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Designing Centrality, Regenerating the Suburbs

Editorial: Designing the City

The idea of this edition emerged from the theme dealt with in the second European Design Workshop for IP Erasmus, Compact City Architecture, that took place in Parma from 19 September to 4 October 2013 involving design lecturers from five European universities; Carlo Quintelli, Università degli Studi di Parma, Facoltà di Architettura; Ondrej Cisler, Czech Technical University of Prague, Faculty of Architecture; Aykut Karaman, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Istanbul, Faculty of Architecture; Susan Dunne, Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture de Nantes; Gesine Weinmiller, Hafencity Universitat Hamburg - Faculty of Architecture.

After a first edition intent on tackling the theme of the urban Campus in Parma’s Oltretorrente neighbourhood -which saw an encounter between lecturers from different European schools such as Eduard Bru,Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona; Uwe Schröder, RWTH, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule of Aachen – Fakultät für Architektur; Manuel Iñiguez & Alberto Ustarroz, Universidad del Pais Vasco – Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Donostia-San Sebastian; Piotr Gajewski, Politechnika Krakowska, Wydział Architektury - this second edition dealt with the theme of regenerating the suburbs by building new centralities.

Implying certain basic aspects that can be assumed as premises in the crisis of cities as communities of inhabitants: the decline of the historic centre, the “heart of the city” and the dearth of urban centralities in the suburbs.

Two questions that alternated over the course of the second half of the twentieth century (starting from the CIAM VIII, The Heart of the City, to the debate on the suburbs at the end of the century) discharging from time to time the problem of the construction of the city in specific aspects (the historic centre; mono-functional suburbs; administrative decentring) without ever considering its general and relational structure (internal and external).

This is described by Guido Canella in the opening article of FAmagazine, republished by kind concession of the heirs of Guido Canella, and originally published as an editorial for issue 13 of the magazine «Zodiac» (1995) entirely devoted to the suburbs and their relationship with the city and the surrounding territory. A relationship, the latter, of fundamental importance and identified as a constant in the conspicuous theoretical and design output of Canella who, as an architect (like Quaroni) looked to the city underlining the limit of a technical and particularistic approach of so-called “gowned” town planners and contrasting this with the attitude of so-called “city engineers” of a polytechnic, and particularly Milanese, stamp.

However, Canella, indirectly, also gives us the most extraordinary definition of the city: “a living body, in a deeply-rooted breath emanated by genetic, physiological dotation onto the territory; and hence (…) it [the city], beyond any appearance, possesses a hidden structure — structure and superstructure, as was once said —: a bona fide skeleton durable over time in support, as far as it can, of cartilage and connective tissues; and only starting from this skeleton can it be regulated to remain coherent with its own role in the development and contraction, transformation and conservation of its unity.” Such that, in his writings, “the diffusion of the centre” indicates a necessary search for the essence of the city not only within its administrative confines, but in its broader and more articulate relations with other cities and the surrounding territory in a regime of mutual exchange that is determinant for the city itself.

It can be deduced that understanding the urban phenomenon in all its varying aspects within a specific historical framework (also contemporary) is of fundamental importance to design its architectural and/or urban parts in the name of a rediscovered reciprocity between architecture and city, a condition, the latter, whose absence lies at the base of the crisis (of relations, spaces, but also image) of the contemporary city which is built without reference models of settlement expressions. This means, according to Carlo Quintelli, the author of the second article, having gone “beyond the city”, “beyond its space and beyond its sense”: this needs to be countered by a “return to the city” through recovery of an “authentic urban project quality that can be initiated through a city subject that designs its own body (form) and its own role (function) with awareness of its own physiology (relationships), where the individualities are integrated in a unitary, structured, evolutionary procedure, only insofar as urban”.

In concert with these two positions I was drawn, in my article, to consider the suburbs as a major opportunity for the regeneration of the entire contemporary city. “If we hypothesize (…) that we can interact in the capacity of choosing “reference centres” or “dominant centres” for the suburbs, we can see that the project [for new suburban centralities] results in characterisation of space in the creation of new places through works of architecture that are figuratively important, typologically complex and functionally articulate”. In so doing, we could simultaneously resolve, if not all, at least some of the problems which currently afflict the city suburbs, such as the formal indifference, the characterisation of space (independently of its density), the lack of services and the consequent gravitation towards other centres outside, plus recognition of the community in the place it inhabits.

Rounding off the first three essays in the magazine, which analyse the phenomenon of the contemporary city in the light of obvious contradictions, giving indications of directions to design its future, another two essays by Ondrej Cisler and Susan Dunne, present as many ways to intervene in the city as there are different cultural and theoretical positions. While the diagnostic framework is commonly shared among the various positions - the crisis of the contemporary city - the proposed cure can differ: from within and at a small scale more similar to urban micro-surgery that of Cisler, and from the outside and at a larger scale more similar to settlement macro-physiology that of Dunne.

Ondrej Cisler makes use of a minimalist approach in which the intervention albeit small and measured, like Archimedes’ lever, can multiply its effect in the city thanks to a hierarchical, topographical and functional reading able to identify the exact point to locate the fulcrum. And with an almost deterministic action writes: “We need to change entire cities, but as architects, like in acupuncture, we can only stimulate the crucial points and the rest will head in the right direction on its own”.

Despite the unconditional faith, not so much in architecture as in the effects it can provoke in the urban system, one approach worth underlining seeks to hold together the various scales of the design intervention, from the urban one represented by the Rome of Nolli, to that of the architecture of the single element in the city, represented by the project for the fountains in Pilsen’s Republic Square.

Meanwhile, Susan Dunne demonstrates, through the example of the Changing Cities workshop, that the form of the diffuse city inasmuch non-conventional, requires analogous non-conventional tools and approaches, while maintaining that “The informal nature of the diffuse city’s spatial and social structures are not only to be sought in low density suburbs or marginal developments, but are visible in many urban centres, where emigration from the centre of the city has created cities that are inhomogeneous during the day and ghost-towns during the night”. Against the forms of social dispersion of the urban centre and the formal dispersion of the suburbs, Dunne urges greater understanding of the notions of public space, scale, diversity and flexibility in contemporary cities: e.g. the projects presented (but it would be more correct to speak of project ideas or better still programmes) which, although developed by students, are the fruit of a wide-ranging approach, reciprocated and shared by the various players: disciplinarily the progeny of Architecture, Town Planning and Sociology.

The last article, finally, delineates in the panorama of social housing schemes in the European city and through a critical analysis of concrete cases of transformation of these, the concrete possibility of modernising the city of the 21st century. Asking ourselves, rhetorically, “whether mass housing estates now constitute recognizable urban facts and if they could become ordering poles with their own settlement specificity, virtually new urban centres for the chaotic territories of the suburbs”, Valter Balducci introduces the question of the “morphology” and “urban design” of those city parts that are well identifiable (starting from the project), that represent the last bastions of a tradition of a vast finished design that has dissipated to be replaced by solitary and self-referential interventions. The aspect of recognizability inevitably leads to that of city planning and the consequent responsibility inherent to the role of the architect in giving concrete form to needs: a design that can bring “figure and expression of form to the city” as Quaroni said.

Thus we might wonder whether urban prefiguration is still possible, or whether this is not in contrast with the Axiom of Incompleteness of the city that Derrida identifies as a necessary opening up towards its continuous transformation.

Who designs the city? Is the question Guido Canella asked himself (Zodiac, no. 5-1991) allowing the filtering through of the uncertainty and confusion in the attribution of roles and responsibilities that characterized the decisional processes of the city in the early nineties and which, mutatis mutandis, still characterize the city today a quarter of a century later. Many, perhaps too many figures, who often overstep their respective roles in the name of a no longer clear alliance between powers (political, economic, social and so forth) and who act in their own specific interest instead of the collective interest of city inhabitants.

In the difficulty of giving an unequivocal answer, (administrators? investors? architects? town planners?) we can if in no other way reformulate the question by turning the problem upside down, taking on as architects a responsibility that is none but ours. To what extent do architects affect the design of a city?

Little, if they relegate their role to mere executors of the ideas of others, which are the fruit of the particularistic interests of the many players involved. A great deal, if they know how to regain a propositional role as interpreters of concrete needs coherently steering the development within the logic of their own identities.

Enrico Prandi

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