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A look at the city: interview with Fabrizio Schiaffonati

Full Professor at the Polytechnic of Milan from 1980 to 2012, architect Fabrizio Schiaffonati held various institutional roles: director of departments, president of architecture degree courses, coordinator of research doctorates, member of the Board of Directors and the Academic Senate, director of the Permanent Training Centre and the University Quality Centre. Visiting professor at the Academy of Architecture of Mendrisio from 2003 to 2005 and at the Bocconi University of Milan in 2007. Member of the Building Commission of the Municipality of Milan from 1987 to 1993. Designer of various interventions on the architectural and urban scale, he is among the founding members of the Italian Society of Architecture Technology (SITdA). He is currently president of Urban Curator TAT, a cultural association that promotes urban redevelopment studies and projects in the city of Milan.

1 – I would start by making a general overview of your career. Tell us about yourself.

I graduated in the 1960’s, to be exact in 1966, from the Polytechnic of Milan and I did a degree thesis with supervisor Ludovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso. The thesis topic was the design of a civic centre for the administrative decentralization of the city of Milan, located near the interchange node of the Rogoredo station. Belgiojoso had been the first president of the PIM (Milan Inter-municipal Plan) and therefore he developed didactic themes on complex projects on local scale. I had attended his Composition course in the fourth and fifth years. Immediately after the thesis I was asked to become assistant to the professor. Franca Helg, a member of Albini’s professional studio, had long coordinated the Belgiojoso group of assistants. This gave me the opportunity to get to know Franco Albini as well, since the assistants’s meetings were often convened by Helg at his studio. Albini was a very reserved person of few words. However, he participated several times in our meetings, also because he took turns in the same two-year course. Albini and Belgiojoso’s esteem was mutual. After the student protests of 1963, which had led to a significant renewal of teaching in Milan, they had been called to teach in Milan by the Iuav of Venice, to whom they had given an important impression.

In the third year I had attended Ernesto Nathan Rogers’ course, who had won the chair of Composition Elements. He was a fundamental figure for my training as an architect. From this meeting, for its many sources of inspiration and cultural references, I discovered my vocation.

Then, I worked as an assistant to Belgiojoso for a few years to become, later, a technology teacher. This is because of a personal interest in the construction aspects that I developed during the teaching activity with Belgiojoso. The BBPR had designed the popular Gratosoglio district in the early 1960s, a considerable prefabricated building project. It was an intervention that during the courses had also been analysed for construction, regulatory and organization aspects of production. So it resulted as a deep focus on the relationship between the design of the work and its buildability.
My interest was also deepening professionally because I was in charge together with other young architects of the drafting of the Economic and Popular Building Plan on behalf of a public consortium promoted within the framework of the PIM, the Cimep. An opportunity that engaged me for three years alongside the teaching activity, a period that saw me in harmony with Belgiojoso to whom I also asked for clarifications and information. In this vein I continued throughout the 1970s, improving my teaching commitment.

In 1980 I won the national competition as a full professor for the chair of architecture technology and I was called to teach at the Milan Polytechnic. At the end of the 1970sI had already been elected to the Directorate of the Institute of Technology, which had been endowed by the Institute of Composition, with the task of organically structuring the disciplines of design and building production.
In the same year, university departments were established with an important reform law. As soon as possible I took steps to transform the Institute into a departmental structure, together with other teachers like Marco Zanuso, who was already part of the Institute of Technology. A figure who wanted to get involved, with a significant contribution, to the development of this hypothesis.

The department was established under the name “Department of Planning, Design and Building Production” to make clear the area of its research and teaching, extended to the entire process of architectural production. Alongside with the new demands for housing and services according to some important policies of the period, such as the reform of the house, the regional establishment and the launch of new regulations for the construction and the territory.
That of the PPPE Department, the first department of the technological area established in Italy, envisaged a strongly innovative and interdisciplinary vision, decidedly critical concerning the architectural composition conception developed during the 1980s by postmodernism. I headed this department for two terms until 1987, playing different institutional roles within the Polytechnic: President of the Polytechnic Building Commission, Member of the Board of Directors, President of Degree Courses, Coordinator of Research Doctorates, and more. This is to say that I have always considered to be important being involved in management activities to guide and improve the University’s scientific policies, in a period of continuous renewal and change of the didactic statutes. A period that keeps persisting in our days.

The PPPE Department went through several transformations: Department of Industrial Design and Architecture Technology (DI.TEc), then Department of Building Environment Science and Technology (BEST) and today Department of Architecture, Construction Engineering and Built Environment (ABC). I have always had an active role in this process of evolution. The Department has grown and has expanded its theme of design. Up to the current structure, it has had the adhesion of the area of Engineers Technology. I was still Director from 2003 to 2007. In 2012 I retired, still maintaining a teaching position for a Design and Construction Laboratory for Architecture. I also taught for many years at the regional pole of the Polytechnic of Mantua, which I helped to found as a member of the Management Committee. For a time I also taught in Piacenza.

I would also like to emphasize that during my long academic career I have carried out a continuous and intense research activity on behalf of institutions, considering this among the primary tasks of the University for the advancement of knowledge, for the acquisition of resources, for research and the promotion of scholarships, contracts and staff positions for young researchers.

2 – You have been present in the Milan scene for a long time. As a student, how did you imagine the Milan of the future?

In the first half of the 1960s, when I was studying at the Polytechnic the urban theme was at the centre of the debate.
The first centre-left government had the reform of the 1942 law in its program. In 1963, law no. 167, on the development of the Zone Plans for economic and popular building, was passed. A vision of building development that was intended to lead to an organic urban planning after the post-war reconstruction and the development without constraints of the 1950s. Just think that the first Italian regulatory plan approved was that of Milan in 1953, when much of the reconstruction had already taken place. During the debate on urban reform, the report to Parliament carried out by the Director General of the Ministry of Public Works, Michele Martuscelli, presented a dramatic picture that revealed the defaults of almost all Italian cities that had not yet had a master plan. Due to the opposition of the “building block”, the reform proposal put forward by the Honorable Fiorentino Sullo was not accepted. However, at the end of the 1960s, a decree-law introduced the mandatory urban standards concerning the plans for areas designed for services. In that period everyone wanted to be urban planners. Belgiojoso’s presidency of the Milan Intercommunal Plan gives an idea of how the intelligentsia was focusing on urban planning as the centre of the debate. Other core themes were the development of industrial poles in the South and the directional centres of major cities (see the Turin competition with Belgiojoso as president of the jury). Architecture was accomplished through these great planning visions: an urban planning still referring to the great cultural extent of Rationalism and spaces for services and parks. We looked at foreign models such as Greater London or the Amsterdam Plan, with the green that wedged between the “fingers” of the building development. The 1963 “Turbine Plan” by De Carlo, Tintori and Tutino, is an emblematic representation of it. Urban planning as a political and social commitment too. A way that will lead to the 1968 protest against building speculation. So it resulted as a democratic vision of society, a vision of social justice combined with the quality of residence. A theme that had been taken up by Gescal, who continued the INA-Casa policy with more organic and not decentralized neighborhoods like those of the 1950s. With the centre-left as well as with the Socialist Party in government, there was an entirely new atmosphere. It was a time in which, as Arbasino said, “the Italians had made a trip to Chiasso”. We started to leave behind us provincialism to look at the policies of other European countries, the English New Towns, the French villes nouvelles. There was an atmosphere easily perceived inside the university and in various cultural and party circles very active in the city, characterized also by a convergence between some important academic and intellectual figures. Belgiojoso, Albini, Rogers, later also Paolo Portoghesi from Rome, will be part of the same school of thought. In society, there will be figures such as “the Olivetti engineer” Roberto Guiducci, the philosopher Enzo Paci, the writer Ottiero Ottieri, Franco Fortini. But I could mention many others like, for example, Umberto Eco. I was a fourth or fifth-year student, and he had been called to hold a free course on semiology topics. It was held on Saturday morning: it was very popular and attended. I must say that although I didn’t always understand his dissertations on Thomistic philosophy, it was very fascinating. We perceived we were witnessing a turning point of a certain importance.

We envisioned the Milan of the future as a large metropolitan area where the development of residential interventions had to be integrated into the green and infrastructure system. A city that would develop with the growth of the service sector in the Garibaldi-Repubblica area, according to the indications already contained in the 1953 Regulatory Plan. A city made of neighborhoods equipped with all services and with a prevalent development on public transport lines such as the Celeri dell’Adda or the railway line towards Piacenza. Two elements on which the PIM / Cimep put forward the proposal for the development of settlements for a total of 100,000 inhabitants.
We imagined a socially balanced city that could contain the imbalances arising from the land rent, but also a city with a great administrative ability from the municipality and the district authorities. It is no coincidence that the urban planner Giuseppe Campos Venuti, convened to teach at the Polytechnic, had written a small book called “Administrating urban planning” which was a sort of vademecum for the civic administration’s lead in the development of the city. So it was a framework that connected the metropolitan vision to a detailed planning of the new neighborhoods.

3 – How do you see the city of the future today?

Actually, there’s already a city of the future. Megalopolis like Tokyo, with over 35 million inhabitants, or Sao Paulo in Brazil, as well as the large urban agglomerations of Southeast Asia. The European city is relatively smaller: 6 million in Paris, 8 in London, 5 in Berlin, but still at the centre of important local contexts. Although not of that size, even Milan can be considered as the centrepiece of a cityregion of 10 million inhabitants.
The most consolidated fabric of the European city, its history and administrative tradition, allows to contain and control suburban developments within a system of functional and social relationships. Against the danger of an uncontrolled development, Mumford had already coined the term “citymetropolis-necropolis”: the danger of a possible city decline. A danger that is already emerging in many of the megalopolis, where parts of the territory are out of control. The result is a city with the downtown that coexists with ghettos, synonym of marginalization and social insecurity. The city of the centre and suburbs provide two different and conflicting realities. In this sense, the end of the city as a place for social emancipation and civil coexistence. Clearly, technology plays a fundamental role in development, but also in concealing these contradictions and inequalities.
The smartphone allows us to get in touch with everyone, but it misleads us to communicate. Primary needs have evolved. The smartphone is an individual prothesis of a worldwide smart system. In this way, we enter on ethical and philosophical considerations, which lead us to different interpretations. From catastrophic to optimistic. Severino goes in-depth with his interpretation, identifying in technology a pervasive and all-encompassing system of every dimension of the human. A disturbing picture that we could have only imagined into sci-fi fiction. Ridley Scott in “Blade Runner” had already heralded a return to Middle Ages with slums and flying cars. Today we may not be so far from that creepy scenario. I make a distinction between those who bask in this aesthetic vision of chaos as a fount of beauty, and those who, experiencing the injustice of these inequalities, reintroduce a progressive role of the city and territory government.

4 – How do you think the city has changed in the typology area?

There is an involution. The functional clarity of Rationalism was overcome with an excessive ease towards a series of functions that often present incompatibility problems. If zoning might have seemed an excessively rigid rule, today’s mingling is the unacceptable extreme opposite. There are reasons that should define morphological and typological rules, capable of transmitting clarity in every urban area. It is wrong to think that the relationship between morphology and typology might overcome by the functional destinations of each architectural organism.

Also, the architectural project cannot go against anthropometric, ergonomic criteria and methods of use of living spaces, workplaces, services and infrastructures in all their current complex articulation.

Architects, such as the professors but also the many assistants and those who were my teachers, started from a precise knowledge of the many rules governing a rational, correct project, functionally suitable for carrying out the work. The public works projects of that time (for example, the neighborhoods and buildings of Gescal) were subjected to rigorous control down to the construction details. This was meant to not have subsequent maintenance costs and inconvenience for the inhabitants. I remember one of my personal experiences as a young architect. At the end of the 1960s, a residential building project designed for Gescal was returned to me with about sixty observations from the technical offices of the Autonomous Institute of Popular Homes, which exercised a careful control as a procuring entity on behalf of Gescal. Right observations that I welcomed. A good project arises also from the obstinacy to eliminate any superficial inattention to the detail. Instead, the carelessness of today can be read as a sort of illiteracy of return, with the dangerous possibility of a definitive marginalization of the architect, no longer necessary in the engineering phase of the executive project developed by others. Therefore, it means the loss of architectural culture, which should be exercised throughout the construction production span.

5 – What do you think about architectural density in contemporary cities?

Urban density has always been among the major focus of the city centre. There is also a utopian dimension that has ridden it: the Futurist City of Sant’Elia, but also those of Archigrams and Metabolists. Today urban density exists with paroxysmal elements without a real need and connoted by artistic elements rather than architectural ones. I have nothing against concentration. I am against it when it is free. I understand the opportunity of the skyscraper, but I think that a proper balance must always be found with respect to the vocation of the place.

Milan of the future is already here. It will be the Po Valley, the City of Lombardia, as Virgilio Vercelloni used to name it. I am against fashions. Milan has played a primary and fundamental role in Italian architecture because it has always claimed its own identity. From Neoliberty onwards, there has been the will to not surrender to the International Style. It seems to me that today this attention has failed with globalization. I recognize myself more in Glocal neologism. Architecture must represent a state of balance between innovations and pre-existences, between the future and the history of places.

6 – – When did you decide that Architecture would be your way?

By meeting Rogers I found my way. I had enrolled in engineering without having a specific idea. On the first day of the course I left engineering and I chose to study architecture. Perhaps this choice was due to the impulses I had at home and from the company of my father, who surrounded himself with intellectuals and painters. My father was a teacher and an intellectual. In the immediate postwar period, he had a certain political role in his provincial town. He also left many autobiographical writings, so after his death I edited them for his friends and for those who knew him.
Then I met Rogers who fascinated me. I exchanged a few words with him when I was a student of his first course of Elements of composition, and this had a very deep impact on me. He used to meet me and ask me: “Did you go ahead with the project? Are you always there? I’m curious to see how you come out of it … “. He didn’t give me any advice. But the attention he paid to me was the one that inspired me the most. I remember this figure of him, sat at my table, concentrated on the development of the project I was doing (the theme was on a middle school project). Then, without telling me anything, he used to leave. It is possible to find this charismatic relationship between teacher and student in a wonderful book written by Bernard-Henri Lévy, “The adventures of freedom”, which describes silence as a characteristic of Lévy’s teachers. They used to teach trough silence, as well as Belgiojoso too. Instead, I talk way too much.

7 – What is your idea of Architecture?

I don’t have one in particular. To be honest, the one that I find most appropriate is linked with the one of architect Paolo Aina, a friend of mine, who told me recently: “Architecture is the thing that must make people feel good”. I was struck by this concept of well-being. Well-being is a complex fact if we consider that the real one is mainly psychological. If there is a psychological well-being, a more pragmatical one will exist as well. Architecture’s problem lies in correct dimensions and physical and social relationships. Le Corbusier invented the Modulor, an idea that if it may appear free it constitutes the purpose of architecture for humans. It is deeply human. Architecture can also evoke emotions like a work of art. Over the years I have noticed that some architecture I had not look at carefully before, today they excite me. In the Milan context, for example, the entrance inside Torre Velasca is exciting, as well as the works of Caccia Dominioni too.

8 – Any advice you would like to give to young architects and students?

When Paolo Portoghesi was the curator of the architecture section of the Venice Biennale in the early 1980s, I made a feature film with RAI named “Working in architecture”, which was then broadcast in the early evening. By using images and interviews, I dealt with the relationship between the design and construction of architecture. Among the voiceover commentary texts, I had chosen a passage by Le Corbusier that invited the students to desert the classrooms to go to the construction sites. Architecture without construction site does not exist. It must be firstly designed and then built. You have to see and understand how to build it. So architecture should not only be seen on magazine images or on the internet, but you must visit it and see it with your own eyes. Architecture lives thanks to the multisensory nature of those who enjoy it and perceive it.

Translated into English by Francesco Merra.

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Duccio Prassoli Administrator
Graduated at the Department of Architecture in Genoa, he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at the Polytechnic of Milan. He is interested in the architecture of the 20th century and the influence that this is having on society and contemporary architectural thought.
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