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Edoardo Salzano
20040616 The Piazza and the City
7 Luglio 2008
Interventi e relazioni
The text of the speech I held at 40th International Making Cities Livable Conference, London, June 13-17 2004, on the theme "Building Cities for Community & Identity - Celebrating the European Square". Also available as a PowerPoint presentation with pictures

I dare to say that the city is the square.

I dare to say that a city without squares (without a square) is not a city.

Of course, I speak about one kind of city, not about any present city. I speak about the good European city: the city as the history of our civilisation built it, and as we want preserve it and restore it and build it today: for the people of today and for the people of tomorrow.

But what is the European City? That "uniquely European invention, intimately connected to the development of democratic and representative self-government" as Suzanne defined it this morning.

1. The City is a product, a creation, an invention of man, when he reached a certain degree of development of his needs, possibilities, culture, relationship, and when he conquered the will to free himself from the power of the landlords. It is a product of the application of work and culture to transforming the rough (but wise) resources and rhythms of nature. Then the City has a good relationship with its site and with the environment. It is part of the balance between nature and history, between the action and culture of man and the forces and rhythms of nature. The design of the Good City demonstrates the respect and value of the characteristics of sites and illustrates care for the environment.

2. The City is not a mere concentration and agglomeration of houses and streets. The City is the home of the community. So the City has an identity that is not the sum of the identities present among its walls. Then, in the best ages of its millenary history, the identity of the City is directly linked to the prevalence of the interests of the whole community over the interests of groups and individuals.

3. The City is marked by complexity, by the richness of its functions and of the interpersonal exchanges it fosters. The City was born, - was invented - as the site of exchanges and of increased opportunities. The actual historical centres tell us how liveable the City is when different functions live together: housing, working, shopping, meeting, recreation, health care.

This is the City. But the Spirit of the City, or the Genius of City as Suzanne called it – doesn’t exist everywhere with the same density and intensity. The Spirit of the City lives mainly in the public spaces, and it is emphasised in public opens paces.

The French historian Marcel Aymard described this reality well, in an essay on the Piazza in the Mediterranean city.

The public space of the city, where the man is held to appear, has a double identity. On one hand it is different from the home from the site of rest and sleep, from closed space, private space, feminine space, space defended and to be defended. On the other hand, it is different from the flat country, from the empty country, an open space but the space of work and of nature.

The public space of the city imposes itself as the space of action without work : the site of ceremonies and festivals, of gestures and of games, of leisure and of jokes. The city is organized for exchanges between men: exchanges of signs and symbols more than of goods.

The real centre of social life is not in the roads, it is in the piazza, where all the confused and chaotic circulation of the narrow streets flows. More and more defended from the trespassing of the private individuals, the piazza is the public space par excellence, a constant rule for town designing. It is the site of encounters and gossips, of the citizen’s assembly and of mass manifestations, of solemn decisions as of capital punishments.

So wrote Marcel Aymard, that I dare translate into my very elementary English. This is the significance of the piazza : the site where the Spirit of the City reaches its greatest power. Then we can easily understand what the piazza can do for mankind.

The piazza is the catalyst for community involvement. The site where people recognise one another, were each citizen discovers that he has common interests with other citizens; we can even say, where the inhabitants becomes citizens, where the individuals become a community.

The piazza is a school for learning social behaviour, for preparing children and young people to live in an heterogeneous and diverse social world, as Henry Lennard wrote. Henry often says that to stay a day in a Venetian Campo in the fastest way to understand how babies and children and young people concretely learn to behave, and try to emulate the skill of their elders, in a melting pot where (if the city is not a segregating one) different uses open windows toward different habits, and classes, and civilisations.

The piazza is the symbol, and the site, of the representation of city identity. In many cities, the main square develops this function. In other cities such as Venice, public spaces have a larger function : each of them represents the identity of one of the parts, or the neighbourhoods, or the villages, that constitute the city, but all together they represent a system of public spaces that together constitute the identity of the city.

The piazza is the market where the goods of the citizen can be exchanged. The material, as well as the immaterial goods, whose importance increases more and more, as Marcel Aymard told us. Exchange inside the city, between the citizens, but also exchange between the city and the outdoor world. I think that we must look into this key to the reason for the existence of tourists : they are outdoors visitors, persons that come to learn from our identity, and that tell us something about their own identity. Tourists are visiting professors and visiting students, and not distributors of homogenisation.

The functions that public spaces can provide for human civilisation are therefore very important. They really constitute a European treasure, an important added value to its international balance. Some pictures (not as beautiful as those that Suzanne showed us) will help us remember this treasure. (See the Power Point presentation attached)

We must now ask : in what direction goes the state of the piazza today? How is the stream of the time working? In a word, what is the value of the open public spaces in Europe?

The question has two aspects. On one hand, what happens to squares where they were created and they were lived in as living and liveable parts of the city, first of all in the historic centres ? On one other hand, how are public spaces in the new parts of the cities, in the new settlements and in the new peripheries ?

I think we will have good answers to both the aspects of the questions at the end of this Conference. And in the exhibition I have seen some good examples of efforts that are made in the last years to give a new life to public open spaces.

Remembering the experience of Erlangen that our friend Dietmar Hallweg briefly illustrated yesterday morning, I will jump to the conclusion that the best examples are those in which restoring the social function of the piazza is part (an important part ) of a larger strategy, aiming at reorganising the distribution of functions in the whole urban territory, at reducing car traffic, at implementing pedestrian and bicycle mobility, at improving public facilities (such as bus, tramway and light railways), at fighting against pollution

But let us come back to general trends, against which valuable experiences conduct their struggle.

We can see several aspects of degradation of the squares in historical centres of many of our cities:

1. disfiguring by arrogant and incongruous architectures

2. invasion of car traffic and car parks

3. flooding by mass tourism

4. disappearance of normal functions

A few comments on each of these aspects.

Disfiguring by arrogant and incongruous architecture.

I think that the foremost real enemy of the contemporary city is the triumph of individualism. It is the denial of the essence of the city, and of the basic reason for its invention. In the shape of the city we can see two aspects of this enemy. On one hand, urban sprawl. On another hand, the appearance in the old city and in its historical centres of contemporary architecture totally indifferent to the context: often, not only indifferent, but totally in conflict with the rules of the old cities. I will show you two examples:

- the main place of Ulm, degraded many years ago by a nice object (a project of Richard Meyer) located in a space that rejects such objects as an intolerable intrusion,

- the Saint Stephan Platz in Vienna, where a sparkling architecture of Hans Hollein intrudes heavily and presumptuously into the delicate space between the Graben and the Cathedral.

invasion by car traffic and parking.

This is the third way in which individualism destroys the city. It basically destroys cities by invading and occupying the sites where the Spirit of city resides, the squares. Many public open spaces, in many cities are now quite far from what I tried to illustrate when I spoke of the nature of the piazza and of the task that it accomplishes for human development. Many public open spaces in many cities are no longer sites where people meet, and gather, and play, and exchange experiences, and walk, or rest, or learn, or applaud. Many squares are large deposits of cars, of big metallic self-moving boxes that have replaced human beings and there is there no longer space for people.

I think that the Campi of Venice are so celebrated and so beautiful to live in, essentially because Venice is a car-free city. And also I think that the best examples of urban policies for the restoration of squares are policies in which the goal of their strategy is eliminating, or considerably reducing, mechanical traffic from public squares.

Flooding by mass tourism.

Tourism can certainly bring large benefits to the cities. Tourism can be seen and managed (as I told you) as a new type of exchange between the world and the city, and between the city and the world. But this can happen only by respecting some conditions, and I must say that - unhappily – these conditions are rarely respected in the cities that attract the greatest number of tourists.

The first, and the main, condition is that there must be an appropriate balance between tourism and other activities. The particular kind of city user : the touring visitor; can neither be more numerous than the residents, nor even an important percentage of the number of residents. If tourism displaces the normal activities of the city (residence, shops for daily life, inhabitants that work in the city and their services), then public open spaces are destroyed not in their stones and shapes, but in their basic character : the mixed use of the building located on open space, and of space itself.

Disappearance of normal functions

The disappearance of normal functions is the result of all that I described above. Between the causes that allow this to happen, I think we must place foremost the incapacity of local government to control the level of rents. This suggests a larger reflection on the incapacity of «market laws» to bring satisfactory results to the organisation of the city and in his liveability.

I often remember in my university lessons the history of the plan of New York in 1811. The small colony of Dutch emigrants had become a city with 60,000 inhabitants: an important vertex to the fanning out of itineraries which led to the western territories. The dynamics of transformation were such that, in the span of a few years, the lots planned for housing were filled with factories and warehouses. The streets were commonly used both by pedestrians and by horse-drawn carriages which, leaving the textile factories, headed west. The real estate values were very unstable: the intrusion of factories in the once residential areas decreased their value, provoking disastrous effects on investors. This system was not working. In absence of a minimum of clear rules, the market would lose any control and the social-economic conditions would become unsustainable. Based on these needs, and with an active public participation, the government decided to draw up a regulatory plan. So we can state that the modern master plan, the limitation of free initiative that was necessary for the life of cities and for the activities in them - was born essentially because the market needed it.

Today perhaps more than in 1811 we need a stronger presence of public regulations, a stronger control by public government of the land market in cities.

Reverting to the central course of my speech, and before concluding it, I will consider a final issue. What should be the shape and the structure of open public spaces in the new settlements (unfortunately so rare!). I offer you some very simple goals that I have derived from the observation of the ancient and living piazza and from listening to the speeches and from reading the books of Henry and Suzanne.

I think we must first of all never forget that the stones are important, but if they are alone they will not make a square or a city.

Then we must know that in order to manage the relationship between shape and people we must be able to manage (to plan) the whole city, and its territory, in all their aspects: traffic and mobility as well as environment, land use as well as housing, tourist policies as well as commercial policies and so on.

Within this general concept, how can we imagine a good square? I offer you ten rules.

1. The squares must be partially closed and protected, but they must at the same time be opened on a perspective, on a panorama, on a flow; adequate openings for a partially closed open space can be a valley or a hill, a river or the sea, or a main road with its traffic.

2. The buildings that surround it must compose a chorus of background buildings, but at the same time we must have some soloist - some foreground buildings. At two or three sides you must have common houses, nor very tall and not very different one from the other, but on the fourth side, or in the middle, we must have a taller building, such as a church or a Civic building - or a tower, or a big tree.

3. The shape of the space must be regular, but also varied. Curved lines and straight ones can very well combine together, but playing with regular lines and figures you can also obtain both variety and regularity.

4. Urban furniture must encourage different uses from different kind of persons. I think it is better to have elements were you can sit or jump or walk or play, than to have different elements for seating, for jumping and for playing - and so on.

5. Open public spaces must be alive and animated at different moments of each day and every day of the week. So you must have different functions mixed together: surrounding it, private homes and shops, public utilities and cafes and restaurants, used for occasional events and festivals, and so on.

6. Very small utilities can help to make a public space live: a simple mail-box and a bancomat and some telephones can be very useful, if the neighborhood is not large enough to justify a bank or a post-office.

7. Open public spaces must be at the very centre of neighborhood. Several routes must cross in it or near it. Public spaces don’t live only as a scenario, but typically as a focus point for a community.

8. Open public spaces must also be the hinge between the neighborhood and the city - between indoors and outdoors. A hinge in two senses: the door through which you enter in the neighborhood and the door from which you go out from the neighborhood and you enter the city.

9. Open public spaces must be the sites where the events that can interest the community happen : festivals and music bands, but also small markets or sites were the mayor or the candidates for elections meet the citizens.

10. And finally, I think it is better if in public open spaces you sense the presence of nature. You can have a view of the sea - like in Piazza San Marco in Venice or in Praça do Comerço in Lisboa - or some trees were there was once the water of canals - like in Campo Santa Margherita and Campo San Polo, or simply birds - like in Piazza San Marco and in so many open public spaces in Venice.

As you can see, I haven’t mentioned in these ten points anything about the styles of architecture. A debate about this point could well fill an entire conference.

My bad english was gently correctet by Patrice Rauszer, a good friend, that read and appreciated this paper in Eddyburg

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