Letters from Lockdown: Not more than three months ago, the words ‘co-working’ and ‘co-housing’ recurred almost epidemically, can we say the same today? writes architect Cino Zucchi
In the past 10 years, both urban design and urban regeneration have increasingly been based on the analysis of current evolutions in lifestyles, technological progress, the global economy and the like. The quality of a project has been judged on the basis of this ‘inductive futurology’, and architects seem to have turned into gurus or fortune tellers, forced by the media to tell us “how we will live tomorrow”.
Nevertheless, this view does not take into account two important factors: the relative ‘inertia’ of urban form once constructed, and the unpredictability of events, such as financial crises, wars, ecological catastrophes or pandemics. Not more than three months ago, the words ‘co-working’ and ‘co-housing’ recurred almost epidemically, in the reports of architectural projects, as the key elements of design. Can we say the same today? Should we now coin new slogans like ‘co(rona)-working’ and ‘co(rona)-living’, perhaps helped by some psycho-sociologist on television? Or rather, should we reflect on the more lasting qualities of urban spaces?
Shopping centres based on market research forecasts are, today, abandoned and must be demolished. The photos of deserted Italian squares, like Piazza San Marco or Piazza del Duomo, teach us one thing: the public spaces of the city ‘stand’ both empty and full, and do not contract like a deflated balloon if people stay at home. Maybe a good urban environment should not be built on lifestyles, interactive sensors, traffic diagrams or even climate change previsions, but on the deeper states of human well-being. A portico sheltering us from the rain, a bench well exposed to the autumn sun or a well-placed canopy of leaves work equally well for smoochy couples, aged gossips, cyberpunks or melancholic loners, and can welcome us on the day of our promotion as well as the one on which a parent dies.
Generosity and formal clarity are the key qualities of both private and public spaces, and they seem to withstand change and adaption better than designs based on ultra-detailed briefs. As critic Adolf Behne pointed out 100 years ago: “While a functionalist searches the maximum adjustment to a goal that is as specific as possible, a rationalist looks for the greatest chance of compliance to the largest number of necessities. Nothing is more understandable for the rationalist than to put an emphasis on form. Form is born with the establishment of human relationships.
“A good urban environment should not be built on lifestyles, interactive sensors, traffic diagrams or even climate change previsions, but on the deeper states of human well-being”
“The lonely man, isolated in the midst of nature, has no formal problem. The question of form arises together with the union of more individuals, and form is the condition which makes men living together possible.”
We must not think of an ‘eternal present’ – everyday life continuously tests and adapts existing spaces to unforeseen needs – but only to the need to design ‘robust’ new living environments, capable of surviving the trends of the moment and absorbing the ‘black swans’ that future fate will assign us.
Hoping not to be a bird of ill-omen, the next ‘big one’ could very well be the collapse of the information technology that sustains our urban systems more and more. In this dramatic scenario we could really find ourselves as a future version of the Similaun mummy with his bearskin busby, arrows and linchpin, washing our tired limbs in the Fountain of Trevi.
Cino Zucchi, March 2020
Cino Zucchi is director of the award-winning practice, Cino Zucchi Architects. He is professor of architecture and urban design at the Politecnico di Milano and visiting professor at Harvard University
Read about the Letters from Lockdown compiled by Marina Engel