Territories of Urbanism


concepts of urbanists,conceptual shifts,elementary landscapes,epfl press,paola vigano,phantom of porosity,rethinking urbanism,territories of urbanism,urbanistsIn past years, with the terms descriptive, representative, or demonstrative project, I have attempted to indicate three main families of positions, whose presence I could recognize inside a wide-ranging debate (VIGANÒ 1994). These families made reference to three fundamental project dimensions, three unavoidable and omnipresent dimensions whose intensity, however, can vary remarkably in different moments, and from project to project: the descriptive, representative and demonstrative dimensions. At the start of the 1990s, the debate was mostly skewed towards the first two.

The projects in which the descriptive dimension seemed to prevail over the others were characterized by the return and continuation of a contextual position that focused not only on the form of the territory and its stratification, but also on the new forms of contemporary existence. The attempt to define new images and models of reference more pertinent to contemporary space was contained in the projects with a strong representative dimension. In both families – descriptive and representative – the contemporary city, with its constituent materials, structural and symbolic characteristics, began to present itself as the main object of design research.

In the first family that, for the sake of brevity, I am calling descriptive project, I put the research that set out to shed light on the aspects of minimal rationality of contemporary space by describing them; these projects constituted a reaction against the prevailing interpretation of the territory as chaotic, without rules. In the second family, representative project, I put projects that attempted to represent these characteristics and transpose them into a model (the Patchwork Metropolis of Neutelings, for example, or the praise of congestion of Koolhaas). The enthusiasm and wonder that accompanied the discovery of the contemporary city in those years pushed aside the third dimension, that of demonstration, to the edge of the research.

What I intend to assert is precisely the resurfacing of the design’s demonstrative dimension and therefore the return to the foreground and the advance of the need to reconceptualize the design of the city and the territory since the last major demonstrative project of modern urbanism. Nevertheless, the social, cultural and economic context within which the project can hope to position itself, and which it can contribute to define, is profoundly different even from that of the recent past.

In the mid-1980s, the thinking in the disciplinary field of urbanism rotated around the idea that design tools had to be rethought – on different scales. The question of a new form of plan, the relationship between plan and project, fed a long, laborious discussion, producing innovations, reinterpretations, and certain exemplary cases that attempted to re-establish the practice of urbanism. In the meantime something had changed in the city, but not until the 1990s did the focus shift from the renewal of the practices to the identification and construction of a new object of research: the contemporary city.

22_networked_urbanism_01.jpgAt first its space seems chaotic, lacking in comprehensible relations, entirely in need of being revealed and redefined. It becomes urgent to develop new keys of interpretation, updated conceptual tools. The definitive exit from the city of industrial modernity, as the background for the slow emergence of a shared level of performance, forced rethinking of the project of Western urbanism – a project that had become implicit – often pursued in an acritical, unconscious way. Many of the concepts behind the modern city seemed to dissolve, touching on materials of a different nature or becoming more radical at the same time. This process has interested all the fundamental categories of the industrial society in which and for which that project had taken form. The concepts of linear progress, of a society based on class, gender, lifestyle, the role of the family (the radicalization of the social role of the family in the economics of widespread small businesses, for example) enter into conflict with an increasing thrust towards individualization. I can recognize at least three major areas of conceptual breakdown.

The functional breakdown, or the uncertain margin. In the contemporary territory zoning, the idea of functional separation has adapted to forceful hybrids and complexities. The profoundly modern conceptualization of the city by zones (MANCUSO 1978), which was initially separated from a social standpoint and then from a functional standpoint, is superimposed on an evolutionary interpretation of urban space, becoming a composite. The city as organism, or as accomplished artwork, which has been completed, is being completed with, to be expanded. The completeness of the city is taken as an objective to be achieved in time and with time. The critique of zoning is widespread and shared in these decades, and in Italy since the 1950s the effort has emerged to introduce different conceptualizations, closer to real processes. The writings of Giancarlo De Carlo in those years are among the most vigorous examples and interpretations (DE CARLO 1964).

978-2-94022-289-6.pngIn many more recent projects, the attempt to get beyond the great metaphor of the “functional city”, the city as a machine composed  of separate parts with different connotations, has moved in a few main directions. The first direction overlays areas marked by different functional programs; it theorizes the possible coexistence of functionally and formally heterogeneous parts within complex portions of the city (as in the plan of the airport city in Seoul by Rem Koolhaas, and the recently completed project of OMA for the center of Almere). The move is that of the overlaying of distinct functions, in some cases in a literal, formulaic way, as in the “stacked urbanism” of MVRDV, in others through the juxtaposition of multiple programs in the same place, with the hypothesis that many simple functions (a reminder of the pure functions of which Le Corbusier spoke in the Ville Radieuse) can share the same space.

The second direction of research counters the zone with the situation, defining it in terms of spatial configuration identified by a specific pattern. Upon close observation, the Patchwork Metropolis of Willem Jan Neutelings (NEUTELINGS 1990) is composed of various situations, each of which is constructed up against a specific space: for example, living in the woods along a highway, or living around a lake on a golf course. The intentional use of paradox, of unusual juxtaposition, or of the surreal situation, plays the rhetorical role of demonstrating that inhabitable space can be very different from what is communicated through the concept of the “residential zone”. In this second case, the close relationship between construction of the landscape and inhabitable space also seems fundamental: the two processes of modification happen in the same moment and enhance each other, producing a new condition.

The third direction of research replaces the logic of functional separation with the hypothesis that the design of the city can be defined by overlapping different systems, each of which responds to different logics and criteria of functioning, as in the plan of Bergamo by Bernardo Secchi and in some of the experiences we have conducted together after that. Each system contains specific rules of settlement and performance in relation to a variegated set of structural models. There are network structures, or sponge structures, when continuity is inevitable or necessary (as in the case of environmental systems or those of mobility); and topological structures, for example in the case of a system of central places where a structure of relations is suggested that is not necessarily based on continuity or on spatial contiguity. The different functional programs can mix and combine in relation to the performance expected of each place, and this is inevitably connected with reflections on the role and identity of each part of the city and the territory.

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Excerpt from Territories of Urbanism
By Paola Viganò translated from Italian by Stephen Piccolo
Published by Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes (PPUR)

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