Vittorio Gregotti in Conversation WithRolf Jenni, Christian Inderbitzin, and Milica Topalović

Rolf Jenni, Christian Mueller Inderbitzin and Milica Topalovic: When you published Il territorio dell’architettura in 1966, the phenomenon of the “città diffusa” had already appeared. Could you sketch an impression of how the Italian “territory” has been transformed between then and now? Which aspects of this transformation do you consider the most important and most surprising?

Vittorio Gregotti: Italy is very different from other European countries. The only thing that these all have in common is having a dense network of settlements. Europe and Italy represent a special case compared to the rest of the world, where development is dense but made of many parts – where small and medium-sized cities still have a recognizable dimension. Then there are phenomena of conurbation, as can be found around Naples and Milan. These are phenomena that should not be misunderstood as frequently happens, because in Italy the administrative system that defines the areas of the jurisdiction of an urban centre does not follow a logic of unification based on economic or infrastructural factors.

These fields or areas stand as historical administrative areas or units, but they have become quite detached from reality. The difficulty in Italy, as in other nations, is that these administrative dimensions are often political in nature and inevitably produce conflicts between each city and the others around it. All of this creates an obstacle that can only be overcome with difficulty by those who still have the will to engage in urban and territorial planning. The fact that this will to engage no longer exists is another matter altogether.

The reason for this situation is that we have surrendered. No one has the desire to formulate hypotheses about the future anymore, and this situation has been getting worse since 1966. There is a fantastic book called La megalopoli padana (The Megalopolis of the Po Valley, 2000) by Eugenio Turri, an Italian geographer, that describes the megalopolis of the Po River area interpreted as the degeneration of Jean Gottmann’s concept of the megalopolis from 1961: an urban system that has become unified without any kind of project or plan, eating up the agricultural territory around it. This is the most amazing thing, this renunciation of any attempt to predict or hypothesize about the future.

RJ, CMI, MT: We have made an interesting discovery in Italy that we call territorial globalization. In our research, we didn’t find places that still function based on a local or rural economy. From the nation’s coasts to the summits of the Apennines, nearly all of the areas we looked at have been affected by global economic relations in various ways. This holds true for other parts of Europe, too. Could you comment on this phenomenon?

VG: Well, we must first clarify what globalization is. It is not the relationship between civilizations but rather a neocolonial attempt to homogenize values, behaviours and consumption. This is the condition in which capitalism has found itself since it shifted from being industrial in nature to being financial and global in character. Financial capitalism generates points of view regarding its relationship to architecture and landscape that are completely different from those of industrial capitalism.

First of all, industry no longer has a relationship with the landscape; instead it has a relationship with a place that is purely based on short-term convenience, so contemporary production is entirely de-territorialized. This is a particularly important phenomenon compared to what happened in the past with the spread of the service sector and with the new possibilities that were opened up by communications technologies and their homogeneous messages. If you go to Shanghai or Mexico City, in the centre of the city you find not only the same stores with the same brands, but also the same values, behaviours and expectations that the media has promoted.

Obviously, the interconnection between things has become stronger in Europe as well: here, too, there has been huge development in both intersubjective and collective intellectual communication. This completely different form of communication has been changing local culture greatly over the last thirty years, sometimes in a positive way, but sometimes with lethal consequences for the culture of our discipline.

It is my opinion that local communities do not have the ambition of contributing to our civic future through their uniqueness; instead they prefer to imitate the overarching culture of the global community. For almost half of the twentieth century, a country like Italy was organized primarily on the basis of agriculture. Now agricultural production is entirely secondary, or it has been industrialized, and so it functions differently. Rural culture in Italy, in turn, has been urbanized in terms of both its tastes and its expectations, just as it has throughout the rest of Europe. All social behaviour has become urban in nature, even if you live in a farmhouse in the countryside. Even our ways of thinking have become urban: they all reflect an urban condition whose terms are defined by the oligarchies in power.

RJ, CMI, MT: It is tempting to say that the character of these transformations undermines the very notion of territory. Territory is, by definition, created by the presence of political borders and other boundaries, as well as the clear distinction between countryside and city. In contrast to the notion of territory, the concept of the field suggests the loss of borders and clarity. Since the 1960s, we might say, territories have been vanishing and the field has been forming. How would you define the relationship between these two concepts of “territory” and “the field”? Are they in opposition to one another?

VG: No, underlying these two concepts of territory and the field there is the notion of geography – or rather anthropological geography, since natural geography does not exist. Geography is all based on the fact that the community decides on whether to leave certain natural areas as they are, turn them into agricultural resources, or use them for construction. French geographers paired geography with history, perceiving that within a certain basin, zone or area there are a number of settlements and that these settlements have relationships that are based on the way in which people have settled there over time for economic and political reasons.

This situation has been consolidated throughout the twentieth century to the point that in the 1960s Jean Gottmann outlined a theory of territory that raises the question of how a territory could be organized according to the issues of distance and the different roles of its component parts – the idea of the city-region. This concept enjoyed little success, however, because there was an abandonment of the idea of imposing a territorial design due to and with the productive change of global capitalism. There was a renunciation of imagining this type of organization, which offered the possibility of managing the territory.

This occurred especially in Europe, where in fact the density of settlements, combined with the possibilities provided by communications technologies, would have allowed the assignment of different roles and functions to various parts without merging them into a single confused urban field. The endless aggregation of buildings that resulted is simply the consequence of speculation. There are no other reasons for this, except the vague (and primitive) notion that freedom should be understood only as a lack of obstacles. According to this approach, everyone does whatever the hell he wants to. This particular understanding of invention and of freedom is essential to understanding not only the Italian situation, but also, I believe, that of the European Union. The reason that “the territory” is no longer organized is that we have given up on the idea of planning.

The expansion of the city – its infinite expansion – has resulted in sprawl (or slums, in developing countries). Along with this development, citizens became city-users, and the city became a series of camps with very precise borders between rich and poor areas, between areas occupied by people who migrate to the city for work and areas where temporary inhabitants live and between the parts occupied by foreigners, and those inhabited by the city’s regular residents. There are entire areas of territory outside the city that have been transformed into such “camps”, and these can be extremely useful, because they are places that can be easily supplanted by more financially expedient territorial uses.

RJ, CMI, MT: In your book Il territorio dell’architettura you urged the architects to broaden the territory or scope of architecture beyond the matrix of the traditional city – to make contact with the territory, and to measure, modify and utilize it. Do you think that this approach is still valid today?

VG: I have to make a clarification here. We must be careful, because the term “traditional city” does not mean much. There are very different types of traditional cities; Greece invented the polis while Rome invented the complex concept of civitas, whose combination of different elements occurred without any sense of order. The Roman city was much more complex, much less ordered and much less clear than we think, and I think this is true of many ancient cities; they were far more complex systems than we realize.

Then, we must consider that there is an important issue related to the size of the city. When the scale of the city is perceived, understood and remembered by its citizens, this perception produces an identifiable image and a shared memory. But if, for instance, the city has a population of thirty million, then this is no longer possible.

Today the architect is extremely weak. The architect now has less and less influence with regard to the development of the territory and the city; he is one of the less important actors. Think about the fact that large-scale building projects today are usually overseen by powerful real estate companies that have certain priorities – marketing, economics, safety – a fact which makes architects entirely secondary players. To give you a specific example, when it came to redesigning the Milan trade fair in the city’s centre, they held a mock competition that got prominent architects involved, but the only thing that mattered in the ultimate selection of the winning entry was the economic aspect, despite the fact that the project associated with this proposal was the most anti-urban of them all.

RJ, CMI, MT: The territory’s form is the result of both natural processes and human activity. To acknowledge this form, you once wrote, is to experience “a shock between geometry and geography”. The construction of territory can therefore be an aspect of the architect’s competence. How, then, should we approach the territories of today through architecture?

VG: The relationships between things are as important as the things themselves. The spaces between buildings need to be designed just as much as the buildings do. If we had the opportunity to control very large development projects, we could imagine attempting to address the territory and its geographical, historical and natural features. If we could look at things from this point of view, I am absolutely convinced that we could put forward interesting proposals. The problem is that the architectural culture of recent years has gone in the opposite direction – the direction of the object – and is more interested in enlarging the object, than in fostering the relationships that can exist between objects.

RJ, CMI, MT: André Corboz, among others, has made the argument that territory has become fully urbanized – that it has been conquered by the city. Through technology and infrastructure, any location, no matter how remote or hostile, is now accessible to an urban dweller and fit for urban living. Furthermore, the city itself seems to be ever more emancipated from the constraints of geography and the conditions of the physical context in which it is situated. Corboz thus concluded that under these conditions “territory can no longer serve as a unit of measurement of human phenomena”. But what does that tell us about territorial planning and design? Have these practices become completely arbitrary, decorative processes?

VG: If these practices were simply decorative, it would be better not to deal with them at all. Nobody would care. There is always this misunderstanding when the discussion comes down to territory or geography and these are understood simply as a backdrop. In an area with a big city operating as a matrix with respect to its surroundings, relationships and developments obviously depend on this centre. The city spreads out in different ways over its surrounding territory. Starting from a recognition of these circumstances, it is possible to begin to develop a few ideas. One may think that this spreading out over the surrounding territory is infinite and without interruption, or one may think that the territory is arranged according to a discontinuous pattern. This is another method of organization, which is totally different, and this is the central problem of the entire debate.

The problem is that in the 18th century a discipline called “urban planning” was born, but now it practically no longer exists. Planning has become economic planning, or large-scale political planning or geographic planning, or else it has shrunk to the point of focusing on the isolated architectural object. There are no more intermediate steps: from the architectural point of view, the concept of urban design has disappeared. At the same time, the whole idea of the regulation of large urban systems has disappeared; this now lies within the purview of economists, geographers and politicians, not that of urban planners.

RJ, CMI, MT: In Italian debate during the 1950s and ’60s, the concept of il territorio (territory) played an important role in the work of various writers and groups. Apart from you, Rossi and Tafuri, for example, Muratori and Archizoom used it as well. Could you tell us how the concept of il territorio appeared in this context and what its specific meaning was? How did it compare to territory, or le territoire?

VG: When Il territorio dell’architettura was published, no one used the word “territory”; it entered the cultural debate only in the 1970s. Before that, we used words like city or metropolis, but not “territory”. For instance, the Archizoom group had a fascination for technology. They did not deal with the territory; instead, their designs flew over it – the land no longer existed. They had an abstract idea of the ground, not a concrete one. In contrast, there were others, like Muratori, who saw the ground in terms of its history, distilling an architectural style from the understanding of this history.

Several interpretations have been given since the discovery – which occurred ten years earlier, between 1951 and 1952 – of this relationship with history. The big difference is the fact that the CIAM began to discuss modern architecture’s relationship with history, and this became a big issue. “The Heart of the City” was the title of the groundbreaking debate, which I myself witnessed, among the great architects of the modern movement about the meaning of history, and about whether or not history was something that was compatible with the methodology of the modern. This discussion occurred at the 1951 CIAM congress in Hoddesdon, and it was what largely characterized that period. These positions not only react to one another, but also obviously have differences that over time have undergone a change in perspective.

Looking back, the terrific discussions that I may have had with my friends in those years now seem of little importance. Muratori is a typical example of someone we all considered to be highly conservative. For instance, his project for social housing in Mestre was considered very conservative, particularly compared to Quaroni’s, which we all considered very appropriate and suitable to the site. This view, which would change over the years, produced very radical differences at that time.

In my 1966 book, I was playing with the profound ambiguity of the word territorio, because in Italian this word can have two meanings: it can be used to define the area in which a discipline operates, but it can also be used to define the physical geography of a place. A friend of mine who is a psychoanalyst suggested the book’s title to me precisely because it brought this ambiguity into play. The book investigates the specificity of the territory of the architect, both as a territory of expertise and as an expertise with regard to territory. Perhaps this double meaning of territorio exists in French, too; I am not sure that it exists in English.

Aldo Rossi, for example, maintained a very rigid notion of territory from the point of view of the first meaning of the word – that is, the field in which the architect has to operate. For me, the interesting thing was the ambiguity of and the relationship between these two meanings, while for him the territory of architecture had very precise boundaries: those of classical architecture. He moved within these limits and demanded that everybody else do the same. His rationalism was of a passionate kind, whereas mine is critical in nature.

RJ, CMI, MT: In your design practice over the years, you have continued to work on an exceptionally large scale, usually with a strong focus on the relationship between the architectural object and the landscape. You have also written that implementing large-scale works led you to examine principles and methods that would adapt to the realities of production. Could you talk a bit about large-scale design strategies that have proven feasible over the years, both conceptually and in relation to the realities of production?

VG: Let’s take the case of Pujiang, a new city of 100,000 inhabitants near Shanghai. It is located in a place where initially there was nothing but a few houses, but it was crisscrossed by a large number of waterways. The strategy has been to try to focus on the only thing that Chinese culture and European culture have in common: the pattern of the city, its orthogonal layout. This concept of using the orthogonal grid as a regulating and mixing device is a very important one, and it has always been present in the tradition of European cities. It is a tradition that incorporates monumental parts and less monumental ones, thereby creating a functional and social mix that has been one of the most important elements of the European urban tradition. These two elements then encounter a landscape that has its own specific characteristics and provides certain opportunities. The landscape of Pujiang, however, is a flat one where there was water, which could become the dialectical element that was integral to the overall composition of the city.

Of course, this concept is challenged by a multitude of other elements involved in the process, such as the client, planning regulations, Chinese habits and attitudes, and the harmful influences that the Chinese have absorbed from the Russians and the Americans, among other things. All these issues must then deal with regulations, size, techniques and other problems of this kind, which are the ones that ultimately articulate architectural form. For us, the confrontation with reality is unavoidable, and it is necessary that this relationship becomes critical, not just a mere reflection of the state of affairs.

Milan, 26.04.2011