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Il controllo improbabile, Filippo De Pieri, Franco Angeli, 2005

Il controllo improbabile - Review

by Francesco Gastaldi

The original nucleus of this book arose from the thesis developed by Filippo De Pieri for his Ph.D. in history of architecture and planning at the Polytechnic of Turin. The main body of the volume concerns the analysis of the political, economic, and bureaucratic balances underlying the planning of the nineteenth century city, in particular the city of Turin, which was the capital city of the Savoyard State until the Unification of Italy.

The author conducts an investigation that goes beyond the image of the nineteenth century city as a sphere of control, order, and rules, indispensable in an age of great urban expansion, to explore instead a hidden reality, of power games and of decision-making processes less clear and rational than were recounted by traditional historiography. These operations contradict the hypotheses of a strict control of the designs of expansion on the part of the institutions, a control that, according to De Pieri, is, to say the least, improbable.

The book investigates the rapport between bureaucracy, rules, procedures, and the formation of the decisions made in the process of expanding a capital city in the period between the Restoration and the Unification of Italy. The starting point for this text arises from the suspicion that, if these phenomena are observed with sufficient attention, one can make out a series of fractures between the mode in which the process of decision-making took place, and the mode in which it was recounted. The analysis of the project of expanding Turin in this historic period allows the identification of the often torturous processes through which the designs take shape, the players that are involved, the role and the growth of the bureaucracy, and the battles between urban powers.

The text is organized around a problematic nucleus: the dialog between processes of bureaucratization and processes of decision-making in the administration of urban transformation. The two parts into which the text is subdivided explore the theme by reasoning at different scales of observation and giving analytical pre-eminence in turn to each of the two main points: the bureaucracies and the decisions.

The introductory section identifies some key concepts of reference for being able to read the subtle nuances of the power plays that the author describes in the two subsequent chapters. For example, the role played by public property in the growth of the city is analyzed: the first phase of expansion takes place on important State-owned reserves, recovered by the demolition of fortifications, while the second phase regards private property for the most part, in a constant tension between strategies of development of public land and choices made for the conveyance of private land. Also the individual paths taken in this historic period by experts, architects, and engineers furnish an effective illustration of processes of urban growth: the conflict between knowledge, technique, and the professions combining with mutable economic and political outcomes, in which often the strong link of the designer with one of the powers involved in the urban negotiations is important.
 The author analyzes in an extremely detailed manner the rapport between the design of city expansion and the different demands that accompany it, from those of institutions to those of private individuals, by referring to renowned case studies, as is demonstrated in the ample space dedicated to the design of Piazza di Po (the current Piazza Vittorio Emanuele I), taken as a emblematic and representative example. The events are explained that occur one after the other over a period of time that extends from the first Restoration to the Unification of Italy, that lead to the construction of a small group of technical bureaucracies, linked to the exercise of a function of control or supervision of the projects for city expansion. Their history is compared with the choices made in the same period for several projects, constructing a counterpoint between the image of processes that become incorporated in the structure of the institutions and the manner in which they develop in the day-to-day maneuvering by the principal participants. This part of the research attempts to insert models of administrative rationality into an approach that wants to be, more appropriately, historic: more than showing that the decision-making process studied is not very linear and is characterized by a complex play of forces and of participants, one seeks in the specificity of this process some traces for reading the society that has produced it and the specificity of a situation and of a period too often interpreted only as “in transition”. The narrative makes much of the dealings of the participants, on the leaking of information and the misinterpretations that mark the process, on the ambiguity that characterizes the discourse and, in a still larger measure, the designs.

The second part
analyzes the tortuous decision-making process connected to the “general plan” for the expansion of Turin, a long procedure initiated in 1842 and concluded with the approval of the plan ten years later. The decade taken into consideration (between the early years of the 1840s and those of the1850s) represents a possible turning point for some of the interpretive threads that run through the work. The two parts establish a complex dialog between them, made up of conversations conducted at a distance, postponements, investigations, and of an interlacing of stories that have different times and articulations. Some of the questions that the book proposes touch on aspects Turinese society that have received little attention by historians: the culture and strategies of the urban elite, the network of relations that pass between them; the forms and balances of municipal administration, above all in the years of the Restoration; the politics of the State for the city and in the city. One can read these pages as a contribution to the history of the construction of a series of knowledge bases, practices, bureaucratic and administrative identities, social networks, modes of representing and confronting the urban questions whose threads run through to the present day, before and after the consolidation of a disciplinary knowledge of urbanism and its crises. These threads and paths are perhaps more visible now that the management of the rapport between the administration of the region, urban transformations, and society seems to pass always less through recourse to instruments such as that of the plan.

In the text much is said of urban projects, of bureaucracies, of decision-making processes, but the center of attention of the work is constituted by a series of differences: the difference between the manner in which urban administration is considered and the practices through which a city is governed; the difference between the representation given of some bureaucracies and the forms of their organization and functioning; the differences between systems of codified rules and the reasoning, balances, and pressures that push the social construction of the space in other directions. These differences represent one of the more characteristic and less observed features of many cities in the nineteenth century and even constitute, probably, one of the more meaningful inheritances that that century leaves to our urban culture.