Since ever I share the passion for urban and city design with my grandpa Vittorio Franchetti Pardo, historian of architecture. So, during this long quarantine when we have been a part, despite living close, I decided to call and interview him by phone.
Talking, we observed that the city has ideally, pheraps been the only one not isolated: population is confined into domestic walls while it is virtually opened without physical nor temporary boundaries.
The current pandemic condition which is affecting the whole world, is forcing us to spend a lot of time in our homes. A thought goes to our cities. What does the fact that animals and nature are gaining new or old urban places teach us?
It depends on the place where it happens. Nowadays the phenomenon of regaining spaces by nature and animals can ,essentially, be seen in three cases. If it happens in urban places it means that a process of abandoning, long lasting or not, is going on – see in Rome the small streets or the borghi; as well as one of definitive neglect – this is the case of industrial buildings, work sites, or abandoned construction sites. If it happens in green areas is a sign that these spaces are not animated anymore by human presence. During the current unexpected pandemic, it is clear that the abandon refers to the first case. We hope then, to be able to go back to the previous condition of dwelling to face the running state of neglect.
But the unsolved problem we should investigate is the following: which is the behaviour to maintain, concerning the problematic choice of value priority between needs and interests of men and the ones of nature? This question is even more problematic in times, like the ones we are living, where climate changes are going on, and where it is not that clear if these could be entirely blamed to humans. Imagining ancient and not ancient comparisons we could think that Dolomites were in the abysses of sea and that during roman and late-roman age the Maremma Toscana didn’t exist since the sea reached the current hilly level. We should, then, reflect on the speed of climate changes. We are called to keep an eye on them to evaluate the hierarchy of value priorities.
The extraordinary condition we are experiencing opens up many considerations. Can this be the opportunity to engage new forms of proximity and distance into urban design?
We could argue on this for hours, sitted on sofas – obviously over this time with the right measures of distance and masks. You will agree with me saying that the question about proximity and distance changes according to the city to design: it is inaccurate to think of a unique answer to this. Which is the city? What kind? A commercial one, a rural one, turistic..
Still, the idea of distance and proximity itself must not be seen secondary: are we speaking of distance in physical terms or as a period of time to cover a gap from a certain starting point? Or are we speaking about a physical distance between two cities which is translated into symbolic or religious values? To give you an example, as to distance as a period of time to reach a certain place, you should think that, when the highways didn’t exist, cars took more than five hours to reach Florence from Rome.
Parks and spaces we used to experience as shared ones, have been temporarily suspended. How can we read a city which keeps to be opened to give essentials to citizens but stops engaging with its public and green places?
A foreword here seems to be necessary. We have to clarify if we are speaking of a city understood in its double meaning that is of urbs and civitas: as a place – and also a non-place! – of aggregation; so as a topos of a plural and collective livings, which are often even conflictual. In this meaning the current temporary “suspension” could be similar to the one of alternative cities, to the one of stable residences which, according to Cacciare should be the city of negotium only. This to me seems to be a useful dialectic abstraction. An emblematic example are, rather, thermal cities where all the city is a public space where people gather; socialization could be even symbolic. Instead, the current suspension is finalized at the non-socialization: this is extended from public spaces to the private ones. This condition is such that the “escape from the city” Cacciari was writing about is not even allowed. He is using once again, to me, an abstraction, this time a literary one: the arcadia.
Going back to the double meaning of a city, if the therm civitas is suppressed, city becomes suddenly an empty place – or non-place: a kind of temporary Ghost City as it happened and keeps to happen in the US. This is of course a different condition of suspension from the cities experiencing long lasting or definitive abandon. This is true because, if the suspension is not that long, it can offer new stimulus and occasions. This, especially in Italy, gives interesting and new settlement’s perspectives. New scenarios are simultaneously useful for the development of the existing settlement of the “city” and useful for the scattered but essentially united system of urban storic hamlet.
A decentralised city seems to be the key for the design of the future. How should we live? In dense or decentralised cities?
This is a complex topic. It is necessary to consider the previous historic settlement of areas in which to intervene. In capitalist countries the density is really high for a profitability principle. I hope you will agree then, that it is quite hard to summarize an answer to this complex concept: what kind of city has to be settled, and where? The response is in relation with two conditions: from one side the climatic and ambiental one ( for example desert or iced areas); from the other it dialogues with the historical settlement. For example, in Italy the distance between individual settlements is not that much. But it is not everywhere like this, as we can see from the historical background.
Cover Image: Instant City Visits Bournemouth by Peter Cook (Archigram)