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Our spaces with name and surname

Let’s make a memory exercise: think at squares or parks where we have felt at ease, and, for an unknown reason, we have pleasant memories from different stages of our lives. Let’s do it with the eyes of the profane, of those who are not aware of their concerns related to the city. Let’s think of those places in which the experiences we have lived there make us smile, urban spaces in which our memories have been formed. But let’s also think of spaces in which we feel the opposite, space that even might seem ugly, hostile, and where we feel insecure. What do all of them have in common?
Let’s make the effort to observe our environment from a perceptive and human perspective, and not with a structuralist or planner eye.

We redirect our gaze toward those spaces that, not having an specific use, allow us to do everything and, at the same time, not to do anything. Having not being created ad hoc to perform a specific activity, they allow the unexpected to happen.
Or let us also think of those spaces that, despite being born with a precise use, have been able to mutate, evolve and allow different and complementary uses.

They acquire the ability to make us see that social life happens in them, being the citizen, as the user of the space, who generates activity and turns it into a point of reference.

They may be spaces for contemplation, game or walk, or support to see or being with people, or to participate in a popular celebration. Places with shared and multiple uses, beyond a simple transit between different points.

Many of the cases that may come to our mind have got in common that they were “designed” long time ago, when “citizen participation” emerged spontaneously from generation to generation. We say “designed” because, curiously, most of them lacked planning in their origin, and were created away from technocrats judgments, that gave them an specific use. Because, if there is a planning, there is also a set of contradictions, when trying to regulate its use and, traditionally, it leads to the dehumanization of the spaces.

They are places in which there are certain elements that help to arrange the space, such us banks or trees but, rather than restrict, they are the canvas on which new forms of use arise. New ways of communication, relationships and coexistence, which are able to endure and welcome very different people and uses.

They are even inclusive spaces that, without knowing it, have become suitable spaces for the most unfortunate: places where to talk, listen and learn.

In this way, they are opposed to those urban spaces created specifically with a particular objective that, thanks to their design, are ready for different uses and therefore, less flexible. If they are not used for what they were designed, maybe nothing will happen in them.

In all the spaces that we are interested in, some activities are planned and others are spontaneous, but all of them can happen thanks to the multiplicity of different functions they may have in time, no matter which form they have.

Lets us think of those spaces without schedules or, if they have, they can be used in a wide time spectrum: school playgrounds that open their doors in non-school hours, simple street crossings that can be places of multiple meetings or places under a shadow built next to a small shop that invites us to enter.

They tend to be scale limited spaces and relatively delimited by the shade of trees or a wall, inner blocks surrounded by buildings, always in the open air, where, in a way, one can feel protected because there are “eyes on the street” that look, know and recognize, enabling an informal surveillance, which arises from the proximity between people, that foster a safe environment.

But let us stop thinking of places that “were”, let us abandon nostalgia, and let us think of places that “will be”, of present and future spaces that are going to be designed to make them more human by repeating strategies that worked in old cities: the marvelous order under the apparent disorder, as Jane Jacobs said.

And let us apply it both if the space to be projected is indoors or outdoors, paying attention in designing the encounter between both, the intermediate space that separates the secret life of the buildings from the space between them.

Louis Kahn said that an architect can build a house and a city at the same time only if considered both as a part of a wonderful, expressive and inspired sphere. In his metaphor between the tree and the leaf with the house and the city, Aldo Van Eyck understood the house as a small city and the city as a big house. Both move in the diffuse limit between the inside and the outside, in the ambiguous between the building and the city.

Well known is the planner architect that uses large-scale tools and designs the city with  a  bird’s-eye-view. It is also well known the participatory architect, who thinks the city in the same way as other disciplines, establishing a relationship of complicity with the citizen.

It is clear that everything must work in different scales and moments. In our opinion, the key would be a new kind of architect, who wants to design the city in the same way that he or she would design a building. Although it may seem a little naive, we believe that this kind of architect “with reading glasses”, who uses the tools which are inherent of the architectural discipline to act outside the limits of a building, should be necessary again in the city.

This way of projecting the city using the tools of the built architecture project, even those of domesticity, seem to us a clever way of thinking and creating city. When paying attention to the in-depth details of the pedestrian scale, the city becomes more human.


* This text arises from the approach made in the n.1 of En Família 

** The image shows Palazzo Sanfelice in Naples. Via OfHouses