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Densify / Scale Down. The archipelago as a response

Antonello Russo 




The idea of a city.
The idea of limitless and shapeless urban expansion has revealed to be, in the recent public health emergency, most starkly inadequate, and amplifying its already underlying state of crisis. The need to redress the employment of land, the urgent need to optimise resources, the need to limit the expansion of network services dispersed into capillary streams to reach individual scattered destinations, have today new connections with mandatory health and safety restrictions suspended between a propensity to confinement of urban dwellers in delimited areas on the one hand and on the other, appropriate measures of social distancing between individuals whose provenance is not known.  The resulting idea of the city suddenly entrusts new life to marginal places provided they are widely associated with inter-modal links, be them material or intangible, purposeful to the exchange of ideas, goods and people. There follows a reflection on the regulations of the form of anthropized areas capable of powering a critical debate on the evolution urban dwelling. Beyond the idea of a city by parts perpetuated in the Modern, along with the additional resolutions of a polycentric model which assigned to the satellite cores functions dependent on the consolidated centre, the urban body currently aims to an antihierarchical idea of its extension, characterized, in outdoor areas, by the onset of tensional balance between the medium-sized cores with independent identities. Like the formal aggregations distinguished on the background of Campus Martius by Piranesi, the zenith interpretation of the surrounding areas reads the spontaneous composition of clumps seen as intermediate entities between concluded urbanity and fragments of the city. Attributable, in Italy, to the residential settlements characterizing the scope of the city district (which recognizes in the late twentieth century an important period of experimentation on the composition of finished parts of the urban system), such concentrations are put forward today as a prospective waiting for suitable completing, new additions of services, large and healthy demolition of every shapeless proliferation, as strategies aiming at the establishment of high-density yet more compact cores.  In this context, reflecting on the form of the urban organism leads to honing a settlement grammar that, in the face of expansion and dispersion of the urban sprawl, conversely identifies in the concentration and patchiness of built-up areas, in the definition of an exact limit to settlements, in the distance between distinct areas, the operating conditions to define the characters of the peri-urban areas also involving, by the same token, the regenerative processes of large discontinued compartments placed inside the consolidated cores. Updating the studies on the Horizontal City of Irenio Diotallevi, Franco Marescotti, and Giuseppe Pagano, critical interpretation of the surveys on the Expanding City  of Giuseppe Samonà, of the City in the City of Oswald Mathias Ungers, reworking the scope of the research on the Urban Plates of Salvatore Bisogni, the idea of the urban archipelago made up by distinct settlements outlines the making of a system from a dense and compact materiality as the operating point of dense relations between organized multi-scope matrices, each, in a spatial order that is varied, stratified and interconnected with the various constituent elements.  A critical projection of the potential expressed in the definition of urban sprawl by Francesco Indovina, encapsulating and reminding the idea of ground as a supportive infrastructure that holds each settlement, already expressed in the Eighties by Bernardo Secchi, such representation defines a model featuring a prevalence of outdoor spaces useful in the materialization, on farming land, of sudden coagulation of fabric determined by the completion of densification and lumps/districts existing to provide, at a critical distance, of settlement islands that can accommodate no more than twenty thousand permanent residents. Distinguishable as finite additions, the urban individuals amplify their presence by virtue of the definition of a figure, identifiable as a contrast to the weft of the surrounding fields. Located in the vicinity of the infrastructure strips, which as navigable channels ply the agricultural soil, these thickenings define complementary relationships between adjecent islands in their arrangement of a settlement archipelago characterized by multiple landings. Suitable to interpret a virtuous relationship between city and nature, this model therefore outlines, in the void, in the negative green between settlements, in the distance between distinct agglomerations, not a residual range but, rather, essential to recognize the physical characters of the hosting nature and the civil value of the city as equal interlocutors of a high dialectic.

 

The Island
At a distance the individual conglomerations materialize their image in the definition of a horizontal skyline balanced by vertical counterweights identifiable as urban landmarks which, like the towers and bell towers of historical cities, make up the territorial references on a large scale. Within the fabric, the need to maintain a prolific tension between the identity of urban events and the conformity of the residential areas outlines a virtuous conflict between the permanence, arranged by the iteration of a measure, and the evolution of a controlled mutation, distributed by large typological variations imprinted on the individual elements of the composition. Specialist buildings, services with territorial scope and places for collective work distinguish the accelerations of a metric in which the open space, in its progressive variations - public, semi-public, private - outlines the intervals in the built up areas and the measure of spatiality for the rites of collective appropriation with implications related to urban proximity and neighbouring units. Mindful of the porous consistency of Louis Sauer's American neighbourhoods of the second half of the Twentieth century, the idea of scaling down is arranged as a post-composition of a thick density for measuring gaps characterizing the polarities and spatial references of the basic layout. Instrumental in controlling an effective aesthetics of variation, the squares, the plazas, the courts and the quads, but also public parks, gardens, lay-bys, parking lots, the in-between places, arrange successively the nomenclatures of a type list of exteriors that can generate sudden expansions aimed at giving a new lease of life to the density of the fabric. Interpreter of urban discontinuity theorized in the experiences of OMA - in the project for the Ville Nouvelle of Melun Sénart around Paris in France and, more clearly, in the plant for Chassé Terrain in Breda in the Netherlands - it is the identity of the open space that drives the composition by resorting, however, to a close measurement of its form to define an identity appropriation alternative to the decontextualizing intentions of the generic city and the informal dimension of contemporary junkspace. As in 18th-century Rome sketched in Nolli's plant, the connection between alveolar voids has in the pedestrian crossing, in the informal encounter, in the presence of art, the customs of a more human and civil dimension of urban living. In this framework, analyzing, imagining, composing the architecture of the city from the consistency of the void reverberates the need for a more evident intelligibility of the forms of the most representative buildings which, as massive and heavy cornerstones, propose themselves as sudden material solidifications that anchor to the ground the idea of a weak monumentality of the composition arranged, in the contemporary, as new exegeges of the tectonic dimension of the artefact.

 

The home
In this context, the domestic space acquires new importance, recording in the measure and variations of the housing core the elementary primary unit of the fabric. Primary spot for shared conviviality, the urban residential interior records the instances of every performative action of the individual, contrasted by the growing demand for indoorness capable of reserving the character of ultimate haven of living to the home. As in the Miesian studies of the 1930s, in this ambiguity, the demand for a progressive dilation of the spatiality of the domestic interior corroborated by the provision of open spaces – lodges, terraces, gardens – confluenced in a progressive weakening of the threshold of passage between interior and exterior space of the residence. Silent and assertive, suspended between exhibition and introversion, between the density of its functions and the scaling down arranged by the presence, inside, of large open voids pointing to the sky, the space of the house outlines in the patio its type of reference.

 

Provisional conclusions
With the conviction that only by adhering to a broad and general theory about the city it is possible to proceed to manipulate even the smallest of its parts, the proposition of an idea of the shape of the urban organism identifies in alternating density and rarefaction as the primary actions of an articulated syntax aimed at interpreting a scalar sequence that combines the characters of the territory and the landscape, involving the urban dweller down to the spatiality of their household interior. The result is an attitude to a specific attention to what is already available, for marginal areas, for the aggregations already present at district level, for smaller villages, as active participants of a dialectic operating between urban aggregations and natural spaces such to determine through void the information of a real, positive, appropriation.




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