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SMART CITY – SMART BRAND: interview with Matteo Orlandi

Matteo Orlandi, born in Genoa in 1977. He completes his architecture training between Genoa and Vienna where he begins his apprenticeship in various studies following projects in Europe and Africa. He starts a long collaboration with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in 2008. He carries out teaching, research and dissemination activities at the universities of Genoa, Vienna, Shenzhen, Shanghai. He is currently the owner of MOA (Matteo Orlandi Architetto) studio in Genoa.
I asked to Matteo Orlandi what he thinks of the general behavior of Architecture towards the future, taking advantage of the contents that we have extrapolated with the experience of the previous AGORÀ issue.

After the Number 04 of AGORÀ magazine – we asked ourselves about the death of the Architectural style giving way to the “Method” – we asked ourselves how the future could influence the shape of the building when making a project. This shape, mostly confuse with aesthetics, derives certainly not from the attempt to create beauty, but rather from that of creating a body capable to be concept, function and participation that a complex space such as the urban one can accommodate in its systems.

This is AGORÀ magazine Number 05 and for its editorial we wanted to focus on the concept of “Smart City”. We want to talk about the Smart City because it is not simply about technology applied to Architecture, but how the technological aspect integrates with future design and formal choices that we will make for our urban fabric. Smart City is everywhere, in the streets, in our offices and homes, changing the type of spaces we live in during our existence. It aims to mark a time, an accessibility and different performance for our life processes, simple and complex, in the entertainment-work-transport triad. In the common imagination, the future of cities shines along transparent windows and white or metal structures, both light and suspended. Captivating towers and infrastructures with the branches and roots of green spots perfectly integrated with the tracks of high-speed flights or with increasingly long escalators, creating the face of a healthy, clean, happy and invincible society.
But at what price?

1 – What is a Smart City?

The Smart City is a city capable of solving and/or preventing the problems of citizens and the urban environment thanks to the use and synergy between all the latest technologies available, in particular those related to the computation and application of data in real time and to the virtuous management of energy. A city of the future, intuitive, reactive and adaptive almost like a living being.
Considering that we have been talking about Smart City for a few decades now, we can say that each area of research has found its potential application field, more or less effective than it is. For political storytelling, it certainly seems to be the panacea for every “citizen” evil linked to growth, organization and urban transformation.

2 – The idea of Smart city, which is also officially mentioned in European directives, seems to be the only possible way for the growth and transformation of contemporary cities around the world. Why?

At the beginning of the last century 10% of the world population lived in the city, today it is more than 50%; at the end of the century, if this remains the trend, we will probably all be living in a city.
For an Italian person who travels almost exclusively in his country, these data may have little relevance today since all our micro and macro urban areas, with only exceptions such as Milan and Lombardy or Trentino Alto Adige, seem to have reached their maximum size after the last great and controversial expansion phase ended in the 70s.
The Italian population no longer increases, it is a fact, rather it decreases and the only demographic increases, numerically not very significant and poorly managed, are attributable almost exclusively to immigration phenomena. Just think that my city, Genoa, could lose more than 100,000 inhabitants in 2036 (now there are around 580,000).
However, there are large and influential parts of the world where this growth is tangible, places where cities are experiencing epochal transformations and will face very important phases of expansion and population growth in the coming years. New neighborhoods and entire new cities are also emerging right now thanks to and together with immense economic investments. A ten-year trend in some areas of the planet.
We can ask ourselves if this perspective is the most desirable one and investigate its political, economic and environmental reasons, very complex causes to identify and prevent, but also controversial; this is what the best universities in the world do even if they are too often unheard. This is what is already happening and thousands of architects around the world are somehow involved in it, billions of dollars of investment are supporting this trend and you can’t just think it’s “bad” and slamming the door, like do some.
I think of Singapore, Islamabad, Abu Dhabi, all Chinese cities, African cities will welcome 950 million more inhabitants, but also some European cities like Graz will grow even if much more gradually.

3 – But who and how we can design these new cities? Are there valid models to follow? With what rules? Is there a right or wrong way? What architects can do to be protagonist of these processes?

We can certainly say that architects have not been “influencers” for quite a while. Someone tries and gets incredible results, becomes “clicked” and copied especially by architecture students and realizes to amplify the image of his works all over the world, I think for example of BIG, perhaps also interesting in terms of construction and space, not only in the communicative one, but in any case self-referential. The era in which Hausmann, Le Corbusier, Cerdà and many other mythical characters involved the keys of the city and the future of millions of people in a pencil stroke is over. We keep in mind that the last CIAM is from 1959. Of course, politics has always played a fundamental role since men were united in the community, but the degrees of freedom of the designers and the possibilities were more pleasant, obviously also the wrong ones.
The urban planning of the new cities today follows other parameters that are not those of the last century, parameters that however are not very clear and codified, certainly are less and less in the hands of urban planners. Instead, it is the agreements that, based on the forecasts of economic exchanges and more and more following a more or less oriented consensus, first of all deciding on the infrastructures; the city with its “form and substance” and its dynamics are a more or less random and effective consequence, depending on the cases and professionals involved. Even Le Corbusier, in a certain sense, conceived the city as an infrastructure and perhaps for this very reason I hear more and more often a critical reinterpretation of the consequences on our cities of some choices of the Modern Movement. But Corbù was a genius, and the legacy of the Modern Movement is an interesting though purely academic subject.
Today, economic flows, infrastructures and the great mantra of the environment are the pillars on which the current evolutionary strategies of cities are based. Since we live in the age of “technique” as the good Galimberti reminds us, in which we tend to achieve maximum goals with the minimum use of means and since we often confuse technique with technology, the varied world of the Smart City becomes an easy, almost direct, in some cases obligatory reference for administrators and the media. A “complete package” potentially capable of responding simultaneously to these needs, obtaining the maximum consensus possible, including also the dearly direct participation of citizens in the development of the city: in short, come forward who has the courage to declare against Smart Cities and explain convincingly why.

4 – So what about Architecture? The one with the capital letter, the one that stimulates the senses and harmonizes the changes, the one that opens gashes to a better world, the one without space and timeless, the always right one, that makes us feel good, the one that is included in the Smart City package?

Architecture comes sometimes and usually at the end of the decision-making process. In short, the crumbs. The architects come later, they fill the gaps, they stand aside to smell the best deal, they provide stimulating and reassuring images to the political narrative, if it is okay they build a “green” neighborhood or a skyscraper where then specialized technicians insert more and more invisible infrastructures capable of collecting environmental data in real time and automating the life of buildings with that of the inhabitants, with that of the city, with that of the planet. Of course, there are exceptions: the historic Viennese studio Coop Himmelblau has always been a step forward and for years now it has been studying entire neighborhoods capable of generating energy, another great theme. Many isolated and fortunate examples that in some cases become media phenomena, but the phase is still that of experimentation.
Even the academic world could try to clarify in this new smart world, stimulating new paths, creating trends and sometimes taking apparently counter-current positions. Obviously together with professional associations and international associations which are too often self-referential.
Architecture should be the only accredited actor able to choose, harmonize and integrate components and materials otherwise dissociated, and transform them into the best possible place for man in that part of the world, even in 2050 and beyond, even with the latest available technologies. Look for that new balance between the parts that could create a new language and restart the history of architecture from the new cities of tens of millions of inhabitants to the countryside ruin.

5 – Smart City also in Italy?

The other possible type of Smart City concerns us more closely since it is also widely discussed about here in Italy, the country where every small or large city, that is proudly different from the other, wants to have a “smart” license. It concerns not the new but what already exists, that unique mix of historical legacy and neglected suburbs all tied up by a good dose of province: those infinite and hated houses born randomly after favorable laws, have transformed agricultural land into building, and which sometimes they are the only thing that makes us understand that we are in Italy.
From a certain point of view, even this fabric can be considered almost new because it is potentially still unexpressed, it is there and will remain so for a long time: therefore instead of occupying the few remaining empty spaces, why not observe and study what already exists and just waiting to be transformed. Also in this case the only official guideline that we have, increasingly legitimized by public opinion and administrators, is the uneven set of pieces in the sustainability catalog which Luca Molinari also talked about in the interview contained in the Number 04 of AGORÀ magazine and that promise miracles with few photovoltaic panels.
At this point, however, we clash with the usual question: how much and how we can deal with what already exists, the bureaucracy, the super intendencies, the communities that tend, especially in times of lack of resources and investments to be conservative and nostalgic.
If we compare the current expressive freedom of an Italian architect with a German or a Spanish one for example, when we talk about building on buildings we know that the difference is generally remarkable. But we must not forget that in this strange country if there had not been a conservative superintendence too many troubles would have been caused by the wild and frantic reconstruction of the post-war period, which often exploited incredible concessions.
But now I think the time has come to completely rethink the relationship with the cities in which we already live and the contemporary world without profoundly altering urban structures consolidated on previous socio-cultural models. After all, it is exactly what our ancestors have always done even if we do not consider it an important comparison: they created generation after generation and for centuries, those incredible mutant bodies that are our historic cities, where there is no purism, where there is no integrity, where everything is integration, reuse, rereading. Take back the history in short, with great respect but without fear.
For the old and diversified European cities, and in particular for the Italian ones, the next step will be to standardize and improve the quality of life and perhaps the “Smart City” brand, with its indisputable potential, may also be of fundamental help.

6 – Any advice you would like to give to young architects and some books to read for our training?

In short words: “Beware of advice and who gives it to you, endless curiosity and above all find the way to talk about architecture with everyone, even your mother.
Work tip: learn about your limits and use them. If you think you don’t have them, good luck.
As for the books, I would recommend subscribing to the newsletters of as many sites as the time available and the desire allow, from ArchReview to Dezeen, Artribune, etc …
Books by and for architects: classics apart, the first ones that come to my mind are the biography of FLW, “WalkSkapes” by Francesco Careri, “Delirious New York”, the books of Gilles Clement and the legendary De Carlo.
Other books: lately I’ve been passionate about Emmanuelle Carrere’s books, now I’m reading “M. Il figlio del secolo” by Scurati and I always pick up Pasolini’s “Scritti Corsari”, opening it at random.

7 – When and how did you decide to become an architect?

I enrolled in Architecture as a second choice, I wanted to do Archeology. I love the history of Man and in particular that of its artifacts, the “ruins” have always fascinated me, I imagine their original appearance. At eighteen, a little confused and born on the outskirts of a middle-class family, I opted for a seemingly more convenient path from a working point of view. Finally, in the third year, the lessons of Enrico Bona and Brunetto De Battè in Genoa shocked me. That spark was then consolidated by a little extra-Italian experience.

Translated into English by Mattia Bencistà.

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Luca Fabbri Editor
Born in Genoa on June 12, 1995, he completed art studies in high school and graduated in Architecture Sciences in the Department of Architecture and Design of the Polytechnic School of Genoa. He continued his studies at the Polytechnic of Milan where he attended the international Master. To date, he has completed three traineeships in three architectural studios, one of which is still ongoing, and an experience alongside an archaeologist expert in museum art communication. Parallel passions are art, freehand drawing and gin.
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