De diffuse stad / The diffuse city

It could be said that the language of Italian architecture, thanks in part to the firepower of its innumerable periodicals, became the basic code of the international culture of design in the seventies and eighties. Emerging out of structuralist thought and an accurate phenomenology of the historic European city, the vocabulary and concepts put forward in these three books have been used by at least two subsequent generations of architects, critics, city planners and administrators.

2. Manfredo Tafuri, perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest historian of urban ideas, lent legitimacy to the dominance of this vocabulary through a ruthless work of transposition. In his Storia dell’architettura italiana (‘History of Italian Architecture’), Tafuri chose in fact to ignore the fate of buildings constructed on the basis of designs (considered ‘exemplary’ in themselves) by Gregotti, Rossi and Aymonino. Instead he told the epic story of the Monte Amiata Complex in the Gallaratese quarter of Milan, forgetting to describe the social wasteland into which it had sunk. He praised the eternal forms of the new Modena Cemetery, neglecting to mention the paradoxically rapid erosion of its plaster facings. He offered an interpretation of the forceful occupation of the land by the project for the new University of Calabria in the valley of the Crati River, but made no reference to the fact that it was never completed. In the meantime, while their virtual exploits were being celebrated in the world, Rossi, Gregotti and Aymonino knew how to seize an opportunity, in some cases cynically distancing themselves from the utopian ideas of their youth, and set off in more prosaic directions. But the buildings they designed at Perugia, Pesaro and San Marino had no one to sing their praises. Having followed their masters up onto the high ground, many disciples found themselves stranded there, looking down with consternation at the ordinary buildings now being designed by those same masters, who had simply forgotten to tell them they had changed their minds.
3. In the meantime, the city studied in those three books – already rendered virtual by the absence of any serious professional verification – had ceased to exist. Over the last twenty years a multitude of building tremors produced as a consequence of the individualistic choices made by families, businesses and clans have run through the offshoots and interstices of Italian cities, occupying the countryside, fusing together centres that were once detached and spreading over coasts and valleys. Cities that no longer have edges, that look today like nebulas dotted with a swarm of buildings standing in isolation or heaped together incongruously. The new urban dimension that has been laid over the top of the modern city examined in the books by Rossi, Gregotti and Aymonino, though without cancelling it out, reflects a society where the number of people and forces capable of modifying space has increased enormously. And this in turn has radically altered the relationship between the principles of difference and variation that had been codified in the texts of urban morphology
thirty years ago. Today the principle of difference no longer acts in the way it was thought to at the time – between the nineteenth-century city and the Renaissance one, between the public spaces of the periphery and the great industrial zones – but between the individual molecules of an urban organism that has expanded enormously: between the suburban house and the adjoining shopping centre, between this and the adjoining block of apartments, between the car wash and the industrial shed with attached residence, between the bypass and the small area of farmland. In the same way, the principle of variation no longer operates within broad urban sections (as a declining of the individual components of the city block, or of the linear fabric), but through surprising jumps and extemporary solutions among the few categories of ‘urban features’ that make up the emerging city: the variation is reduced to innumerable adaptations that can be assumed – in different territories – by the single-family house or block of apartments or container for a leisure facility/commercial undertaking. An excess of versions, then, that does not produce typological inventions and that appears to reflect the need for over-representation of the individual in a society made up of a plethora of minorities, loath to accept unitary and aggregated designs. A society that has democratically constructed a territory that resembles itself and that the terms of structuralist discourse – with their emphasis on Monuments, Homogeneous Parts and Fabrics – are no longer even capable of describing, let alone planning.
4. Split into the rivulets of an exhausted paradigm, now incapable even of seeing the territory in which it should be operating, Italian architecture today is a field of knowledge of low social utility: having lost contact with the processes of construction of the territory and never consulted – even in situations of territorial emergency – by the politicians, it is often humbled by comparison with the research carried out in neighbouring and poorer countries. And yet the Italian territory is now an extraordinary field of study and experimentation: a palimpsest of heterogeneous environments, where the new urban condition operates as a powerful matrix, meeting less obstacles than elsewhere in spite of the innumerable preexisting structures with which it has to deal. It is a landscape at the mercy of uncontrolled and eccentric forces which have undermined many parts of it, but one that is also the cradle of experiences of urban life offering a glimpse of the future. Alongside the chaotic invasion of single-family residences, the geographic imperialism of the great commercial enterprises and the standardization of historic cities to meet the demands of tourism, we can find highly advanced forms of ethnic cohabitation in some historic centres. In the diffuse city we encounter modes of living that have been freed from functional specialization and we discover panoramas of unconscious beauty in the random points of contact between historic locations and infrastructures. It is an original model of the city, different from that of the United States as well as that of Northern Europe, which at times can look disheartening, at others fertile, but always incredibly heterogeneous. The themes for a new Italian architecture are all there: the capacity to intervene in mechanisms of individual variation, the care of new and temporary community spaces, the attempt to use the economic power of certain building processes to produce a symbolic added value that redeems them from their egotism. But a new paradigm for interpretation of the emerging city is needed, one that can take the place of the one we have inherited from the sixties. This time using professional opportunities to verify or falsify the spatial concepts and operating criteria that have been derived from study of the contemporary landscape, we will be able to resume the journey of initiation into the territory of architecture that was abandoned all too soon by Rossi, Gregotti and Aymonino. For good or ill, that is where we are coming from.
Stefano Boeri is an architect based in Milan. He is architectural consultant to the Triennale and has had articles published in countless magazines in and out of Italy. He was guest lecturer at the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam and is presently professor at the Universities of Milan and Genoa.

Architectuur en planning in Schotland / Architecture and planning in Scotland