“I have always believed in architecture as a tool to enhance spaces and human environment”.
I had the occasion of meeting Arch. Zucchi at his lecture, “The City is (not a tree) – New Models of Urban Space”; he is presently a John T. Dunlop Visiting Professor in Housing and Urbanization at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Born in 1955, Cino Zucchi is a well-known Italian architect with his own practice (CZA) in the heart of his hometown: Milano, probably the most international city of Italy.
Cino Zucchi had an American education: he studied architecture at MIT, where he graduated in 1978. Only a year later, he obtained a second (Italian) degree in architecture at Politecnico di Milano, where he still is Chair Professor of Architectural and Urban Design and member of the PhD program.
I’ll let his words speak for him.
FG: Why did you decide to study at MIT and why did you decide to go back to Italy afterwards?
CZ: I used to play drums and had the occasion to play at the prom of the American High School in Milan. There I met a girl who was applying to Wellesley, and I decided to apply to MIT to be close to this person.
FG: How much do MIT studies influence your work and way of designing?
CZ: MIT education boosted my scientific abilities, imprinting my way of thinking, which I would define as an enquiry method followed by experimentation. The attitude which Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – August 11, 1464, a German philosopher, theologian, jurist, and astronomer) called “docta ignorantia” (well-learned ignorance): the possibility of exploring the unknown without prejudices, “knowing not to know.” During my permanence at MIT I had the chance of absorbing the architectural philosophy of Team X and Giancarlo De Carlo, see from an “American” perspective, and be confronted with many good professors. After graduating, my professor John R. Myer asked me if I wanted to return to my homeland, and after my positive answer he wrote me a recommendation letter for an important Italian architect: Gino Valle. My career had begun with an internship at Vittorio Gregotti’s firm and a collaboration with Arch. Emilio Battisti. What remains of the experience (and of my Italian background/heritage) is the use of historical knowledge to give a central significance to a specific context. I managed to merge well the historical erudition I got in my Italian education with the more scientific, rational method learned during my American years. I like thinking that this unique combination allowed me to reach an independent mental attitude, which is very important in my design process.
FG: Cities are generally spoken about in terms of form and space, not of time. Assuming that each city has its own rhythm – time (I am personally thinking of Boston, New York City, Milano or Venice), what do you see as the generator of their unique “beats”? Would you see the origin of it in their citizens or, would you think of it as the result of the forms that shape them?
CZ: Geographers classify different types of urban settlements basing themselves on their main feature: trade cities, religious cities, garden cities, and so on. While smaller cities seem to have different “cycles”, a metropolis is founded on the idea of a 24-hours life. Architects are called to “crystallize” a program into a physical space; but once given shape, this space survives the program which generated it. We are called to predict and design master plans for needs, technologies, lifestyles in constant evolution. By the time a space is made, the program is probably already obsolete, and if we are not able to embed in it some more general attributes, it can quickly become obsolete as the program it carried. Let’s just consider a sample: Newbury Street. Clearly, it wasn’t designed for a showcase of stores; in fact its original program is the one of a residential neighborhood – to enter a store you have to walk upstairs as to enter some private dwelling, or downstairs to a basement room, both set back from the street line and discontinuous with it; yet, Newbury Street works perfectly as a shopping strip.
This explains why we can’t directly derive a space from a program, and shows how it is possible to “recycle” and re-utilize a box while conferring it a new function. Personally, I don’t believe forms and functions have a one-to one relationship; even biology teaches us how different forms can respond to the same function equally well, and how the same form can have more than one function. Another example is the one of New York City; its fixed grid paradoxically allows for continuous metamorphoses. When you move from neighborhood to neighborhood the urban landscape changes dramatically while the geometry stays the same. As the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues in his recent book Triumph of the City, the cities that were able to renovate themselves are the ones that managed to convert their industrial life into one based on culture, education and constant innovation. Cities of exchange (culturally speaking) and trade are the ones that pulse constantly, and as a heart they manage to keep a body alive and productive. Vice versa, when this whole renovation process isn’t possible, cities face apexes or decadence and their “magic” and beat slows down and dies. Towns, on the contrary, are often missing this vitality generated by cultural exchange and innovation, providing only a good quality of life to their inhabitants. Metropolises have the “serendipity” lacking both in small cities and in Modernist Utopias, which never really managed to acquire the life of real cities, as the Esperanto “perfect” language never substituted the real ones.
FG: Talking about the concept of urban form, why do you think American cities have never developed around the idea of a square, as have their European counterparts? How do you see this affecting American society?
CZ: We think today of squares as “harmonic” spaces, but truth is that they were often generated from conflicts: historically speaking, many of them were symbols of violence, conquering and political dominion. The spaces of American cities are mostly based on the concept of trade, on streets and large market places. America was colonized by Europeans, but these pilgrims moved themselves far from the Old World and possibly felt the urgency of changing their life styles as well. A cultural revolution aimed to deny a cultural model that wasn’t fitting them anymore; many American cities were founded on a rational grid which allowed their rapid expansion; they had no fortified walls to compress them, and density arrived later only in the downtown areas. This whole process is clearly visible in the character of American cities and spaces that mirror a culture enhancing individuality. European spaces are the result of a temporal continuity still visible in their different layers. Reproducing spaces doesn’t imply the reproduction of the dynamics that would characterize them: Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia, designed in 1978 for the Italian Community in New Orleans, is a clear sample of an Italian type of plaza that does not function following the mechanism that Italian spaces do.
FG: How do you think technology will shape future cities? Will we assist the creation of a new type of city? And how do you see social spaces adapt to this inexorable process?
CZ: The relationship between space and technology shouldn’t be mechanized; in fact technology is a tool which is evolving so fast that it would be impossible for cities to shape around it. I honestly do not believe in “the city of technology”; or better, the “immaterial” character of today’s technology allows us to conserve our historical environment better than the change that happened in the industrial revolution. Paris and Rome are examples of cities that were deeply modified in their structure and faced many significant demolitions to allow the conveyance of trains. The problem we are presently facing is understanding how society is evolving in order to comprehend how public spaces are changing. Wide use of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook or Skype shortens distances, at the same time it might somehow substitute one of the most important human activities: gossip, which has been slowly moved from public spaces to virtual ones.
FG: How does a city become an attractive hub? Considering, for instance, the dynamics of Boston and New York City, is it just a matter of good administration, or does geography play a more important role?
CZ: Cities host thousands of persons that tend to aggregate in distinct patterns. This phenomenon is in a way very rational, but it has also something we can define as a “romantic” element. People choose where to settle down the same way they’d seek the right partner to marry. Like in a relationship the place we pick to live should satisfy our personal check-list, but also has to respond to a “je-ne-sais-pas-quoi.” But cities also need wise administrations able to predict their hidden potential. The ability of understanding how to turn limitations into resources is what makes the difference between a good city and a bad one. Designing new neighborhoods or building big palaces is not a solving method for a city in decline. Like humans, cities have their own personalities which are to be understood in order to offer their citizens a qualitative place to live. Cities’ greatest common denominator is to be found in the “job-element” becomes the main attractor, but then you look for much more than that. Cities cannot be “invented” and should never be the result of someone’s mind.
FG: Let’s compare American and Italian housing. What are the differences? The Boston Globe recently published an article on minimal units, do you think that is still a valid model?
CZ: The so-called existenz-minimum was necessary in the time it was implemented. But modernist thinking tried to do “social engineering” through spatial planning, and this often failed. As Adolf Loos wrote, there are two different approaches to design: the ones who believe that society can be changed thanks to the power of design, and the one who believe that design should shape spaces and tools for the evolving lifestyles of a society. What I believe being more relevant is depriving the existenz-minimum of the moral aspect that typified it over the years. The solution could be found in the Rationalist heritage stripped bare of its stifling element. In fact, living spaces can be compact as well as designed with elements of transition and transparency, mirrors of a contemporary quality of the Modern: mechanization should be broken to favor the creation of flexible spaces. A kitchen is not just the place we use to cook; it is also the space where most of our life at home and our conversations take place (either with our family or friends); therefore kitchens should be designed to accomplish this role.
FG: Case of Portland, Oregon: urban growth boundary program to avoid urban sprawl. Utopian City. What are your thoughts about it?
CZ: The issue of sustainability is crucial, but it is made by many factors. Often the word “sustainability” is used in a vague way and it has to do with marketing issues. Some things are counter-intuitive, as the supposed ecological qualities of small houses. The exterior surface of a small building is more exposed to weather conditions than a bigger one because of a scale factor: the volume grows with the power of 3 of the linear dimension while the surface with the power of 2. This explains why small buildings disperse much more heat than bigger ones. The same principle can be applied to the study of cities. In fact per capita energy consumption is much higher when in the situation of sprawl. Density is energy-wise more sustainable. Can we have the environmental quality of the suburbs and the liveliness and efficiency of the compact city? Many different researchers are working on it, and experimenting on the two sides of the Atlantic ocean as well in many growing countries. I think we can find already many convincing examples of a new urban model apt to satisfy our new values and growing ecological conscience.
Click here to watch a video of Tirana Northern Boulevard and River Project
To learn more about Cino Zucchi and CZA, please, visit the following website: www.zucchiarchitetti.com
A special thanks to Cino for his willingness and collaboration.