His passion for the modern is closely bound up with his love of the city. For him, urbanism is a quest in which the inevitable renewal of the city forms the basic premiss for the creation of a more intense contemporary urbanity. Following in the wake of his great predecessors – Ludovico Quaroni, Leslie Martin, Cor Van Eesteren – he has thus emerged as the trailblazer of a new modern tradition. This tradition sees the urban project as a formative element of a broad reflection which sets out to clarify, with each intervention, the all-embracing significance of urban architecture. This ambition to explore structure is reflected in all De Solà-Morales’s work. It forms the basis of his `laboratorio de urbanismo’, which he set up as a young professor at the School of Architecture at Barcelona University. It is embodied in the magazine Urbanismo Revista, of which he is editor-in-chief. And it provides the polemical driving force behind the master programme `urbanism of cities’, which he set up and has headed for the last few years at the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona.
Since his scheme for Moll de la Fusta, De Solà-Morales has brought increasing precision to his notion of urbanism in a series of major projects which include the Plaza de la Marina in Malaga (1983-1989), the new port at Badalona (1988-1993), the suburban centre of Portal de Sant Roc in Terrassa (1988-1989), the housing developments in Alcoy (1989-1994) and Badiella (1991-1992), and the trapezium-shaped superblock on the Diagonal in Barcelona (1986-1994) designed in collaboration with Rafael Moneo and documented elsewhere in this issue.
Sometimes the merit lies primarily in the thematic exploration of a central idea such as in the multiple commissions for Salzburg (1987), Naples (1988) and Berlin (1990). But more often it revolves round clearly defined locations whose complex issues demand extremely precise statements in the overlapping areas between architecture, infrastructure and open space planning. In general the proposed solutions are at once surprising and simple, inventive and pared down to a distillation of the essential elements. They are mostly similar in intent: the grafting of renewal onto an existing context; their differences in manifestation stem from the specific nature of that context. Their common stamp lies in the structural alteration which comes across as quite natural. Paraphrasing the words of Quaroni one might say that the cats on the roofs are as important in defining the image of De Solà-Morales’s city as the monuments.
Marcel Smets: The innovative character of your work and of urban design in Barcelona, to which you have contributed much, is marked by its close relationship with architecture. How did this come about?
Manuel de Solà-Morales: When I left Harvard and took up a teaching position at the School in Barcelona twenty-five years ago, the first research we did at the Laboratorio de Urbanismo was centred on the question of how urbanism had to be taught in Spain. For that purpose, we assiduously gathered all the available information on the teaching of urbanism from all over the world. We finally reached conclusions which were basically against the interdisciplinary approach. At that time the Italians launched the new postgraduate institute of urban studies, adopting like almost every other European country the Anglo-Saxon model of planning relating to the social sciences methodology. I mention that in connection with the American experience, because it got me thoroughly acquainted with the methods of planning and systems theory and the idea of an objectivity in planning decisions, political workability and planning process. Appreciative of all that as I was, it left me with a sense of just how far it should be kept from the actual design. Many other young professors agreed with me on this point. That is probably the reason, even though an archaism of sorts, why we have never created a separate course in urbanism, although the pressure to do so has been great for many years.
I wouldn’t like to have people doing urbanism who don’t care about architecture, and the other way around. That’s not to deny that in the process of doing things separate steps need to be distinguished. This isn’t implying, however, that the intellectual framework is different in architecture and urbanism. In my school, I don’t want the study of urban design to be a substitute for that of architectural design. The training needed to become familiar with the act of designing in both cases follows the same logic, which is what distinguishes architects from other professions. The attitude of tackling a problem and solving it, the capacity for assessment against the background of experience and observation, with the responsibility of choosing a single solution without applying a codex or manual – this is an attitude so powerful and specific that it’s more important than the difference in subject, than the distinction between dealing with streets and blocks of houses and dealing with corridors and rooms.
Today, more architects are called to solve problems on a scale they were not asked to address before, because these problems were regarded as belonging to a higher scale of planning. This is beginning to produce a better understanding of the city among the new generation, people who initially were only concerned with object design. For those concerned with design problems on a larger scale, the upshot is a stronger responsibility for architecture, not as something relegated to a secondary stage, not as a pleasure-giving element with little substance. No, architecture is quintessential to the city. It is not cosmetics for a good idea or a good structure. Even if we agree on this, it cannot be said often enough.
It seems to me that we are not yet as clear as architects are on the design of cities. Urban designers are not as strong. I would really like to explicate the issues that interest me, say, Alexanderplatz, as clearly as Schinkel could explain his museum. However, we don’t have – I don’t have – the language that is as articulated, evident or clear as the elements of a neo-classical museum. Our field of work, though obviously regarded as important, lacks the disciplinary culture that exists in classical architecture. I would like urbanism to be wise and express itself with the same elegance as architecture.
Does this need for a disciplinary culture account for your interest in the handbooks from the beginning of the century?
I’ve been associated at times with this manual-based attitude. I don’t feel this is the case. This attitude has typifying, classifying aspects which I don’t share. The real upshot of our work – the capacity for assessment – is that you can’t rule out types of solutions. This implies more than the fact that there are no standard answers; give the manuals their due. It also means there are no types of problems, today at least. You can analyse through typification but not operate through it. Perhaps I’ve used taxonomies in an analytical phase that too easily gave the impression that the results could be used for propositions. But I do think we can learn from historical examples, and then use them in a new way, always that.
In your course `12 lessons from Barcelona’, you parcularly stress what you call substantial changes.
Changes that are substantial, not only because they were innovative at the time of their implementation, but because they are still innovative today. Not innovative meaning surprising, but in the sense that today’s Barcelona is the sum of those interventions. Without, say, the opening out of the Calle Fernando Barcelona could not exist today, or would be completely different. We can look at such episodes as a problem of historiography. But I like to look at them as they are now; I don’t think they’re past facts, but components of Barcelona’s present form. For that reason, I don’t go along with the usual complaint that the Cerdà plan has been distorted. It’s the most successful scheme I know. In 130 years, we have gone through 16 constitutions, 15 heads of state and all kinds of political, social and economic changes. No other law has been so persistent, so resilient as the Cerdà plan. Give me another example of a social process dictated by a human knowledge that has been so faithfully followed.
One of the most basic elements of your approach is the way of operating through projects. In your view the pitfall of the urbanism of the sixties and seventies was clearly the fact that they tried to solve everything at once, when the city is a product of projects which gradually evolve and which contain within them the potential to transform the city.
It is true that I owe much to Ludovico Quaroni and others who have taught me how to look at things, but basically I consider myself largely self-taught and what I have learnt has been a result of observation and selfless attention.
Looking at cities you see that they are made up of pieces, elements generated by a strong idea. The capacity of being general depends not on the totality, the unity of the object but on the generality, the scope of the idea. Size need not depend on scale: to work on the city, you have to think at the scale of the city though without operating at its size.
Anything in the city that irritates or excites you proves this statement one way or the other. And I don’t mean the city disintegrated into parts: quite the reverse. I’m not saying there’s no totality. I like parts that are total, that are more than themselves. They relate to ideas, which is why the story of urban interventions in the city is invariably about addition. An urban project is not meant to solve problems or erect a work of art, an object or a sculpture, but to enrich a situation, place or site.
This humility, this more discrete attitude of evaluating the capacity of such constituent operations with greater pretentions, has also to do with a more practical disposition, one relying more on doing rather than just discussing. Let me put it this way: I was recently in Brasilia and Canberra. At that level, the founding of a city, I might take a functionalist line, weighing the success of the former against the difficulties of the latter. These two operations were related to a very singular moment, when it so happened that they could be carried out at that particular scale. Brasilia was not a scheme for designing parts, but to bring about a broad-based totality. This is quite exceptional, for we usually don’t work at such a overall level. As a theoretical stance, one could say that the principles for each work depend on the nature of the intervention to be carried out.
Do we need new solutions for existing cities?
I think this is the way, almost always. By experimenting or observing in detail how urban forms are built, I try to clarify in each proposal which aspects are necessary for innovation. I try to make a distinction between what is crucial and what is less important, and this distinction is embodied in the same proposal. But the thing that matters most to me is this question of addition: if you’re able to introduce more to a place that used to have less, you have a good chance of succeeding.
You can never claim to have the absolute solution when working in the city. To get even a small job done, to take a single step, is quite an achievement in itself. Every day I see so many things made to look good when they are not, that I don’t want to make such a claim. In that sense, it seems to me that modernity in cities works only if you take very substantial steps. I’m giving all my attention to those. I’m proud and arrogant enough to think that I know what is substantial and what is not.
By substantial do you mean things that contain in themselves the capacity to transform the whole though only succeed in transforming part?
Exactly. The whole… or at least much. I usually don’t talk about part and whole, but about part and… more.
Few designers stress the importance of measures, materials and dimensions as the prime elements of the urban project as you do.
There is a strong common concern in our Catalan culture for building, not only as an intellectual act but also as a very material act. Such an attitude reappears in the discourse on architecture and planning and enhances this attachment to the material aspect of the issue.
I believe that building cities requires a great understanding of social life, politics, economics, but above all a mastery of built form. You must be able to turn ideas into actual dimensions. The ideology rests on the measures, on the dimensions, on the physicality of the elements. A new road is more than just a yellow line or the concept of an axis, a spine or a strip, or a pattern of use and activities, it’s a physical element to be recognized in its internal differences. It is about determining the dimensions of the asphalt, the pavement, the position of the trees, the length of the wall, the inclination of the slope and the nature of the curve.
Urban design is attending to different scales simultaneously. It is this approach which differs from that of designers who tend to restrict their responsibility to one scale of design and consider the others as a given framework. Urban design sometimes works with very elementary, small-scale solutions, that have to be dealt with in a extremely material and dimensional way. Thinking in details, however, has the same range as the major issues. I have an obsession with levels, topography and transitions. To introduce such rigour into everyday building practice is not easy because those who realize major features, such as streets, are not interested in centimetres.
I still remember the first time I went to Berlin. The Friedrichstadt was still completely empty; what was left of the ruins had since been removed. After all that destruction and bombing, it was a shock to see the streets so perfect, so beautiful, an impressive demonstration of what city form can be. The perfection, in this case geometrical perfection, of a configuration constructed in the mind was there in material form: it has withstood the bombing, you could walk and experience the inclination of the ramp and observe the perfection of the edges.
Most of the megastructures and visionary solutions of the fifties have failed to produce cities by their inability to properly define the architecture. What may have been there in the drawings was lacking in reality. So in this sense, I regard the theme of todays’s urban design to be the defining of new urban typologies – not just building typologies or new ways of laying out streets, but a mixture of new streets with new type of buildings, new forms of parcelling and new scales of use.
That’s a recurrent theme in your work?
This approach is becoming crucial to my Alcoy project, as it was in Moll de la Fusta, where I tried to do the same thing. My intention then was to do a very innovative basic structure involving the idea of mixing levels in the city and mixing movements; and doing the rest in the most common and banal way imaginable. I probably failed in the second part, but I’m still happy with the first. It brought to light some aspects of what proved to be a critical discussion: the problem of the section, the organization and cohabitation of traffic with a city space needing to be recreational and free. That aspect is important in the Malaga project too, in the move to insert a big box for parking facilities in the gentle slope of the city, and effect the interplay of lower and upper levels there using fountains and ramps.
This is the intention in most of my projects, always with the inclination of doing it gently, not too conspicuously, as if it were natural. This is an objective that some designers won’t share, but clarity is my motto; and the greatest clarity for me is what the users considers to be natural. Other people operate with more striking or self-defining formal elements, but I’d rather create places than objects.
Yet to highlight the overall clarity you usually introduce a new gesture. Alexanderplatz is regarded as an empty void which in your view requires a new kind of density to express its fundamental role in the city. In Antwerp, preservation of the emptiness and the large water surfaces brings you to singular towers which mark the new allocation of the `Islet’ in the ambivalence of their image: silos on the city side, apartment buildings on the port side. In each case you capture the changing character of the setting and its position in the totality of the city in a single feature.
The Berlin project was meant to clarify and render more legible the role of Alexanderplatz as a civic centre, something its present emptiness doesn’t do. I try to achieve this by building up not only part of its void, but by filling it completely. I wasn’t trying to `invent’ a density, but rather to work with the system of open slabs which permeate all of East Berlin. What would happen if we were to place these elementary geometrical masses, widespread as they usually are, closer together? Would their accumulative form create a density able to sustain the image and activity of a city core?
In Antwerp, where we already have a `tissue’, it’s a different question. How efficient would it be in that case to set the towers apart? Would they be able to work together as a unifying form, even when standing alone, related only by a mental image which makes you read them as constituent parts?
The state of higher density in both activity and use is treated so differently in the two projects because in the one the idea of civic gathering is what we wanted, while in the other we preferred a certain isolation. In Berlin, I would have thought it ridiculous to try and get a sense of centrality by creating traditional enclosed spaces. I wanted to hang on to the modernistic character of the socialist city. By playing with its rules, I’m presenting an idea that produces this centrality, an objective that the people who originally conceived East Berlin would never have laid claim to.
Isn’t that very close to Quaroni’s concept of aggregated form? You’re using these elements of formal origin because they seem most suitable for portraying the overall meaning of the place you are addressing.
I’m glad you said that. You are putting in a synthetic way, what I’m trying to express along more definitional lines.
In Antwerp you toyed with the idea of testing your hypothesis by choosing other architects to develop elements within your general concept and investigate on another level the problems you had already dealt with in the overall plan. Is this manner of enriching the concept an attitude you would defend?
Maybe. It’s a pity conditions prevented us from doing it in Antwerp. But once again I wouldn’t describe it as a problem of overall concept and constituent elements. It’s just approaching the same broad issues through another door. My idea was to continue designing the towers myself, while the other architects, by designing the same towers as well, would discover how to position and shape them and thus come up against the same problems I went through, at least if they were good architects. In that sense, I wouldn’t speak in terms of general and individual, but rather about different angles of approach.
Does that mean you don’t recognize scales in an urban project?
Not scales of size. Exaggerating a little, I would say that they don’t exist, for the major issues anyway. I accept this extremely Quaronian philosophy of the hierarchy of importance in urban form. If we are dealing with a problem of, say, rehabilitation, the logic of the tissue would be paramount, and the hierarchy of scales, the primary orientation of the design, would come out of that logic. The mixture of scales depends upon the nature of the problem.
You mean to say that each problem, if it is to be studied correctly, has to maintain the overall aspect in each of its pieces?
Somehow… yes. And that is the nature of urbanity: making each separate part general. The same goes for the citizen and his social life. You’re a citizen and an individual, but as a citizen you’re a member of the city, of a collective body. This sense of individuality which is inseparable from the collective aspect – now that is urbanity.
What really counts in the city is not public spaces, because then you end up addressing only the public realm. A good city comprises collective space, private space forced to become collective: the meat market, the underground metro, the cathedral, the stadium, the disco, the main lobby of the Rockefeller Center; where the private, by being urban, is forced to be public. Instead of rendering public what is already so.
Is designing public squares only a cosmetic act?
A cosmetic act, or an official one. What we need are things that are public and private at once. What is so public about the Haussmann boulevard? The fact that it imposes a facade type on the hôtels which comprise it, coercing them into a scenario for public life. If we subconciously feel this urban force which obliges the private to relate to the collective, this is the true nature of urbanity. That’s why I don’t consider architecture as a major thing in itself but as the way the city is made.
Is this why we keep coming across this idea in your work of an interplay between the overall form, which creates order and understanding, and the constituent elements, which contribute – within that form – to diversity and richness?
Form is more than a concept or a law. It has to be something physical, something descriptive. It has to be an element in itself that is able to generate a basic order within which flexibility, diversity and conflict can operate.
Discovering difference as a good principle for the composition of the city, seems to me the true step away from the modern movement or any other former tradition. Unity in, say, a housing project – and in good form generally – has always been basically brought about by repetition. The idea of an order, not in the sense of a necessary regularity, but one based on difference, is something we should learn from the periphery. It is one of the basic principles I’m interested in working with in the future.
The Cerdà plan certainly is a good example of a scheme where difference benefits order. This idea seems to possess power not just because variety fails to kill it, but because variety in fact strengthens it. That’s why the Cerdà grid has so much more power than a neo-classical grid, say Edinburgh, which imposes uniformity. If you see part of it you’ve seen it all. It’s admirable, but it’s one view only. Whereas city form is richer when you have this continuous interaction between the basic idea and so many other ideas.