Scegli la Lingua

Festival dell'architettura

You are in: Home page > Magazine Archive > The indifference of the suburbs

Enrico Prandi

The indifference of the suburbs

New centralities and sense of place

The indifference of the contemporary suburbs and the threshold territories - ZOOM

The indifference of the contemporary suburbs and the threshold territories


It is time to speak of the suburbs again. Not only and not so much because fragmentation of the urban centre into a multitude of external “centres” (substitutes rather than alternatives), has determined a crisis in historic urbanism ‒ which is what divided the city into spaces that were functionally and figuratively different ‒ but because suburban areas, invested with the creation of new urbanity, must also assume the responsibility to shape and give sense to the city by defining its outer limit.

Interventions in the suburbs must be the starting point for a return to the city: regenerated, sustainable, functional, spatially dense, and compact.

Historical time and current economic conditions demand a profound disciplinary reflection from those people who, working in relation to the specific needs of the city and not through sterile, abstract and self-referential forms, see project research as intimately related to contextual conditions.

Never as in our own times has it been necessary to rethink the approach to a city project in order to rationalize its use and optimize interventions on it. Interventions which in turn appear increasingly circumscribed and affected by the economy and more attentive to the dynamics of change in the city (cultural, social, economic, etc. ) and above all more effective, also from the point of view of availability over time.

The architectural project (and the architect) have never been asked for so much capacity to reverberate effects long distance, in terms of the ratio between intervention (necessarily localized and of quality) and with an ability to induce positive urban effects in the use of a given space (an aspect, the latter, which decrees the true success of a project intervention). For architecture this is a new revolution in the name of Mies’ “less is more”, understood not in terms of figuration but in the efficiency (or effectiveness) of the architectural product.

In the past a project approach that was overly constrained by the architectonic object put those who, like ourselves, operated as architects with a general design of the city, in the face of an urban transmutation whose consequence was an inability to see the city shaped around itself and its own contextual characteristics. In expanding, the city evaded control of its morphological structure, the formal definition of its architectural parts (small or large) giving birth to the disorder of the contemporary city.

Starting again

In this condition, a general approach to the city becomes vital; a "design" that can restore "figure and expression to the shape of the city itself" (Quaroni 1967). In the current complexity it is necessary to carry out a "stripping of factors" in the face of the multitude of elements that affect the use of the contemporary city and its spaces (from cultural to migratory processes, from gentrifying phenomena to economic mutations).

From the 1950s to today, if on the one hand cities have grown more than necessary the size of European cities has expanded by 78% compared with an increase in population of 33% (EEA, 2006) on the other this has been carried out in the wrong way. For the most part cities have expanded horizontally through low density settlements feeding the phenomenon of urban sprawl that works against every principle of rationalization and against the very founding principles of the urbs, favouring damage to and fragmentation of the landscape asset (EEA, 2011).

Along with the urgent need to limit as much as possible the expansion of the city outwards, to protect and safeguard natural/fertile territories and landscapes as a cultural asset (CEP, 2000), there is that of redefining its outer edge, limit or threshold, so that it becomes recognizable as part of the resolved city, as a "figure and expression of form".

Much of the architectural literature of the last few years has in fact been dedicated to a study of spaces of interpenetration between city and countryside, between rarefied urbanization and agricultural cultivation, of fringe spaces, of spaces of result and abandonment, defined from time to time by different terms (In-between, third landscape, abandoned terrain) but mainly due to the same taxonomic category: that of spaces that are not directly identified but can be determined by subtraction with respect to other types. Spaces pampered by formal accidents, by infrastructural ganglia, eccentric and decentralized spaces that are difficult to reach, spaces awaiting a definition of identity which at least until the end of the last century scholars of architecture did not deal with.

The contemporary approach to the design of the city must adopt new expansion strategies referring to the interior areas, densifying existing fabric, intervening as much as possible in those spaces available for renewal (urban voids or unresolved areas, derelict areas, infrastructure spaces), by means of projects that are “sustainable” at different scales (from that of the city to individual buildings).

If this can be minimally addressed in the case of compact urban centres and those of the historical suburbs, in which for the most part operation is through architectural microsurgery to replace or re-use containers made available by progressive disposals, it is in the suburbs that the project assumes a strategic value of regeneration for the city as a whole.

Starting again from the suburbs

“Starting again from the suburbs” could be the motto of future project interventions that are to be inserted in a suburban system in which many of the boundary conditions have changed, and in primis the relationship itself with the city.

Contrary to certain theoretical positions that would like the term “suburbs” to no longer apply to contemporary settlement systems (Ciorra, 2010), we assume the suburbs for the historical-cultural value they have had in the development of the modern city, and for the decisive role that they could have in that of the contemporary city.

There is no doubt that today the suburbs are no longer the same as at the beginning of the Twentieth Century; those of the pictures of Sironi and the stories of Testori, which have suffered in the meantime a historical process of sedimentation in the fabric that has characterized them; but neither those of the post-war period, which marked the expansion of the city in the form of housing estates under the thrust of reconstruction, firstly, and the economic miracle, later, amply documented by the stories of Pasolini, Rosi, Rossellini, and Antonioni.

The contemporary suburbs are still definable as territories without a model (Solà-Morales 1991 and 1995), in which the sense of place has disappeared because of the discontinuity of forms built, and where there is a predominance of emptiness over fullness. However, the most striking feature is the formal indifference that afflicts not so much the single architectonic object as the space that these objects constitute; namely, the suburban landscape.

The formal indifference of the suburbs constitutes the theatre representing the drifting of the contemporary city.

Men of letters and photographers have created a privileged field of investigation reporting, often in an amplified form, the confused and paradoxical urban conditions of the suburbs: an example of this is the literary tale of a territory populated by “geometrile” houses (Celati, 1988) and by villulas (Gadda, 1963), or the photographic evidence of a marked realism which becomes a Dewey-like experience, in the work of Gabriele Basilico - from the experience of places to Scattered City - (Basilico, 1995 and 2005), or again in the patinated and melancholy atmospheres of the Po valley suburbs immortalized by Luigi Ghirri.

The suburbs are certainly a concept that can be defined according to a "relationship of rapport" with the city (there would be no suburbs without a centre).

In the progressive typological and morphological difference between a historical nucleus and its subsequent aggregates historical suburbs and contemporary suburbs have been built the identification between suburbs and speculation, suburbs and infrastructure, suburbs and residential mono-functionality, suburbs and low urban quality.

But the centre-suburbs dialectic has altered over time, until the real establishment of a crisis in the relationship, through the occurrence of new conceptual definitions of modern settlement situations such as the city-territory, the metropolitan city, urban sprawl, and so forth.

"The suburbs today more than being a condition of urban geography are rather a problem of the relationship with the loss of the centre. Urban centres are losing quality, capable of defining the identity of a city, which until now they had characterized." (Donald, 2006).

The recent phenomenon of the "suburbanization of the centre" is added to another, the cause or effect of the former: spatially, distance (closeness or remoteness) has become a concept at the same time ephemeral and discriminatory. It is no longer certain what the contemporary suburbs are far from, in their free choice of "reference centres" independent of physical distance but dependent on the temporal distance to reach them.

The dialectic that is established is the same as that between the centre and the suburbs. What changes instead is the identification of the centre; no longer the historical centre of the city which the suburbs have always been linked to since their birth, but the new "dominant" centres of the twenty-first century (as Sedlmayr has put it ): shopping malls, leisure and entertainment centres, multiplex cinemas, and so on.

We remain convinced that the suburban space is an opportunity for both the architectural project and the contemporary city.

Although almost a quarter of a century has passed, many of the concepts discussed in the experiment conducted at the ETSA in Barcelona on the suburbs , appear to be still of fundamental importance. In the volume that contains the results, Solà-Morales introduced the work emphasizing the positivity of operating through projects in suburbs seen as an active territory of the contemporary city.

" From Palladio to Taut, Garnier or Wright, new architectural territories were imagined at the margins of the established city. The suburban areas, encouraged only by discontinuous references of compact urbanism but suggestive especially of the not-yet-made, have been, for their flexibility, a place for the invention of urban types and forms. In European cities the symbolic and conventional power of traditional centres has reduced the imagination of other urban fabrics in recent years. Typological thinking and the objective vision of architectural building its complementary paradox – renounces an understanding of the blend of infrastructure and voids, of mass services and small dwellings, of mobility and privacy, as a figurative terrain for more contemporary urban forms." (Solà-Morales, 1995).

A void to be designed

We have mentioned before the fact that the suburbs are characterized by an extended spatiality in which the void condition is predominant. An accidental void, not thought out and organized with respect to a specific role, in which the project may intervene to attribute a character of identity to the space making it become a liveable and lived-in place.

If we assume that we can still interact in the capacity of choice of "reference centres" or "dominant centres" of the suburbs, we can ensure that the project operates on the characterization of the space in the creation of new places through works of architecture that are notionally important, typologically complex, and functionally articulate.

In so doing, many of the functions which today are often lacking in the suburban areas of our cities, could find localization in a "central architecture" and a set of this in the city system to constitute a polycentric suburban system of organisms recognizable and recognized by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and the city as a whole, as foundational of urbanism, and therefore as authentic monuments to the suburbs.


Basilico, G., (1995), L’esperienza dei luoghi. Fotografie (1978-1993), Udine

Basilico, G., (2005), Scattered City, Dalai, Milano.

Bucci, F., (2003) a cura di, Periferie e nuove urbanità, Electa, Milano

Celati, G., (1988), Verso la foce, Feltrinelli, Milano

CEP, (2000), Convenzione Europea del Paesaggio, CETS N. 176, Firenze, 20/10/2000

Ciorra, P., (2010), La fine delle periferie, in Enciclopedia Italiana. XXI Secolo. Gli spazi e le arti, Treccani, Milano

EEA, (2006), Urban sprawl in Europe, The ignored challenge, EEA (European Environment Agency) Report No 10/2006, Bruxelles.

EEA, (2011), Landscape fragmentation in Europe, EEA Report 2/2011, Bruxelles.

Gadda, C.E., (1963), La cognizione del dolore, Einaudi, Torino

Quaroni, L., (1967), La torre di Babele, Marsilio Venezia

Solà-Morales, M., (1995) Dal programma del Laboratorio d’Urbanismo “Projectar la perifèria”, Barcellona 1991, cit. in Solà-Morales, M., Territori privi di modello, in AA.VV., Il Centro altrove. Periferie e nuove centralità nelle aree metropolitane, Electa Milano

Enrico Prandi, architect, and Phd in Architectural Composition and Urban at the IUAV, since 2006 has been a Researcher at the DICATeA - Department of Engineering and Architecture at the University of Parma, Italy.

Mario Sironi, Periferia. 1922 - ZOOM

Mario Sironi, Periferia. 1922