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CITIES and ARCHITECTS

 

by

 

Lucien Steil

 

 

The traditional city is the sublime,complex and popular materialization of civility and

conviviality.It is the perfect synthesis between territory,culture and human communities.

It is a stable and stimulating "Patria" for individuals and families,for locals and foreigners,

for residents and hosts,for industry,business,crafts,art,for communication and interaction,

for social,cultural,intellectual and commercial exchange and invention.

 

Besides it has always remained a compelling artifact for imagination,for thinking and for

adoration .How many vedutas,paintings and engravings,photographies,descriptions,

poems and popular songs etc. do not celebrate the beauty,excellence and uniqueness

of the popular traditional city?Even smaller cities and towns have impressive collections

of visual and written records of their epic memory,their layout,their monuments and

piazzas,their streets,their skylines and panoramic views and of the transformations

through a history of an organic urban identity...

 

The large and small historic cities remain centers of cultural pilgrimage and

regeneration for millions of contemporaries, who long for the enlightement and

the sensuous and spiritual pleasures of the good city.Most of the most famous

intact historic cities support the most efficiently the activities and requirements

of modern life, whereas most of the most contemporary cities cannot even

handle the basic components of their initial plug-ins!

Now all traditional cities and towns are built according to the same principles of harmony

and proportion,of scale and of measure,of organization and of structure,of typology

and morphology etc., relating the mathésis of the urban artifact to that of the universe.If

the major ideologists of modernism and deconstructivism abusively use scientific references

to their purposes,their axioms have now been criticized to be erronous conclusions from

superficial scientific understanding!Traditional architecture and city-building have been

acknowledged for according far more profoundly with fractals and chaos and new

knowledge about man and the universe.

 

"Mathematical chaos is the study of hidden patterns in systems that are only

apparently chaotic.There is no change in the fundamental aim of mathematics-

which is to discover patterns-in going from Newtonian to chaotic models.Despite

the the enormous possibilities of applying fractals to built forms in an innovative

manner,deconstructivist buildings have only led to randomness."

 

Nikos Salingaros (in:"Architecture,Patterns and Mathematics)

 

This has been scientifically investigated and thouroughly exposed in the writings of

Nikos Salingaros and Cristopher Alexander.Infact rather then rendering

obsolete classical theory of imitation of nature based on the universal principles of

structure,proportion and harmony of nature,the new scientifical knowledge has

consolidated antique intuitions into evidence.The regeneration of antique theory through

modern sciences opens up spectacular perspectives on the sophisticated patterns

of traditional architecture and city-building,their highly ordered complexity,their

appropriateness with the human mind and body,their consistency with ecological issues.

 

 

"There are general laws and nature broods on these laws to create diversity.Harmony

provides the pattern and chaos gives the freedom."

 

Trinh Xuan Thuan

 

All of these traditional cities and towns are familiar and friendly to us and we

experience the pleasure of "recognition" in foreign cities we have never seen before!

However there is no greater diversity and inventiveness then the one we

might discover in the vast patrimonium of traditional cities...The rejection of traditional

principles of city-building ,the purily arbitrary experimentalism of modernism and the

masterplanning of sprawl and suburb on the contrary have generated faceless and monotous

urbanizations,all alike through the world...Pretending to express our time they have only

succeeded in expressing a monstruous failure of no-time and no-place!

 

 

"Historic cities are alike but all different.Modernist cities are each one different, but they

are all the same!"

 

Maurice Culot*

 

 

But we also know that the beautiful cities of the past have been agressed and destroyed,then

rebuilt again and again so many times.Had there been times where humanity was not

confronted to war,illness,corruption,wickedness,barbary and destruction?The "Golden Ages"

if there have been some, they have always been exceptional and short!

 

Now why should we expect architecture and city-building to express ugliness and horror,

confusion and disorientation,homelessness and alienation?Why should architecture and

city-building rather then build a "patria",limit its role to celebrate the conflicts and crisis of

our time.Reducing architecture to compulsively mirror the state of society and of

contemporary apories is an absurd proposition in itself: There would not have been any

memorable,beautiful, inspiring building nor any comfortable and attractive city

produced through the dramatic history of mankind!Architecture and city-building

would never have developed into highly sophisticated arts!

 

Infact traditional architecture and city-building have always been ideals of

harmony and beauty in a destabilized and disrupted world!Through centuries of

glorious and tragical history,the traditional city has always remained a desirable

model of urbanity,of civilization,of good life and of a possible utopia...

 

Destroyed by natural calamities(earthquakes,floods,hurricanes,etc.) or human ones(wars,

fires,urban transformations,etc.) the traditional cities have most of the time been rebuilt on

the same place ,and ,according to the same principles.Through the aspirations of permanence,

continuity,identity, the new cities were built on the ruins,footprints and memories of the old

ones.Rather then being archeologically the same ones,these rebuilt cities were improved,

embellished and perfected to adjust memory and modernity within the shared pattern of a

collective urban culture.

 

The spectacular reconstructions of Lisbon after the terrible earthquake in the XVIIIth, of

Catania after the destructive eruption of the Vesuve in the XVIIIth,of London after the

Great Fire,of Varsovy after the 2nd World War, and of so many other cities all

over the world ,document the genius of self-regeneration and emulation of traditional

city-building ,as well as its essential capacity of critical adjustments and necessary

transformations..

 

Despite of our century's quick,dramatic and unprecedented changes and innovations,

the traditional city has remained a good and desirable place to live.It has proven to

be perfectly compatible with modern life...It is both an experiencable reality and a

realistical project of contemporary civilization...

 

Remember the paradigmatic Bologna,a prosperous and vital modern city where the

best of the traditional European and Mediteranean urban culture can still be fully

experienced today.This is so not because of backwardslooking nostalgy and lazy

urban policies,but because of deliberate cultural and political choices in favour of

the traditional city...In the late sixties the renowned japanese architect Kenzo Tange

proposed a modern megapolis for millions of people,a masterplan which Bologna

rejected after thourough considerations.

 

The city decided to develop a future vision from the reasonable potential and the

inherent properties of the historically grown traditional city.Under the direction of

architect Pierluigi Cervellati a strategy of sensitive restoration,rehabilitation and

reconstruction based on tangible principles of typology, morphology,of functional

mixity and social diversity etc. was set up and realized successfully.

 

Today Bologna is one of the most popular Italian cities,a booming place of commerce

and industry,a renowned university city and art centre,a great place for leisure and

entertainment, for good food and good wine, for"calme et volupté", as much as for the

excitement and enlightement of the most sophisticated amenities of modern life!

 

Some years ago the demolition of the train station and the building of

a pair of quite ridiculous skyscrapers( by Ricardo Bofill ) were successfully fought

against by the citizen of Bologna and the vigorous public cruisade of Gabriele

Tagliaventi* supported by numerous professionals from Bologna,Italy and from

many places of the world.

 

* "A Vision of Europe" dedicated to the revitalization and promotion of contemporary

architecture and city-building based on the intelligence of tradition and the efficiency

of historical experience,has precisely set up its headquarters in Bologna,the most

significant, symbolical and emblematical example of a contemporary Urban Renaissance.

Gabriele Tagliaventi ,its director, does not only benefit from the support of HRH the Prince

of Wales, but has been successfully rallying international support around the popular

objectives of "A vision of Europe"...

 

How many contemporaries example do we know of successful city-building which do

not in some way or another make their reference to tradition and historical precedents?

Not many ,really ,and hardly any successful one!New classical and trational urbanism

on the other hand have the best records of successful achievments and projects.The

" New Traditional Neighbourhoods " built by the growing number of "New Urbanism"

adherents and practitioners are not only popular and publically acclaimed,but they have

developed into an indispensable part of the Renaissance of American Urban Culture of

cities and towns."New Urbanism" has set up a considerable authority and has a growing

influence in national and regional development policies.

 

Strangely enough the Universities prefer to ignore the new realities of the American Urban

Vision in favour of uninhabitable speculations on Cyber-suburbia and outdated avantguard

fantasies.The Universities obstinately continue to educate architects an urbanists as an

unpopular elite, proud of their alien visions of place and time, and unprepared to serve the

legitimate expectations of the citizen for beautiful,comfortable and well-built homes,

neighbourhoods,towns and cities!

 

In Europe though not constituted in a strong organization like the "Congress of New

Urbanism", in many countries there are notable projects and realizations of traditional

city building.Sympathetically enough these projects and buildings are often related to a

quite inspiring vision of public housing,of economical and ecological land-use,of regional

and local identity and cultural traditions..The "Fondation Philippe Rotthier" in Bruxelles,

"A vision of Europe" in Bologna, "Intbau" in London,"Byens Fornyelse in Norway and

other institutions and organizations are actively supporting the reality of New Classical

and Traditional Architecture and Urbanism.

 

The Traditional City,as the accumulated sum of experience,of know-how,of theory

and practice,of models and types,as a repertory of tangible patterns and finally as one

of the most genial inventions of mankind through history has proved to be the best possible

paradigma of contemporary city-building!Now some pretend that it can't be so and that

our time has the duty to redesign from scratch...They prefer to fail rather then to humbly

learn from the wisdom of whole preceeding generations,a wisdom to which we as

contemporaries are challenged to contribute!Little can be said about this self-defeating

attitude which in the end will never come up with anything of value to the building of a

vital contemporary culture.

 

Now within the context of traditional city-building there is no way of making traditional

architecture an optional device...In order to achieve the highest level of integration,of

quality,of diversity ,etc., traditional architecture has to be the necessary condition of

traditional urbanism!

 

There cannot be a satisfying compromise on the issue of good architecture.As Leon

Krier once stated, there is either architecture or there is the absence of architecture!

Architecture in itself encompasses an unalienable condition of comfort,solidity and

beauty,of scale and proportions,of constructive and tectonic logics etc.There is no

defendable argument for mediocrity in the definition of traditional architecture!

 

Now the modernist alternative, the "absence of architecture" option or the "punishment

by architecture" option, they all continue to pretend to be relevant within the realm

of architecture but do systematically reject any concept of durable meaning and value!

Modernism as a self-referential system of "radical relativism" has lost since long ago,any

utopian connotation and the critical and poetical vigour of an avantguard.It is not a rebellious

and youthful upspring of cultural regeneration, but it is really a phillistine establishment,

paralyzed in its reductive,arbitrary and quite sad paraphernalia of theory and practice.

 

City-building and architecture are different scales of a same discipline..They can't live

happily in deliberate conflict,in constitutional crisis,in ambiguous partnership,in fancyful

contradiction...This is a question of genetic integrity where forceful manipulations create

monstruosities!

 

An alienating architecture is always offensive to its inhabitants,whatsoever the quality of

the urban design!New traditional urbanism cannot blindly trust any architectural mutants

and cannot develop its potential through the hidden agendas of art- genetical experiments!

 

Traditional architecture is quite flexible and rich in its capacities of adjustment and regeneration,

but only within the boundaries of durable principles of quality, comfort, beauty and solidity,

only within the respect of of tectonics, of scale, measure and detail etc.Traditional architecture

is not interested in mere novelty and originality,but in an "eternal newness developing from the

extended elements of the past"(J.W.von Goethe)

 

The new and contemporary traditional architects and urbanists are not looking for striking

statements and for competitive innovation.Their works are exciting and unique by their

harmonious and elegant integration into existing social and environmental and urban

contexts..This is done without servility to the past and without blindness to the future.

It acknowledges the contemporary with positive lucidity and proposes new standards of

modernity for a better world in a context of humanist and ecological criterias!

 

They are not missionaries or prophets of some hypothetical modernity,nor tragical or

misunderstood heroes of anachronic avantguards, but craftsmen and artists who design

and build places and buildings of durable qualities of beauty, utility, construction,

to allow the people of our time to live in comfort, security, harmony, enlightement

and pleasure...If man " dwells as a poet "(Martin Heidegger) the new traditional architects

and urbanists can be said to design and build a world where poetry still makes sense.