As history progresses, the cultural identities available to human beings have multiplied, changed, acquired strength and awareness, increased their capacity for expression and have been contaminated by new factors: gender, politics and geographical origin. A continuous and concrete exchange that, thanks to the technology of our time, no longer requires a physical experience.
The city is now a stage for all kinds of events and our generation is only required to choose.
But for how much longer?
Where there’s nothing, everything is possible. Where there’s Architecture, nothing else is possible.
– R. Koolhaas ¹
In 1921 Carlo Carrà finished painting “Pino sul mare”. It is a landscape, perhaps Moneglia in Liguria, produced by his metaphysical period and marks for the Piedmontese painter a reprise of some of the themes rejected in the past. Ten years earlier, in fact, he criticized landscape painters for their limited contribution to the investigation of art in the most intrinsic contexts of our humanity. Ten years later, in the ’30s, he produced a masterpiece, the “Swimmers”, which acquired such a level that it could be placed side by side with “Grande Jatte” of Seurat.
Carlo Carrà’s experience makes us think of what it means to re-evaluate an element in a new key; that is, to be able to modify the sum of the concepts linked to it and then define it as something different. The constituent elements have not changed, but rather the method used to represent a landscape. The ratio of the iconographies present in the drawing is modified: they change the composition and the graphic method.
A landscape must become a poem full of space and dreams.
– C. Carrà ²
The work of Carrà and many others was part of a revolution that ran over the Italian and world art.
In the old art there was no more space for the observer. Before, the power of artistic production resided in the same ability to display a well-defined identity in which the viewer could identify with, accentuated by a compositional study that made it both vivid and real. But when western securities began to fail due to the historical events of the early twentieth century this could no longer happen because the identities of that historical period had disappeared. The avant-gardes have served to reconstruct these identities: what happened, in fact, was to return the observer to participate in the work. In Carrà as in many others – from the Impressionists at the dawn of this invention to the more structured avant-gardes – the new objective was to bring people back into the work and no longer to leave them out in admiration of how presumptuously they might feel great.
Between the pre-war and post-war period there is a radical turning point. I lived directly after the war, and yet I felt, it was felt, that the culture had changed, the references had changed, and one could no longer think of great utopias like Rationalism had proposed and tried to do.
– Gae Aulenti ³
Allowing the observer to participate in the work of art means that its reading prevails over the original intention of the artist in the process of receiving the essence of the work itself. Whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, an installation or a performance, the result is unchanged: the benefit of the doubt of supposing the intent of one work is the very mean of understanding it, internalizing it, making it one’s own, falling in love with it. Ultimately, it is the instrument conquered during the twentieth century with which a work of art is made alive today.
Basically, Architecture presents the same question: the social habits of the inhabitants almost always prevail over the intentions of the project. This phenomenon, the result of the creation of states of law, from antiquity to the present day has been perpetuated in a sort of escalation along which social habits have passed from the hands of the authorities to those of the individual. All of us are the individual who, in front of a painting or a square, will arm himself with his right to live them in an increasingly personal way. A drawn landscape is not different from a physical context if we start from its ordering concept to judge its social content. Moreover, apart from the different experiences that can be made of it, an abstract one and a more concrete one, the theme of the human presence within it remains preponderant because the human being is the means through which the concept of ordering is spread.
It is not, therefore, the lack of a mass in a certain space that makes it empty, but more properly the lack of a body. In this Universe, after all, it is not possible to contemplate the idea of a body except within a specific space. But not the other way around. Like a series of boxes enclosed one inside the other, that of the body to enter that of space carries within itself a third box, that of the concept.
[..] there is a powerful need for symbolism and that means the architecture must have something that appeals to the human heart. Nevertheless, the basic forms, spaces, and appearances must be logical.
– Kenzo Tange ⁴
So, the urban void can be many things. The first reference we refer to, is precisely an empty space, an area that is not integrated with the rest of the building, a “hole” in a city or in a landscape, a piece of land that has not undergone any type of design, architectural or urban planning, and that has been lost along the way as the missing piece of a puzzle. Sometimes we think instead of a waste of buildings, a misprint of history, something that was previously integrated into the fabric of the city (a factory, a complex) or not (a lookout, an agricultural field, sometimes entire villages), and now it is not.
Cities expand and reunite in themselves, linking their elements with the possibilities that the territory has to offer. The phenomenon of expansion is millennial and will be millennial. Suburbs will become other centers, and these will have other suburbs, and so on until they meet other centers. In the middle, like stars in the sky, they will sleep alone (but perhaps not too much) in old crumbling ruins or cold and cavernous spaces without necessarily being caves, but only parking lots or dark porches of some disused building. Here, too, the missing element is whoever uses it and makes the space in which it enters alive.
In practice, the risk is to see, alongside an expansion of the city, a numerical growth of the pieces of the puzzle that we are already losing, until, when we ask ourselves what to do with an old ruin we do not know what historical value to attribute to it, and therefore what social value to entrust it. Without social value, a place cannot attract citizens and ends up dying of abandonment.
There are no longer the instances that once, beginning with the ancient world, linked human groups to the voids of the city, that is, those spaces that allowed the dissemination of stories, information, ideas and contributed to all the relationships of exchange. On the other hand, there is less and less cultural research in living most of the spaces of a city. They no longer serve as a container for all those events that were once the only promoters of progress. The reasons are to be found in new lifestyles, in the rhythms of contemporary society, in the fact that today we have other containers from which to draw to find our answers.
In an urban vision it is therefore necessary to start from the idea of emptiness as a lived public space, capable of regenerating itself through its rediscovery [..].
– M. Manièri Elìa ⁵
Perhaps, as Carlo Carrà treated the most academic painters, we should return to that more communal and performing vision of public space. We should start to despise the vision of an empty space as a simple means of connecting two volumes and prevent the design of an anonymous intermediate area to be able to connect a department store to the municipal swimming pool on duty. Because if we project this image forward in time as any planning should do, we should also ask ourselves what would be the typical use that future generations would make of it. To think that the square should stop being a place used only for relaxation and to accommodate a green spot does not answer the question.
On the other hand, we should not necessarily abuse multi-functional super projects, especially in the suburbs, as if the intervention were some sort of heroic maneuver to make them a focal point. What kind of investment would it be if the intervention were limited to making the level of the periphery similar to that of the more central areas? In fifty years, the initial problem would reoccur again, but on a larger scale. Moreover, an intervention aimed at forcing the peripheral context, suddenly upgrading it as an area of high cultural profile, would cause the complex problem for all the institutions of how to bring the public in a convenient way to the new sites, which often risk not becoming neuralgic. Here we return to the original question: a void is such only if it is not lived?
After all, most architecture is made up of “little things”. It’s a question of numbers: for every Archistar of the moment, who has to bring an explosive project to the attention of the client, there are a million minor architects who act on the territory and often do not have the resources to carry out an exemplary intervention. Regardless of one’s opinion of the work of the big names in the construction world, we should also ask ourselves which of the two parts of Architecture, the famous or the unknown, does the most damage.
The core of the issue should be considered in the double reading of the void: the approach that must be demonstrated in the revaluation of an abandoned factory should be the same as that used for the design of a new public square. For this reason, talking about the urban void means talking about an old degraded park, an abandoned building or the surroundings of a new shopping center in the suburbs at the same time. This is because each of these typologies contributes equally to urban diversity and, in the future, will be experienced in the same way by the citizens.
Projects to ‘plug holes’ are not to be considered for what they appear to be – impromptu architectural games in search of assignments – but for the danger they contain. That is the superficiality of the approach to the themes, the lack of responsibility towards the historical and functional structures, the incredible desire to place one’s own signs next to or – what is more serious – on top of the ancient ones.
– M. Tafuri ⁶
The “Fiera del Mare” in Genoa looks like a bag of colored marbles, all in the same way. A concrete tray reminiscent of the eclectic table centerpiece for a buffet of functions, this place includes, in addition to the PalaSport, one of the largest covered circular pavilion in Europe, one of the engineering offices held up more by students than by its structural supports, an exhibition space designed by Jean Nouvel, a tensile structure that contrasts with the circular pavilion and a few other buildings. The area is characterized by a very useful public space, but only on certain days of the year, and for the rest, thanks to the marbles arranged without a clear program and still little used, entry is not facilitated. This program does not enhance any aspect of the space, making difficult even to be stationed, and the Fair loses any identities that can be defined throughout the year. The elements of the fair suffocate one another and make everything look like a sort of empty box where, at most, the Euroflora (flower showroom n.d.r.) and the Salone Nautico (boats showroom n.d.r.) can take place.
The Baltimora Gardens in Genoa, set between the old town and Carignano, represent a huge green lung defined by a strong territorial imprint: in fact, a giant basin is inserted between the complex of the Ligurian Center and the “Torre Piacentini”. The imposing elements that surround the gardens do not define them as an apparatus connected to the city, do not characterize them, do not even offer a simple and spontaneous method to enter. They just suffocate them. The Baltimora Gardens are not an urban void only when they host a small festival or an artistic event. The problem of this green spot is the substantial difference between the internal and external rhythms: Piazza Dante and Via Fieschi reduce to a minimum the possible turnout, the first used only as an area of dislocation and the second as a passage, moreover, by car; the two huge complexes, one gray and one pink, which at night offer some views to the Blade Runner, close the access and view; the large entrance in the central direction is designed to connect the tangle of parking lots and roads immediately following, certainly not for the arrival at the gardens.
A small large element of spatial discontinuity can be found in Corte Lambruschini. Its inner courtyard is a sort of subtraction from the fabric of the city, made thanks to the marked extrusion of all the volumes that stand around. The voids and darkness that proliferate between the Teatro della Corte (local theatre n.d.r.), the Star Hotel and the entire slope overlooking Corso Buenos Aires, are romantically in line with a contemptuous brutalist idea, which does not lose its effective aspect more orderly and sinuous, purely linear, volume excavated and plastic, contamination among the few in Genoa, but of a great level. Yet entering the inner courtyard it seems to be no longer in Genoa. No one enters it except to go to some office or to cut off the road to the Brignole train station.
In all these examples, projects are not lacking, people are missing.
The work itself has a complete circle of meaning and counterpoint. And without your involvement as a viewer, there is no story.
– Anish Kapoor ⁷
It is true that not all places have a history rooted in their complexes and do not have a tendency to be experienced in a certain way by those who live in the area. The problem then becomes that of bringing an identity where there has never been one, as well as restoring it where it has failed. But how can this eventual identity be formed?
The trend today is to use concepts such as “dynamic container” or “multifunctional center” as a shield. But to make these processes work, at this point, not only people would be enough, but a real flow of initiatives would be needed, that should not require an effort to be implemented. What’s certain is that it is no longer enough, and certainly it will be even less enough, to include the usual instruments in a reconversion work. The new generations are more productive, they are more connected, they are more in a hurry and the definition of “dynamic container” is changing drastically with the use by the mass, tragically abstract and indiscriminate, of a technology that rather than unite us divides us. In fact, the new generations are even more disinterested. Today the designer is mostly part of the Baby Boomers (if born between 1946 and 1964) or an exponent of the Generation X (1965-1980), at most part of the Millennials (1980 – 2000), but the main target of today’s architecture will be the Generation Z, that are the people born after 2000. Without opening a sociological discourse, it is automatic to think that the type of entertainment will change dramatically in the coming years. So, if our problem is the integration of urban voids, we must think that their faces can never be the same as always. What kind of cultural identities should we expect?
Where space was considered permanent, it now feels transitory – on its way to becoming. The words and ideas of architecture, once the official language of space, no longer seem capable of describing this proliferation of new conditions. [..] Words that die in the real are reborn in the virtual.
– R. Koolhaas ⁸
An interesting parallel can be made with the Dead Drops initiative realized by the Berlin artist Aram Bartholl, who in 2010 began to cement some USB sticks in the walls of New York city. He created some sort of low-profile social networks. The walls of the buildings, the alleys and the sidewalks, practically the whole street had become a tool of connection more evolved than what they represented until then. This shifted the attention to the fact that the contents promoting social exchange were becoming mostly virtual.
Without alluding to Metropolis-style perspectives, we should be confronted with the fact that, today, culture can no longer pass through traditional channels. Who is writing at the moment is part of the last Millennials: I can assure you that many of us think this from the depth. Those who have had children in the last 15 years are realizing their skills related to the use of technology and, at the same time, how much these exclude attention and reception compared to stimuli that do not pass through a screen. The flow that will pass through the realities we are inventing, from the natural persons who will travel through them to the cultural initiatives that will take root, will be of an increasingly complex and varied nature. Understanding what tools one day we will have to implement is complicated, especially in this transitional phase. From our ancestors to our grandparents we went down to the square in search of information. Our parents would go down to the square to discuss what they had seen on the only TV in their condominium. Today’s young people go down to the square to watch a movie, study a language, listen to music or write a novel, all thanks to the smartphone, and often doing more things at the same time.
The historical space, then, will consist in the changing relationship between men and things, with its continuous evolution in time and space. [..] we are inside the historical space and our interpretations transform the facts and the objects that interact with us, modifying us.
– M. Manieri Elia ⁹
The dialogue on the design of elements that already exist, or are yet to exist, should take into account the ability of a space to provide on its own that baggage that otherwise could only be learned through an electronic device. If we want to bring the “meeting voids” back to their original function, as “exchange environments”, we must think about the virtual aspect they could have. If we want to make the void interesting for those who come after us, we must give them the power to teach us more. Because if entertainment, didactics, history and awareness of local traditions, pass only through a screen, the interest in the form and function of the built environment will increasingly fade. To defend the institutions of our history, and fortunately in Italy we have many, we must begin to make them pass through the channels of sharing that will become the only ones that Generation Z will consider, from now in a few years.
In Ersilia, to establish the human relationships that govern the life of the city, the inhabitants tend wires between the edges of the houses, white or black or grey or white-and-black, depending on whether they mark relationships of kinship, exchange, authority, representation. When the wires are so many that one can no longer pass in between, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the wires and the supports of the wires remain. From the coast of a mountain, camped with household goods, the refugees of Ersilia look at the tangle of tense wires and poles that rise up on the plain.
E’ quello ancora la città di Ersilia, e loro sono niente.
– I. Calvino ¹º
The historical center of Genoa is an area full of people and volumes, seeking venting in open spaces, often small, and creates a sub-structure compared to the Genoese one. Within the boundaries of the ancient part, the rhythms seem to be different and everything revolves around a way of living the neighborhood of their own home different from what is typical in the areas beyond the alleys. The empty squares are still used to give breath to people who live in the area and in which they still decide to spend their free time. In the small voids set between the buildings and the narrow streets we still witness nostalgic moments when groups of children play football with what they have, people pass the salt from the windows and many go out without a mobile phone.
But for how much longer?
P.S.: Thanks to Alessandro Borea, Caterina Cipriani, Tommaso Longoni and Michela Quadrelli for the precious chats
Translated into English by Marco Grattarola.
¹ Rem Koolhaas, Toward the Contemporary City, in Design Book Review n. 17, 1989.
² Carlo Carrà, La mia vita, Longanesi, 1943.
³ Architettura e luce mediata, Colloquio tra Gae Aulenti e Franco Raggi sulla luce in architettura, il neoliberty, i musei, il minimalismo, il teatro e le persiane, www.apilblog.it, date of interview 23/05/1991, date of consultation 27/07/2018.
⁴ Kenzo Tange, Pritzker Prize Ceremony acceptance speech, 1987, www.pritzkerprize.com, date of consultation 18/09/2018.
⁵ M. Manieri Elia, Topos e progetto. Temi di archeologia urbana a Roma, Roma, Gangemi, 1998
⁶ Intervista a Manfredo Tafuri, a cura di Enrico Valeriani, in Controspazio n. 4, pp. 90-92, 1984.
⁷ Anish Kapoor in conversation with John Tusa, anishkapoor.com, date of consultation 15/10/2018.
⁸ Rem Koolhaas, WIRED guest editor n. 1, Wired, June 2003.
⁹ M. Manieri Elia, Topos e progetto. Temi di archeologia urbana a Roma cit.
¹º Italo Calvino, Le Città Invisibili, Milano, Einaudi, 1972.