A performative lecture about the future of the cities. Tulla Cultural Center, Tirana.
When the Prime Minister Edi Rama and Atelier Albania (Adelina Greca, Joni Baboçi) invited me to give a lecture at Tulla Cultural Centre I immediately felt lost: this is my first time in Albania and I didn’t know what might be interesting for you to hear from me.
I was googleling and searching online to gather as much information as possible but it was not enough.
So I invited Adrian Paci, the Albanian artist currently based in Milan, to drink a beer together and I asked him: “What is Tirana like? What should I expect?”. He drank a sip of beer, and I saw his eyes going through hundreds of images trying to choose the most appropriate one that would describe Tirana. “I would describe Tirana as a city that cannot be summarised in an only image”, he said.
Immediately, the feeling that I had during my first helicopter ride over Sao Paulo came to mind. Although Sao Paulo is home to 20 million people, or perhaps because for this, when looking at that city the first and only impression you have is of excess, in terms of urban extension, density, economic growth, social inequality but also in terms of activities, traffic jams, creativity. I was studying Sao Paulo on maps and urban plans before going there and the immensity of the city had taken shape in my imagination: a liquid grain of urban matter, which has bypassed hills, flooded plains, filled valleys.
When I arrived in Brazil my expectations were confirmed. Crossing the city by car you spend almost 3 hours going from one side of the city to the other and still that’s enough. What you see is an infinite sequence of blocks of buildings, one after another.After a few hours in Sao Paulo I though “the city is exactly as I thought of it from afar, I understood everything before coming, I could have even avoided spending 12 hours on an intercontinental flight in economy class…such a waste of time!”.
The day after, I was invited to see the city from the helicopter. As soon as the helicopter took off, I realised that I was completely wrong. The supposed homogeneity that I was “attaching” to that city was reset and I discovered a different city, different from the one I had been observing 5 minutes before, while walking from the hotel to the helicopter. What I understood from the city observed from the helicopter is that it’s not only a matter of perspective, rather it allows to grasp its conditions with a totally different urban approach.
When looking at cities from the airplane, or from a satellite, entire portions of the urban territory appear to us completely built.
From above, they are no longer cities, they lose their physiognomy; but they are not even urbanised countrysides, since the open spaces (grown or bare) don’t surround the town, rather the city incorporates them.
From above, the solid geographical connotations of a city seems retouched by a liquid grain of urban matter.
From above we see not only space, we also see time.
We see the results of a phenomenon of extension of the residential space that in the last three decades has transformed our urban geography. The extension of the built environment has not followed, as in the past, a centrifugal trend starting from the centre of the big city, but rather a multidirectional and discontinuous propagation.
From above, the urban landscape is transformed by the multiplication of new forms of built densities: thickening of buildings around roads or border lines, scattered buildings on hilly areas, building invasions of peri-urban areas, disorderly constructions that reshape the transition zones between town and countryside but also sprains in the urban fabric due to the discontinued degradation of industrial equipment, or abandoned residential areas. These scattered movements tell us of a kind of urban development where it seems that the fate of contemporary cities is decided more by the extension of the province, rather than that of the city.
But when you cross a city by car or train, leaving the town centres, moving towards its edges, the same disrupted landscapes tell a different city that has changed rhythm. The “new”, everything that was built after the early seventies, has the appearance of molecular building blocks in the center of a land plot. The urban landscape is designed by the sum of single units: the shed, the house, the building, the shopping centre. The new urban rhythm is set by a multitude of solitary buildings in a society where the forms of elementary cohesion— family, associations, chain stores, small enterprise—have acquired over the last thirty years the financial and legal resources to build, and fence, their own portion of space, its urban “monad“ facilitated by tax incentives and wide meshes of a very complicated web of regional, provincial, municipal and sub-municipal rules.
This new urban “rhythm”, formed by the juxtaposition of individual buildings, discloses itself in the new areas of development and in the corners of the suburbs but also in the central areas of our cities. It is a private city which, also if maintaining local characteristics in terms of materials and decorations, creates generic and homologated landscapes. It transforms the urban fabric into an elementary grammar of individual buildings.
In some ways it represents the fragmentation of our society, which forgets the collective spaces and fragments the landscape in a continuous and mediocre rhythm.
But you only see the more faithful urban landscape by breaking away from the ground, though not going too high.
Flying over a city, 100, 200 meters above it, the space regains its dimensional fullness.
The extension of the upheavals that rocked the urban geography loses importance and the swarm of individual episodes, that only a close view allows to detect, becomes less obvious.
From a intermediate look between the zenith gaze and the subjectivity of crossing, cities reveal the frames and the infrastructures that hold the multitude of its built monads together. More often these “integral” lumps do not require physical proximity; simply, they are connected and held in tension by the threads of the new communications assets.
The landscape of the islands, fences, rhizomes, cuttings, bubbles, plates, that appear from an helicopter show us a city as the product of a society where the institutions, businesses, free associations, political and illegal clans, but also individual communities of citizens, compete in governing limited areas of territory. A small number of spatial organisms, introverted and endlessly repeated, produced by an archipelago of decisional subsystems (some strong, more deeply rooted, others just arrived on the scene), involved in a horizontal competition in which local authorities, ports, airports, operators, large retail stations, industrial zones, recreational districts, protected areas, theme parks, are scattered in the same game; each with their reasons and idiosyncrasies, each with their dream of privatization of the territory.
If space is actually the best metaphor of our social life, the landscapes observed from an intermediate elevation can show us the unfolding of a society where an imperfect polyarchy prevails, that has shaped the land to its own image and likeness.
Taking advantage of the many urban planning procedures that today allow to change portions of space regardless of the effects on larger areas, polyarchy stages a sort of “infinite negotiation”, continually re-opened, where the requests, responses, achieved balance, however, have the irreversible heaviness of stones and cement.
This new way of building cities does not appear only where the urban fabric decreases its density, in the marginal areas, in fact it also infiltrates the central zones of the town, inside the blocks of the historical city.
It penetrates the existing urban life, breaks it but at the same time it creates connections, destroys but at the same time expands the city giving space to new subjectivities to invest in the space.
During the research developed with Stefano Boeri in Sao Paulo we realised that the three cities, the one from the satellite, the one from a car and the one from an helicopter, are not only a matter of three different points of view but instead represent three different, and historical, approaches of urban planning which have characterised our urban development.
During the research, we realised that if we consider the growth and the explosion of cities in the past sixty years and the attitude of politics and architecture in solving the problems generated by their mostly unplanned development, we can distinguish three consecutive phases: indifference, condemnation and caring.
The phase of indifference, that corresponds to the attitude of observing the city from above, from an airplane, characterised the development of European cities during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Since the end of World War II, and for many years, the Establishment in urban planning and architecture simply ignored the exponential growth of unplanned settlements around developing metropolises. Instead, its attention was focused prevalently on the contemporary redevelopment of historical cities and on the grand utopia of ex-novo planned cities. Neither scholars nor politicians gave serious consideration to the rapid formation, in many parts of the world, of city areas where all available space was used to the maximum, and investment in technology and materials was reduced to a minimum.
These “cities within the city” were based on the principles of survival and self-organisation: they were unplanned yet structured according to (unwritten) rules that were founded on the principle of cohabitation and on the parasitic use of the official city’s infrastructure.
A culpable lack of attention and memory prevented those who were studying Chandigarh from taking a look at the slums of Mumbai or Delhi, and those who were designing Brasília from carefully weighing what was happening in the favelas of Rio or São Paulo.
The truth is that for at least forty years, architecture and politics focused their efforts on the contemporary city, reading its past and planning its future without realising that a new dimension of the contemporary city was bursting into existence all around us.
The second phase, the phase of condemnation, concerns the development of the European cities from the ’80s. It is the landscape that we can observe crossing the city by car, the city built through the sum of individual buildings at the center of a block.
Toward the end of the 1980s, the impossibility of continuing to ignore a phenomenon that had meanwhile taken on macroscopic proportions opened a second phase in urban planning and in the approach of the architectural establishment to unplanned settlements: the attempt to annihilate them by moving them or by simply eradicating them from the urban geography. The approach included repressive, or in any case remedial policies aimed at demolition, the substitution of spontaneous constructions with traditional housing units, and the forced exodus of inhabitants. The accent here was placed on two characteristics of unplanned settlements: their substantial insalubrity and the consequential risk of pandemic disease, and their susceptibility to organised crime and thus the threat to the overall public order of the city.
Today, however, the dimension that the innumerable forms of informal settlements on the planet have reached no longer allows for any unawareness whatsoever. They have become an imposing and pervasive part of the landscape in the majority of the world’s cities. They cannot be expunged from our field of view, nor can they be considered cancerous formations that call for surgical removal.
They have quite fundamentally become an essential part of metropolises and cities all over the world, meaning a mainstay in the daily lives of millions of the planet’s inhabitants. Indeed, according to approximate calculations, 33 per cent of the world’s city dwellers lives in unplanned settlements. And if it is true that city populations account for over 50 per cent of those living on the entire planet, then 1.5 billion out of the 3.5 billion of the world’s city dwellers live in informal settlements. Were this trend to continue in the same proportions, then in 2050, when the urban population is expected to represent 75 per cent of the entire planet’s population, we will have 6.75 billion citizens of which over 2 billion will live in spontaneous cities.
Today, if we study the panorama of urban planning and socio-economic aspects that characterise the large city of São Paulo (and most of the world’s large cities) we can see that after the phases of indifference and condemnation, a new phase has begun in the way the Establishment in architecture and urban planning (and with them, public policies) approach the issue of the spreading of informal cities: that of caring. We realise the urgency of this new approach, the approach of taking care of our cities constituted by a poliarchy of actors and interests, when we look at the city from an helicopter.
We have to tale care of the pieces of our cities, fundamental pieces of our society that we can no longer erase from our sight, no longer condemn as a defect or look at as a diseased environment in need of rescue and rehabilitation.
Caring, above all, means looking very carefully at what goes on in the societies that inhabit these unplanned settlements, and understanding three essential aspects that render their presence not only indisputable, but also necessary.
The first is linked to the social porosity and speed of growth of these settlements, leading them to become a sort of “social sponge” that draws in impressive fluxes of migration toward the planet’s large urban areas. The practice of self-building and the parasitic character of informal buildings represent a factor of extraordinary acceleration in offering massive amounts of housing that would otherwise imply exorbitant costs for any type of social housing policy. This contributes to avoiding enormous social conflicts resulting from the explosion of an unanswered housing demand by migrating populations.
The second aspect that makes unplanned settlements necessary is linked to their productive dimension. Micro-entrepreneurship in crafts, the recycling of materials, small-scale construction, food growing and processing, mechanical and sometimes also electronic repairs, are by now consolidated practices. This multitude of family-run and/or miniature businesses is beginning to represent a significant part of the urban economy, especially in the sector of services to the citizen. This has turned the informal settlements into areas where there is a higher functional variety than in the typical metropolis: the favelas are mixed and hybrid zones, where people live, work and offer services in the same spot.
The third aspect is linked to urban planning. Informal settlements are full-fledged “cities within the city”. For their extensiveness and homogeneity, they represent a kind of parallel dimension, yet one that is pervaded by the urban condition. Wherever they stand, in Italy, Thailand, Albania, Venezuela, Kenya or Vietnam, they are cities where interstitial spaces are missing. Their essence is the absence of mediation between the exposed and public urban dimension, and the private, intimate sphere of living: between the street and the room. Wherever they originate and grow, informal settlements are a global city, one that reproduces itself according to its nature: a multitude of agglomerated rooms that become a city—involuntarily generating complex types of spatiality.
This is why the unplanned settlements are also a “city without architecture”. They are a city that has one single large outdoor area. There is no space for architecture that mediates between private interiors and public exteriors.
It is no coincidence that informal settlements are zones of great transparency and interdependence between the space and society. These cities show their society’s evolution in real time, because the levels of aggregation between individuals and families, of associatory cultural and entrepreneurial activities that come about in the unplanned settlements are immediately transformed into a visible and vital spatial configuration.
With São Paulo Calling we wanted to compare the foster-age policies implemented by the Secretaria de Habitação with the experiences of six other informal settlements around the world. We did so by experimenting with a comparison-method that favours direct encounter in order to promote empathy between the researchers and the inhabitants of informal settlements by means of the exchange of concrete experiences. During the project we invited the representatives of six international cases of caring to São Paulo, plus the inhabitants of several of São Paulo’s favelas, to take part in six workshops based on experimentation and comparison. The results are documented in a publication made for Domus Magazine.
The approach is aimed at the international comparison of the policies that promote the positive dynamic aspects of the society and economy in unplanned settlements. However, the decision to privilege the dynamic and positive characteristics of life in the informal settlements did not make us forget the dramatic circumstances of hardship, poor sanitary conditions, social and material degradation, and unsafe and illegal situations in which the large majority of their inhabitants live. It seemed useful and important to us to contribute to strengthening and spotlighting the treasure of resources that informal settlements can offer in terms of enthusiasm, solidarity and inventiveness.
Learning how to stimulate these resources and the resulting offer of services, products and job opportunities means being able to implement public policies that are in tune with demand instead of being based on offer only. This could help organise the widespread demand by finding answers in the resources given by the micro-entrepreneurship that the informal settlements offer.
Political organisations and local administrations must become customers of the unplanned cities. Faced with a lack of schools, libraries, services and roads, the public needs to develop and promote the demand for services and products to which the people living in the favelas can respond. Giving power and a good reputation to the resources that the unplanned cities continuously create is not only a way to respond to the expectations of better living conditions expressed by their inhabitants, but to improve the urban economy as a whole.
Who is responsible for taking care of the Albanian transition?
The key players in this change can not be only institutional figures such as politicians. But neither can it be only the citizens, who in developing areas of the world such as South America, India and Africa are forced to construct pieces of city with the means and technical knowledge at their disposal in order to satisfy their basic needs.
What should occur in Albania is a gradual revolution guided by the dreams of an emerging middle class (architects, urban planners, professionals, small-scale entrepreneurs and figures from Albanian culture and subculture), who can create specific interventions by bringing together technical knowledge and territorial networks to conceive and construct a new design for the city.
In Tirana melancholy and irony coexist side by side. As a city, it has not attempted to erase its own history, conflicts and suffering, but to build on them to create its own character, aesthetic and vision of the future.
Tirana is a city made up of histories, passions, impulses, fears and those same emotions that the artistic disciplines (above all architecture and design) have, since western modernism and socialist realism, forgotten to catalyze and which we should perhaps begin to examine once again. This consideration may help to reveal not only new technical and artistic directions, or fresh urban planning strategies to apply to our cities, but also act as a tool to rethink our identities as part of this incredible, and at times troubled, Europe.