Arquitectura Viva
Monday, November 30, 2020

Renzo Piano on Urban Outskirts

We are an extraordinary and beautiful country, but at the same time a fragile one. The landscape is fragile, and so are the cities, especially at their edges, where no time or money has been devoted to upkeep. But these peripheral areas are indeed the city of the future, the places that attract human energy, and that we will eventually leave as a legacy to our children. The urban outskirts, too, need a gigantic mending operation.

We are a country capable of building Ferrari motors and complex robots; one that is capable of suspending plasmon at 150 million degrees centigrade. We can achieve these things because invention is in our DNA. As Roberto Benigni says, in the age of Dante we invented the bank, credit, and the debt: we lent money to kings and popes, and Edward I of England still hasn’t paid us back. If there is something that I can do as a senator for life, it will not be a discussion of laws and decrees; for this, there are others more capable. I’m an architect, not a politician. But it is no accident that the term politics derives from polis, the city. Norberto Bobbio suggested that one should be ‘independent’ of politics, but never ‘indifferent’ to it.

If there is anything that I can do, it is to offer my experience of fifty years as an architect and suggest a few ideas that might kindle some thoughts among the younger generation. This with a certain urgency, considering the vast unemployment in this age group.

Thus I decided to use my parliamentary salary to employ six young designers, who will rotate every year. Their task is to study how to fix the urban edges. Why deal with sprawl? The outskirts are the city of the future; not photogenic, I agree, in fact often like a desert or a dormitory, but rich with humanity. Only 10% of urban populations live in the historic centers, the rest are in these zones that blur as they move toward the countryside. Here is where there is energy.

Our forefathers left us the historic centers, while my generation has done such a good job that the term ‘urban periphery’ often is equated with urban decay. I ask myself: is this what we want to leave behind? The outskirts represent the great challenge for the next few decades. Will they become pieces of the city? Will they become urban and capable of civic life?

I have a few ideas, and the young designers certainly will have more. But they must not be discouraged and settle for mediocrity. Ours is a country of extraordinary talent. The young are capable, and if they are not, they must become so, for a simple reason: we are all dwarfs on the shoulders of a giant. The giant is our humanistic culture, our capacity to invent, to gather subtleties and confront problems with lateral thinking.

The first thing is not to build new suburbs. The existing edges must become more urban without further pushing the sprawl. They must be stitched up and fertilized with public institutions. We have to put a limit on growth because it is becoming economically unsustainable to bring public transport and services to such distant places. Today growth should be implosive. We need to adapt ex-industrial sites, abandoned military bases, and old rail depots. There is a lot of space to recuperate. We need to intensify the existing fabric and build on the built. At the same time, we should establish what the English refer to as a ‘green belt’ to clearly define the delineation between city and country.

Another idea in my project with young architects would be to transfer a mix of functions to the periphery. The good city is one that allows you to sleep, work, study, entertain yourself, and go shopping. If we have to have new hospitals, better to put them in the outskirts, and likewise for concert halls, theaters, museums, and universities. These functions can catalyze what is at the moment a civic desert. Build places for people, places to meet, where they can share values, celebrate rituals; this is urbanity. Today my major projects are to restructure ghettos and sprawl sites, from Columbia University moving into Harlem to the hospital district moving into Sesto San Giovanni on the edge of Milan, with a new station and metro connection. If there will be new urban functions, restaurants, theaters, and such, there must be public transportation as well. We must stop digging for parking lots. The city of the future should free itself of immense parking silos and tunnels that serve automobiles. I’m not against the car, but there are already better ideas, such as car sharing, that can redefine the way we use them. I think we can find a more rational and comfortable way to use automobiles.

We need more ideas on how to make existing buildings perform better for energy needs. We could reduce energy consumption by up to 70–80%. We could consolidate over 60,000 school buildings spread all over Italy and in danger of disappearing. Our urban edges require an immense task of mending and repair. I use the word ‘mend’ to include a variety of questions: hydrological, seismic, aesthetic. There are new jobs waiting to be invented that will be devoted to consolidating existing buildings, microcompanies that will use small capital investments for stitching up the damage. We have a great reservoir of human resources waiting in the wings. I advise young people to go after small start-ups that create a more diffused work pattern. Look at alternative energy operations, with tiny solar power plants, and geothermal wells that bring energy to the network. Italy offers a marvelous field for putting these things into operation. We don’t have the cold winds of the Nordic countries, nor the hot ones of Africa. We have excellent conditions for geothermal, solar, and wind power. One speaks of Green Economy, but we should just call it Italian Economy. In the periphery there is no need to demolish. That’s a gesture of impotence. We need microsurgery to transform existing residences into beautiful, efficient, and livable places.

In this sense there is another theme, another idea to develop about participatory processes. We should involve citizens in building, because so much of the work of consolidation can be handled by people on their own, minimizing the professional input. I am speaking of light operations that don’t require the removal of people from their homes, but encourage them to adjust their own homes. The role of the architect becomes that of a leader, somewhat like a doctor, but who is there not to help people cure themselves but to help them deal with buildings that are faulty. In 1979 we worked with citizen groups in Otranto on the Laboratorio di quartiere project sponsored by UNESCO to help mend the center. A consulting office staffed by architects would be a great idea for a start-up. The edges of the city don’t need to be pulled down, they need to be transformed. So we need surgeons’ instruments, not bulldozers.

One more bit of advice to the young: they must travel. But not to go away and never return! Travel gives you three things. First, you learn languages. Second, you start to understand that differences and diversity are a form of wealth, not an obstacle. And finally, you realize how lucky you were to be born in Italy, because if you don’t go away, you risk succumbing to this great beauty and living here in indifference. It is a grande bellezza that in no way is useless or cosmetic, but translates into culture, art, consciousness, and work. That is what gives us hope and stimulates ambitions, and should give the youth of Italy new strength.

Belleza italiana

Belleza italiana

Luis Fernández-Galiano
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