There are some forms of art, which are defined as “immortal works”, capable of breaking the frontiers of time and deeply embody universally shared principles and values beside the generational change. This is definitely the case of “Invisible cities”, a complex and multifaceted novel written by Italo Calvino that, then as now, it is able to transport us into another dimension, as enigmatic and visionary as surprisingly familiar and tangible.
Sofronia is the name of one of the cities that Italo Calvino describes in his famous novel “Invisible cities”, undisputed pillar of every visionary architect/town planner. Sofronia consists of two half-cities: in the first one we can see “the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its halo of chains, the wheel of the revolving cages (…)”, while the second one “is made of stones and marble-cement, with the bank, the workshops, the building, the slaughterhouse, the school and everything else”. One part is fixed, while the other is temporary, destined to be regularly assembled and disassembled. Therefore, every year “the labourers detach the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pillars, dismantle the ministry (…)” “while the half Sofronia of the dartboards and carousels remains” “waiting for the caravan to be back and for the life to start again”. There is a possible interpretation of this short narration, suggested by its unexpected ending: the “heavy” city builds in our heads the idea of the society’s institution and structure that is constantly changing and rebuilding itself, whilst its “light” side stays playful and impatient. This contrast between rooted and ephemeral, solid and intangible, it is one of the recurring themes within the narration, whose cities sometimes define themselves by declaring their own laws, and sometimes seems utterly fleeting and vanishing.
We could use this anecdote to make a consideration about our times, leading to us asking to ourselves: Which connotations will our future societies have? What kind of expectations will we have? What desires? Will our city be made of stone or iron? Light or heavy? Defined or ephemeral?
© Gabriele Prinzivalli, personal Zirma – Le città invisibili (I), 2020.
Approaching the issue with a progressive attitude, we could assume a scenario of constant ferment, wherein people and cultures swirl together so fast that they liquefy into a tumultuous sea where the idea of space loses its founding status. As visionary as this may seem, it is not that far from today’s city. In the book “First lesson in urban planning”, the author B. Secchi talks about how “urban planners, sociologists, anthropologists and economists in order to describe contemporary cities use terms like fragmentation, heterogeneity, discontinuity, disorder, chaos, which underline the absence of order and rationality evoking images far from the idea of place”. Here we are, suddenly thrown right in the middle of the global city. We are once again blown away and overwhelmed by a reality that is filled with that heterogeneous and multifaceted component that the narration had previously introduced. Concentration, mixture and movement constitute the DNA of these world poles, which play a fundamental role in the socio-economical structure of today’s societies. It is important to state that the purpose of this document it’s not to guide one’s opinion, nor deny the process of globalization that is already well under way: it’s about running the current without being dragged by it. The awareness of an unavoidable contamination on a global level and the importance of a shared commitment in addressing the numerous challenges that the future holds it’s particularly topical; that being said, it’s also essential to maintain a critical debate with the reality and isolate some key points. To be able to do that we will once again need the help of the abovementioned novel. I would like to introduce you other three cities built by Calvino:
Firstly, we could introduce Leonia, which “refashions itself every day” “on the sidewalks, encased in spotless plastic bags, the remains of yesterday’s Leonia await the garbage truck” to clean up “not only the crushed toothpaste tubes or burned-out lightbulbs, but also water heaters, encyclopedias, pianos (…)”. In fact “Leonia’s rubbish little by little would invade the world, if, from beyond the final crest of its boundless rubbish heap, the street cleaners of other cities were not pressing, also pushing mountains of refuse in front of themselves”.
Then there’s Pentesilea, another city that “spreads for miles around a soupy city diluted in the plain; pale buildings back to back in mangy fields among plank fences and corrugated-iron shed”. Here we can find “at the edges of the street, a cluster of constructions with shallow facades”. “And so you continue, passing from outskirts to outskirts, and the time comes to leave Pentesilea”.
© Gabriele Prinzivalli, personal Armilla – Le città invisibili, 2020.
In the end, we have Trude, a city that doesn’t surprise the main character at all. Marco Polo says: “if i had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off”. One might then wonder “why come to Trude?”, but this is not important, because even if you leave it “you will arrive at another Trude”, since “the world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes”.
It’s surprising how this three cities, designed by the author at the end of the 70’s, described some of the most important contemporary cities in an almost predictive way.
Leonia is the city of consumerism, only worried to achieve a renewal for it’s own sake. If the consumerism can find its first developments at the beginning of the industrial society, particularly during the 60’s economic boom, nowadays this process has mutated and evolved itself in numerous forms. Going past the issue concerning the manufacture of comfort-producing goods, today’s consumerism goes far beyond the materialdomestic sphere, becoming consumerism of places, images and ideas. The most important factor to consider is technological development, as the abundance of messages and information leads to their constant competition and to a race “towards the new more than the innovative”¹. In this way, the element of surprise and the spectacularity become fundamental laws inside a tank of textureless images. In this way, monuments become silent symbols with no tension.
Pentisilea, for its part, becomes a metaphor to describe the urban sprawl. This term finds its definition during the 70’s, reporting “that horizontal growth that loses the mesh of the city prolonging the uncontrolled overbuilding in the suburban areas, that end up being the extension of the mother city”². The low density of the urban and social structure produces unresolved and disconnected spaces, where container architectures thrive, such as malls, fast food and department stores. They draw their own laws from the market system and the industrial design, resulting in insignificant extras.
© Gabriele Prinzivalli, personal Zirma – Le città invisibili (II), 2020.
Last but not least it’s Trude. This city really helps us focus on the phenomenon called architectural atopy. The term “a-topy”, with the ancient Greek privative alpha, underlines the lack of place. It’s necessary to distinguish utopia (ou- non, topos– place) from atopy (a- without, topos- place). The first one describes an ideal space which could never find a realization into the real world, whilst the second one expresses the idea of an inactive place, with neither a positive or negative meaning⁴. This is what happens nowadays in various architectural and urbanistic forms: we can find traces of this phenomenon both in the cities and suburbs, in the great displays of power of the economical headquarters or in the container architecture of the suburbs². It’s clear how this phenomenon requires economic laws outside the principles of construction. In the first case we could easily find unlikely architectures which, however, are ordinary in the extraordinary, while in the second one we could find nothing more than temporary architectural containers.
In this way we place ourselves far from the notion of “belonging” and the willing to consider those “environmental pre-existences” that Rogers identifies as the project’s basis. Living together also means to establish law and shared values which cannot prescind from the definition of a common identity, that also passes through architecture. We could also suggest that a good portion of today’s social issues it’s tied to the weakening of the sense of belonging and to the definition of a social identity that indicates a scale problem. Contrary to our hopes, the global system gets stuck on a political, economic, social and architectural level.
© Gabriele Prinzivalli, personal Zenobia – Le città invisibili (II), 2020.
So what should we do? There’s no formula to address this situation. What we could do it’s simply try to explain things and be aware of what is happening around us. In this way, through definition and detachment, we can proceed pursuing original proposal and rejecting the homologation. In practice, the concept of relationship, to which the term “ecological” refers in an intrinsic way, could help us keep in mind that everything we do has a before and an after, an origin and a temporary modification; therefore the comparison with the foundations of the existing is essential. In conclusion, I would like to go back to the book we already used introducing you Andria: serene city of the sky.
It was built maintaining a strong connection to the celestial stars, which determined its buildings form. The author once again surprises us by immediately distancing us to the idea of a perfect and immobile city. On the contrary, through a “painstaking regimen”, it modifies itself so that “each change implies a sequence of other changes” “the city and the sky never remain the same”.
Reaching the end of the novel we can finally find a reference in Andria. Its strength and sturdiness doesn’t come from its reluctance to change nor from a evolutionary eagerness: it relies on itself, maintaining consistency in its links, contaminating and being contaminated through a meticulous process, in a successful relationship between the rest of the universe and itself. For this reason, “two virtues of the character of the inhabitants of Andria deserve to be mentioned: self-confidence and prudence”.
Translated into English by Alessandra Biondi.
Cover: © Gabriele Prinzivalli, personal Zenobia – Le città invisibili (I), 2020.
¹ V.Gregotti, Dentro l’architettura, Bollati Boringhieri, Turin, 1991.
² G.Dall’Ongaro, Scenari Verso le città age-friendly, micron, Perugia, 2013.
³ M. Bovati, G. W. Reinberg, Il clima come fondamento del progetto, Marinotti, Milan, 2017.
⁴ A. di LuggoId, Introduzione Conferenza: Atopie, idee per la rappresentazione, Naples, 2012.
– I. Calvino, Le città invisibili, Mondadori, Milan, 2016.
– B. Secchi, Prima Lezione di urbanistica, Laterza, Bari, 2000.
– C. Botticini, Identità architettonica, relazionismo progettuale, tesi di Dottorato di ricerca in Progettazione architettonica e urbana XIV Ciclo, Politecnico di Milano, Milan, 2003.