Beauty in contemporary urban design

by MARCELLO VILLANI

Among the theoretical foundations - or, if you prefer, myths - of the Modern Movement , beauty does not occupy a particularly prominent position. The term appears, it is true, in the writings of Masters such as Gropius, Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe; but often through generic, if not ambiguous, accents. The conviction that transpires when the discussion shifts to the role assigned to the functional program, to coherence with the new demands of industrial civilization, to new construction systems, to the seriality of the housing cell and its components appears quite different: in short, on a rational approach to the problem of contemporary design. The reasons for this position are different: putting the abstract concept of beauty in the foreground would have meant sliding towards an aesthetic of nineteenth-century matrix, now considered completely outdated; above all, the conviction emerges on the basis of which, if bound to the firm foundations acquired, one would have arrived at a rational beauty almost automatically.

Only after some time would the awareness of the undeniable deficit in terms of beauty accumulated by the architectural and urban revolution of the first decades of the twentieth century emerge, albeit obtorto collo. The position of an unsuspected figure such as that of Gropius, one of the most convinced supporters of architectural mechanization and the relentless seriality of residential building nuclei, is emblematic. In Scope of Total Architecture - or the summa of Gropiusian thought - the German architect will come to argue that "functionality equals beauty is only partially true", but above all he will openly pity "the lost sense of beauty" (January 1958).

Remained in fact on the sidelines for decades, the theme of beauty in the architectural and, above all, urban fields has strongly returned to current events in the last decade. And this is how we passed, for example, from apodictic statements such as those of Wolf Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky by Coop Himmelb (l) au ("There is no beauty in architecture") to the "need to have to talk about beauty" proclaimed by Alfonso Femia of the former 5 + 1AA («Il Giornale dell'Architettura», 10 May 2016). But above all, the alarmed complaints of authoritative insiders about a dissipation, such as that relating to beauty, increasingly felt as an intolerable collective loss, have progressively multiplied.

Again, the reasons are different; on a general level, the myth of Rationalism has long since faded and, beyond nostalgic declarations of principle, has now lost the exclusive and all-encompassing force it had in the past. Above all, the terrible problems connected to the neighborhoods conceived from the perspective of the Modern Movement or, in the Italian sense, “rationalists” have come to a head. In particular, more than in reference to individual architectures, we have finally begun to realize the bleak paucity of many of the public spaces designed or built in recent decades: in particular, as regards those still pompously defined squares , but which appear in reality as inhospitable open spaces, deserted by the same users who should have enlivened them with their presence.

Thus, it was necessary to look with a changed awareness at the districts of the Modern, where alongside the abstract and dogmatic setting, the social decay, the squalor of the common spaces, the non-existent security, the abstract usability of the collective green areas, the problematic maintenance, in fact, an undeniable and worrying beauty deficit has been highlighted. The final balance was, to quote an important urban planner like Giancarlo Consonni, that "mature modernity is being characterized as the phase in which an ugliness is affirmed and spreads that, by extension, has no equal in history ... beauty has concerned the city and the countryside ”( The civil beauty. Splendor and crisis of the city , 2013).

In this context, it appears disheartening that in many Italian schools of architecture they continue to stubbornly re-propose, in terms of urban design, design approaches that have shown - and for many years now - evident and serious shortcomings. The intellectual laziness (or, sometimes, mediocrity) of a part of the teaching and a certain acquiescence in debt of critical spirit of a preponderant slice of the student world have determined what appears to be a comfortable, but at the same time increasingly tired and irresponsible re-proposition of design styles which have long been worn out: which, particularly far from secondary, have historically contributed to condemning significant sectors of the population to unacceptable lifestyles and conditions of life, also from the point of view of sensitive beauty; all in the quiet irresponsibility of architects and planners. The alarmed complaints of some of the most important Italian urban planners, such as Federico Oliva, seem to be of little use (“The Italian city is in the midst of a transformation process of such a magnitude as to question the tools and practices of intervention that we believed to be consolidated; we must try to focus on the most suitable solutions to face the new urban condition that is emerging ":" Urbanistica ", n. 152, 2013) or Marco Romano (" The degradation of the European suburbs, whose inhabitants are deprived of their belonging to the civitas is one of the disasters of the twentieth century. Europe has been able to recover from the crush of totalitarianism, saved from the ancient democratic root of the civitas , but it does not yet seem to be on the way to regenerating the consolidated figure of the urbs " : The city as a work of art , 2008) or, again, Bernardo Secchi ("Urban planning has strong, precise responsibilities in the aggravation of inequalities. to a new urban question ": The city of the rich and the city of the poor , 2013).

In fact, out of conviction or out of convenience, we have often taken refuge in the completely illusory idea that a supposed architectural quality was able in some way to make up for any shortcomings in urban design, as if an elegant word could qualify from only a dull or mediocre speech: hence a hasty or sometimes distracted attention to the context, with a consequent deterioration of the overall result, an approach effectively synthesized again by Consonni: "A spasmodic research that frequently slips into a self-referential stardom architecture, completely disinterested to the problem of building places endowed with urban quality "( The civil beauty. Splendor and crisis of the city , 2013) or by an anthropologist-urban planner like Franco La Cecla (" Architecture is on the whole "outdated" with respect to evolution of the contemporary city. Architects still have a lot of weight in the absence of true alternative figures of reference and with this weight can cause great damage due to ignorance and incompetence ”: Contro l'architecture, 2008). In this context, sensationally out of time limits appear (interested) statements, however no more recent, such as that of Fuksas (February 2, 2007), according to which "iconic architecture is what cities need": a clear example of abysmal mental distance of some architects, more or less trendy, compared to the dramatic situation in which entire parts of our cities find themselves.

In other words, interesting architectures have not often been matched by urban insertions of equal quality; but, irresponsibly, in universities and in the professional world, people often continue to ignore it, choosing to take the (convenient) path of design conformity.

In conclusion, a radical change of course appears indelible that, overcoming sterile and by now unacceptable design clichés, also places among its objectives an integral rethinking of urban design with consequent recovery of civil beauty : finally widening the gaze. On this point, it will perhaps not be useless to recall, at the conclusion of these brief notes, a sentence by Gropius from 1955: "Over the course of my life I have become more and more deeply convinced that the typical palliative of architects, that is to attenuate, with an elegant and isolated, the disjointed pattern that dominates today is completely inadequate and instead a new order of values must be created ” .