaces whose sum represents an incredible quantity of new inhabitable land, but also to densely built areas of historical value which must be adapted to present-day requirements. Built and void areas define the urban aggregate where public and private spaces assert their inevitable coexistence. The work every city may carry out in the monitoring and classification of its latent values, in terms of land and opportunities, is the central aspect of a strategy of focused projects, whose solution and value is the sum of its parts. This is the specific context in which architectural design becomes an indispensable instrument for urban transformation and renewal, the only one that is feasible in the consolidated city.