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Diary of a Planner by Bernardo Secchi | Planum 2002-2013

Diary 11 | The form of the city

by Bernardo Secchi

 Italian Version

To speak of the form of the city and the territory today is anathema. Perhaps we can refer to it in the past tense but certainly not as a contemporary problem. If someone does speak of the form of the city, he or she is immediately regarded with suspicion as someone who deals with the irrelevant.

This is really quite strange. It is not at all scandalous when we speak of literary or musical form, of social, juridical or institutional form, of enterprise and market forms, of visible and invisible form. And we recognize the utility of these categories. It is true that the term "form," in each of these connotations, is used in ways that can be interpreted very differently. In an important essay a few years ago, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz underlined how the polysemic character of the term might be defined by the terms used to oppose it: content, material, object, and issues. To extricate himself from the labyrinth of the polysemic, Tatarkiewicz sought to classify the different ideas of form according to at least five fundamental concepts, each of which defined according to certain variants and each of which with a long and substantial history behind it - the history of a term and of five concepts, obviously of great importance for architecture and urbanism.

If I do raise the question it is because it seems to me that, today, the form of the city is at the heart of a dispute which no one wants to discuss, perhaps because of the many misunderstandings surrounding the term and the very idea of the form of the city.
However, when we study the writings, journals, the architecture schools but especially the cities - the projects of city and for the city that are planned and realized - we cannot help but feel an embarrassing sense of déjà-vu. When carefully analyzed, in most cases they seem (with few exceptions) to be compositions of materials explored in other situations and places. Innovation and break with tradition are rare and immediately absorbed, even in non-western countries, into the new koinè of contemporary architecture and urbanism; perhaps more into architecture than urbanism and this very fact concerns the dispute to which I am referring.
Naturally, it is difficult to prove an affirmation of this kind, nor do I want to; and the opposite affirmation would meet just as many difficulties. For this reason, I have spoken of a feeling which, if shared, might result in some interesting ideas. Perhaps contemporary architecture and urbanism are slowly and laboriously finding a stable discursive universe of their own: a thematic concentration, a homogeneous set of positions regarding each point which defines a shared positivity, a vocabulary, a grammar and a syntax.
This is no small matter. The history of the architecture of the city is made up of long periods in which architects and urbanists have worked with small lapses and continuous improvements, with sudden condensations and rarefactions regarding few shared issues, by facing them with the same vocabulary, grammar and syntax. This is what allows us to divide history into periods. Texts, very different one from the other, have been written with those vocabularies, grammars and syntax; they are the monuments to our literary and urban history having faced the specific issues of each epoch, in the end depleting their own abilities and thus resulting in new discursive universes. It is not every day that we are able to witness the ruptures produced by the avant-garde, especially when, like today, a tradition of oppression from which it is necessary to break violently and radically no longer appears distinguishable.
However today's search for a stable discursive universe unfolds, at least for now, along two lines that are fundamentally contrasting in terms of their main underlying hypotheses.
Mine is a simplification. Reality is always much more complex that what academics believe and it is easy to find points in which the two directions intersect. But perhaps simplification can us help frame the question, more precisely the one concerning the form of the city, which, in my opinion, can no longer be kept at a distance.

If I had to outline very synthetically the major issues, the largely shared positions, the vocabularies, grammars and syntax of the first among these two directions, I would refer, in the first place, to the new and increased attention being given to certain aspects of the project for the land: a conceptual and operational place where the topographical character of the contemporary project takes form. This is not as much in reference to how it extends on physical, social and symbolic topography, on the map of the social practices without doing violence, as much as to the rediscovery or invention of a new topography upon which those practices are represented.

In the history of the European city, the project for the land has always been an open one that encompasses different scales and is never reduced to the mere ordering of unbuilt space. It is a project that continuously reconsiders old and new urban materials, continuously building new vocabularies, new grammars and syntax through with which to express new spatial conceptions. All of this is in radical opposition to the project for the land in the modern city and especially its more reductive and technical versions, but it reinterprets traditions and older myths like some Modern Movement experiences. In this direction, the architecture of the contemporary city is an image of an open society, where more and more is public, and seems to refuse enclosure and barrier, rigid functional subdivisions and role, imagining a fluid space traversing the dimensions of land and buildings.
In the second place, I would say that what characterizes this first set of projects is a convinced acceptance of the fragmentary character of the contemporary city; the refusal to impose upon the city, in ideological terms, a principle of order based on continuity, regularity and uniformity. These are figures that modernity has long pursued, but which have found great resistance within practices of social interaction and within the same dominant groups, as well as within the over-determined character of every urban process. Increased attention to the fragment allows these projects to rewrite the history of the European city and discover its perennial discontinuous and fragmentary character. The fragment, as the image of a society marked by multiplicity and pluralism, is not contradictory to the construction of a coherent discursive universe. The same rules of discourse can bend and take upon a different coloration in different situations; the local bending of the discursive rule is, in truth, one of the primary ways of underlining the specificity of place, of situation, of a constellation of actors.
Thirdly, I would say that these same projects are characterized by a new wealth of materials. Often emphasized and fine tuned in extreme experiences in other fields, the new materials can enrich an urban language which is ever more dominated by lightness, transparency and thinness. Image of ways of life that can distribute the different elementary operations within the space and time of the city in ways that are distinct from the traditional ones, contemporary architecture and urbanism seek to move and to reinterpret the divisions between interior and exterior, between closed and open, between private and public in different ways from the past.
The new relationship with material is often underlined, and this is the fourth aspect, by a different relationship with nature. Hidden and "moralized" by the modern city, constrained within the rigid geometries of its networks, its malls and boulevards or within those unnatural, but fantastic, public gardens, nature, with its own forms, becomes an ordering element for many urban projects. In making architecture for the city, it poses problems and solutions, suggesting the use of original materials; it creates connections, patterns and mosaics within which the different fragments of the city are placed; it inspires the project for the land.

There is a second set of projects. Perhaps more numerous, it pursues an equally strong hypothesis. It considers the 18th century city as the highest expression, the point of arrival, of European urban culture and, from this point, attempts to write an alternative history of the 19th century - in other words, what the 19th, and consequently the 20th, century could have become had they been more "illuminated."
The urban block, "moralized" and more open, is placed at the center of design thinking and becomes the fundamental material for urban compositions, with avenues, boulevards and street corridors revisited within an urban grid which - by creating it own critical points and denying all over -determination of the process of urban construction - attempts to reestablish a meaningful hierarchy for urban space; a hierarchy that reveals an interrupted story, but which also conceals difference and conflict.
There is obviously something interesting in the idea that the 19th century is considered a parenthesis, an abrupt standstill in, if not a deviation from, the history of the European city. There is the fascination with a continuity which extends for long periods, in an attempt to give meaning to history, to find an identity with its very roots in a distant past. There is the idea of the autonomy of urban and architectural form, of their ineluctable history that cannot be betrayed, of the task of improving existing situations through minimal action rather than total reinvention. All of this is reassuring; the new always makes us uneasy.
In the European city, for instance, the identity of a culture is represented in its vocabulary, grammar and syntax, in its morphology. Its story is represented in the issues which have been faced time and time again though the use of those vocabularies, grammar and syntax and their modifications. An identity and a history that are autonomous with regard to society's cyclical movements, in which the same society is represented in conceptual ways rather than as an immediate correspondences devoid of mediation; an identity and a history that finally allow us to recognize the temporal stability of the founding elements of urban form.
What appears less convincing to me in this second group of contemporary projects is the underlying image of society and the processes of construction of the city - a society generally interpreted as mass society made up of large homogeneous aggregations in their habitus; processes of construction of the city that we believe to know how to regulate and to control in terms of both details and in time. What appears overly simplistic is the refusal to accept the challenges posed by difference in physical and social space. It is the moralizing attitude which worries me, even if it contrasts the alienation and possible compromising lapses of the first group.

However, aside from my worries and preferences, it seems to me that these two great sets of urban projects represent different positions based upon clearly recognizable hypotheses (at least in their "more noble" versions) especially regarding the form of the city; and above all the form of the city with which they express their commitment towards society.
This is especially clear if we not only refer to the meaning of form as it is most frequently found in the dictionaries - reductive and banalizing - that is form as the edge or profile of an object allowing us to distinguish it from a background (Tatarkiewicz would indicate it as C form), but also to those more well-defined ones that Tatarkiewicz proposes.

Urban expansion with its peripheries from the end of the 19th century onwards, and with its "sprawl" - the loss of a clear and recognizable limit separating the city from the country - at the end of the following century, led many urbanists to believe that we could no longer speak of urban form. It was a painful renouncement. "Shapeless" became the adjective applied to edges and to the modern metropolis, for which a negative judgment was always implicitly suggested - the unspoken words of a loss that clearly no one wanted to recognize.
It might have been better to stimulate a more careful observation of the city - to be unhampered by the need to recognize an outline ( a limit surpassed by crossing a threshold) at all costs but rather a composition of parts, of elements, of simple or complex materials according to mutable principles: the Albertian concert of all parts orchestrated together. Tatarkiewicz would point out this meaning as form A, and perhaps it has a longer history. As far as we are concerned, it is powerfully represented in all of the ideas of the city as organism, as well as in those of the functional city and those interpretations, which do not always contrast the aforementioned ones, of a structuralist cast; with inevitable attention given to the spatial relationships between different urban materials and with the introduction of classical critical tools such as proportion, number, regularity and order. This approach was at the origin of a very fertile season of urban studies.

Many have attributed the meager consensus obtained by the construction of new cities and new parts of them during the 20th century, or also by new urban materials, to two opposing views. On the one hand, there is a lack of attention given to the intrinsic meaning of every element or material within a vast composition (form B); to the meaning and role of the relationships that come to play among the same materials or, in other terms, a lack of attention to the questions that must legitimate every project; to the narration that it often implicitly contains; to the interpretation of the reality that it proposes; to the scenarios that it creates, to their users or, in even more abbreviated and reductive terms, to a lack of attention to content. On the other hand, the lack of consensus regarding the contemporary city is ascribed to other reasons: to ideological overload; to an excess of attention placed on goals, while also significant and shared by important parts of the society, without posing the problem as how to reach the beneficiaries through specific expressive forms or without posing the problem of how the pursued goals can be expressed through specific visible forms. This could result in the decreased complexity of urban space which characterizes the contemporary city as compared to the past; a reduction in complexity perceived as loss and impoverishment.

In many cases, these critiques are justified; in others, they are foolish. We have become accustomed to live in and love parts of city built for users that today are totally extraneous in terms of culture, ways of life, horizons of meaning, where sovereignty rather than the disciplinary society is represented. We have learned to live in and to love parts of city and urban materials conceived and built within the most rigorous self-referenced terms, and with which following generations have worked by adding and removing, enriching and simplifying. It is in this statement, if we think about it, that the strength of the second group of projects lies: in building a critical distance between the different layers of reality. And conversely, this is the possible weakness of the first group of projects - which constantly risks adhering too closely to movements of the collective imagination which in time might become sterile and short-lived.

Partly to overcome these difficulties and the embarrassment that such a division between form and content might arouse - the impossibility of expressing content if not passing through an expressive form and the need to recognize that every form eventually expresses unwanted content - more recently content and form have largely been expressed through the concept, which, not necessarily, but very frequently, is entrusted to graphic expression. The hypothesis is one of attempting to express only the fundamental aspects of an interpretation of reality as well as its design projection. An old idea (form D, Tatarkiewicz would say) which has enjoyed alternating popularity over time and which must allow us virtuously to put aside possible and personal interpretations of different situations, of an object or of a project, only to evidence what, with a high level of abstraction, it has in common with other situations - only that which, in a particular situation, object or project, can be legitimately be considered its constituting the most essential, and not accidental, element.
This challenge has resulted in two trends: on the one hand, the concept has become a rhetorical tool for removing possible conflicts and problems: it silences - with its vagueness and inaccuracy, with the often metaphoric use of signs and words - what would become issues to discuss or what is already a problem without a known solution. To the experienced eye, some of the signs that appear in many concepts appear as serious falsifications because they cannot be realized, or because, if realized, they would produce profoundly different consequences from the ones expected. De-forming reality without clear control criteria, these concepts promise significance, roles, horizons of meaning that they are not able to deliver.
On the other hand, from an intellectual form that experience makes perceivable and comprehensible in the past or future (form E), they often become form subjectively imposed upon experience, which, with a strong economy of expressive means, in fact refuses to undergo verification or falsification.

It is strange that we cannot grasp in these ideas, which also permeated the debate regarding the architecture of the city and its history over the course of the 20th century, the specific ways in which architects and urbanists interpret society and its movements - the processes of social interaction and the policies that seek to endow them with coherence and consistence, the plans of the dominant groups, the form and the structure of power as well as the continuous mutations of the needs and desires which confer identity upon different social groups - committing themselves to them.