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The renewed role of the historic centre in the strategy to transform cities
The peculiarity of the historic urban centre, with significantly analogous aspects in both Italian and European contexts, lies first and foremost in the settlement compactness which has established itself over time in line with varying morphological and functional structures, in support of intense and diversified relational conditions, according to an economy of anthropic transformation beginning from “space” material.
The construction of the historic centre availed itself of a lengthy time process, following intermittent phases of development and crisis, of densification and contraction, through a dialectic of transformation which tends however over time to enrich and articulate the palimpsest of its own constructed, as well as social and identity structure.
If, at least until the end of the nineteenth century, in the majority of European contexts of small-medium cities, their function was identified through the historic nuclei which have come down to us by means of transformations concentrated around the founding nucleus, from bi-millenary urban structures of Ancient Roman to medieval ones from the rebirth of commercial, and university cities and religious centres, starting from the twentieth century, but with pronounced acceleration over the last twenty years, we are seeing a use of the urban tool not dissimilar to what was done in terms of exploiting land resources (obviously not excluding the “space” resource) and of a diseconomy of transformation processes in the face of global dynamics of development strongly oriented by neo-liberalist drives and the preponderant evolution of new technologies, above all those of communication. On the other hand, the prominent mechanisms of yield and the lifestyles induced by the consumer models which have impacted the city certainly could not find in the transformative possibilities of historic centres sufficient critical mass able to withstand the impact. Beyond a series of nonetheless significant interventions to transform passages of historic fabric ‒ a phenomenon decidedly more prevalent within the north European rather than Italian context, the recent powerful expansion dynamic of cities has pretended the conquest of new territorial spaces, has projected itself opportunistically along the infrastructural arteries of the territory, and has involved and transformed villages and pre-existing rural situations in line with a standardizing urbanisation. In this match, the historical city’s traditional dialectic of construction for substitution through modification of pre-existing settlement devices, according to structures that renew themselves through the insertion of new components in place of others no longer suitable to support the variations in urban physiology, give way to the continuously additive and consuming situation of a city that replicates its own suburban nature, between the diseconomy of dilated spaces and the evanescence of the urban effect at a human scale. Hence the city not only tends to identify itself less and less with the historic centre, at least as a centrality of reference to be adopted in terms of concentration of services and representation of the urban community, but does not reproduce its rate of formal structure, of combinatory hierarchy, densification, complementarity and heterogeneity of its components that lie at the root of the very city concept. A phenomenon that only apparently seems to repropose itself in the parodist staging, in tune with genuine urban simulacra, in the locations found for shopping malls and outlet villages.
The two main attempts that have denoted the action of recovering the rôle of the value of use of the historic city in the recent past are the following:
1) after the Second World War, the re-construction of the city, and in particular of heavily damaged historic centres, assumed a decisive rôle since it was able to re-confer continuity of identity to the period following the trauma of the war, from all points of view, material no less than psychological, where the crisis of the idea of “nation” was compensated for by the community tradition of the urban institution;
2) starting from the end of the Sixties, there was an establishment of a denotative and identity value of historical heritage in the sense of a “cultural asset” to be extended, in addition to the circuit of socio-cultural belonging, into that of a touristic exploitation of places, where the historic centre is projected towards an economic museum rôle sooner than an urban one.
In the first case, the historic centre, while providing predominantly speculative occasions of a property variety, as in the rest of the city expanding due to the economic boom, would nonetheless be characterised by a greater rate of attention on the part of projects for extant fabric, fully aware of contributing to the delicate and complex dialectic of the historical city starting from the figurative/landscape datum. This is the phase in which the Italian context of architecture displays a renewed sensitivity, albeit not outwith the modernist milieu, where art and architecture, refined artisan interpretations and constructive rationality, urban character and spatial proportion seem perfectly second nature to the formal semantic scheme of the historical city: through figures such as Albini, Samonà, Gardella, Muratori, Ridolfi, Michelucci, Scarpa and the BBPR studio to mention but some of the personalities most involved in drawing up a history/modernity relationship as refined as it is congenial to the transformation of the extant, the confine between the inner suburbs of expanding cities and historical nuclei becomes faint in favour of a single project sensibility tending to imagine a still unitary dimension of the city, aside from the fact that the project is concentrated on the substitution of pieces of the historical fabric or on fresh neighbourhoods or sections of the city in the new suburbs. In emblematic terms, the famous short text by Ernesto Nathan Rogers from 1957 entitled “The problem of building in pre-existing surroundings” efficiently demonstrates the cultural sooner than methodological weight of a theme which, in those years, would seem to be decisively at the centre of architects’ attention. And as proof of the importance of the dialectic of the project that might be extracted from the morphogenesis of the monumental historic centre, we could cite not only the scientific and project forecasts of the Italian architects from the next generation, with Rossi, Aymonino and many others, but above all the scientific interest of international celebrities such as Robert Venturi with “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”, in reference to the propaedeutics of the historical architectural monument, or Colin Rowe with the reopening of the reasoning on complex urban forms in “Collage City”, thus confirming the generalizability of a potentiality of the historical palimpsest in a methodological/project key for the contemporary city.
In the second case we found ourselves faced by the theme of the value of the historical authenticity of urban nuclei, first and foremost those to be rebuilt but above all conserved as a testimony of the civil and cultural value of an urban context. Material conservation has frequently been transgressed by restoration – whether real or presumed – of the historical figurative nature and as in the precursory case, at least for Italy of the intervention on the historic centre of Bologna carried out from the Sixties by Pierluigi Cervellati, of a historical denotation as an absolute factor of regeneration of the fabric of the city’s central nucleus.
The limit of this development strategy, beyond certain guarantees of recovering minor architectural elements and the reintroduction of the population into the historical fabric, was that of making the city centre impermeable to elements indicative of contemporary sensibilities, thus governing the future of the historical urban landscape through exclusion rather than a dialectic interpretation of the components that make it up, as has always been agreeable to its nature. What follows is a morphological figurative homogeneity in certain respects unnatural, paradoxically timeless, but also the gradual functional impoverishment of a centre which in its immobility is not able to interpret the evolutive needs of urban services, above all of an administrative, tertiary, or commercial type progressively heading towards a peripheral condition of centrality with respect to new functional attractors and condensers of the hinterland settlement, analogous to the American city, the due differences having been taken into account. Clearly this result finds immediate correspondence with the expectations of mass tourism whose economic spin-off does not always compensate for the impact of socio-cultural impoverishment of the historic centre and the iconic standardisation of it.
In general, coming back to today, the importance of exchanges and the dynamics of territorial use do not allow historical centres to interpret a total recovery of their own rôle, and there is the risk of that inexorably ingenuous alternative behaviour of nostalgia for a not-well-identified “traditional city” or “beautiful city” which hearsay would have proposed by the historical visionaries, from Leon Krier to Marco Romano. If anything the historical centre turns out to be a fundamental component in the process of regaining the instrumental value of the city as a whole, including everything already built and which we emphasize through a physical/morphological continuity between historical suburb and the latest generation of extreme suburb. The relaunching of the historic centre’s involvement, the real authenticity of its contribution, then lies in this open consideration, both as regards the city which surrounds it and with which it must find reasons for formal and functional exchange and reciprocity, and towards itself, as an artefact that is unquestionably complex and stratified but unfinished, as the work of man it takes part is not either, in the urban matter in hand, a plethora of individualities and forms of collective representation in continuous evolution over time.
The Project Theme: a gate for the University Campus in Parma’s Oltretorrente district
The theme of the workshop’s project experimentation finds expression above all within a heavily characteristic area of Parma: that of the Oltretorrente, the part of the city that extends, after the ancient Roman settlement to the east, on the west bank of the Parma torrent. The Via Emilia is the historic axis that brings continuity and settlement regularity to this part of the city which has constantly grown ‒ but in particular from the fourteenth-century phase ‒ as a large suburb devoted to production activities and services with respect to the city of civic and religious representation of the eastern part.
The triangular-shaped urban sector delimited by the Via Emilia/Via D’Azeglio to the south, by Via Kennedy and the Parco Ducale to the north, by the torrent to the east, sees its western vertex conclude in front of the roundabout that acts as hub to the city’s internal ring road system, created at the beginning of the Twentieth Century on the foundations of the demolished city walls.
Both the popular and production tradition of this historical part, at least until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, and the more recent one of the presence of the University, have contributed to characterising this piece of city from the point of view of its heterogeneity and the social mobility of its inhabitants ‒ of whom many are students away from home and recent generation immigrants ‒ by the liveliness of its daytime and night life, and due to the presence of initiatives by the cultural and youth worlds. It is no coincidence that the city’s main public library lies in this sector, along with many cultural associations of a different nature and make-up, while even the commercial presence and the recreational facilities reflect an unconventional climate.
In the complex divisions of the morphology of its sites the area mainly features residential and service components above all connected with the university, housed in settlements from various epochs right up to today. Departments linked to classical studies, ancient and modern literature, art and show business but also economics. Last but not least the seat of the post-graduate school, the European College of Parma.
Another fundamental characterising component is that of the historical Ospedale Vecchio building (the Old Hospital), begun in the XV century and continually developed until the end of the nineteenth century. A grand layout in the form of a cross with courtyards, whose bulk far exceeds the volumetric average of the buildings in the inhabited fabric, and whose redevelopment envisages a reinstatement of the civic library to be supplemented by cultural and service functions for the city, not the last being exhibition spaces and university facilities.
In this complex context (please see the attached information), amongst the many themes open and available for project interventions emerges that of the head of the triangular urban sector overlooking the Piazzale Santa Croce interchange, so-called in relation to the terminal element of the southern portion of the Via Emilia/D’Azeglio constituted by the Romanesque parish church of Santa Croce. A site which, at the moment, has no functional or visual characterisation and which seems devoid of a relationship with the piazza in front, the Via Emilia/D’Azeglio system, and the university buildings lying behind.
In reality at that urban point converges a system of distribution spaces interstitial to the buildings of the university complex, among various pavilions, the former San Francesco da Paola monastery, the Ospedale Vecchio itself and the new Economics lecture rooms, able to grant them high potential in terms of representation and diaphragmatic significance between historical urban reality and inner suburb as well as between university city and ring road city.
The typological suggestions that might help us interpret the sense of this new element to be designed, capable of freeing extraordinary settlement energies to date never perceived, are very many and mutually contaminable. It is necessary to imagine an “embouchure” or “head” as we might say of an “urban quarter”; a “gate” that leads into a settlement complex which evolves according to an articulate linearity by means of interstitial routes with complementary spaces and volumes; a “storehouse” where can be imagined logistics, exchange, ingoing and outgoing representation of the university complex; the “pavilion” that assumes a settlement lying at the back heavily characterised by the types of pavilion that once sprouted along the edge of the park; the “xenodochium” which, in allusion to the parish church of Santa Croce lying alongside, reproduces that sentiment of welcoming and protection of the university community on the Via Emilia, in particular those members of it coming from outside. The theme and the site that feed the interpretation of the project would summon further suggestions, according to other marriages and analogies of sense that might help in feeding the identity profile of this new head component, however it is up to each individual to interpret this from their own readings of the project at the workshop.
Functions expected to be found through the project intervention would include spaces for secretaries – reception – information; student services and representatives; an Aula Magna; a hostel for researchers; a cafeteria and other public spaces for socializing and to link the university and the city.