Recap :: The City is (not) a Tree

Cino Zucchi's Junghans Image:
By Rand Lemley, B.Arch candidate

Cities are in a state of constant change and reinvention. However, each tweak or addition affects not only the current generation, but creates a legacy that may last for ages. Over the course of time, the Western city has gone morphed through stages of natural order, imposed order, and now, a kind of alchemy of the two. How do we, as designers, navigate the chaotic order of the modern city, a blend of natural and man-made landscape, and “graft” into the existing framework?

Cino Zucchi has been wrestling with this question throughout his thirty year career as an architect, city planner, and instructor. As the principal of CZA, based in Milan, Zucchi has won numerous design competitions and awards, including European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture - FundaciĆ² Mies van der Rohe Award - Barcelona 2001, Piranesi Award 2001, and ECOLA Award 2008. He is probably best known for his modern social housing built in the Junghans district of Venice, which created much controversy when built but has since become well-loved by the occupants and surrounding community, successfully grafted into the fabric of an idiosyncratic city. He gave a recent lecture at Harvard’s Piper Auditorium entitled The City is (not) a Tree.

Starting with the French circulade, Zucchi talked about the history of the urban environment. In medieval cities, a natural order was formed by certain cultural magnets, such as a church or central square. The built environment grew outward in an even, organic way. Over time, these organic environments were pressured to become more and more orderly.

Eventually, the scientific management principles of Taylorism provided reason for city planners to bring the city to extreme organization. These man-made grids produced logical order from the plan view, yet reality was often far different for the citizens. We can look to the steep hills of San Francisco streets as an example of such an aberration and inconvenience. Zucchi described a trip to Phoenix, AZ in which he took three hours to find his hotel because he was accustomed to a city which led you toward its center.

Milanoma - Melanoma
Zucchi then talked about the modern city as a case of Milanoma-melanoma, a spreading cancer on the landscape. He presented a satellite photo of Milan, with tendrils reaching into the countryside, alongside a photo of skin cancer. The entropic growth of the city is a mix of man-made and natural, and is completely chaotic for the citizen who occupies the environment. In this landscape, we look for landmarks for orientation because we can no longer count on the streets to lead us to the city center, nor be logical and ordered.

In this built environment, architects have started building what Zucchi called “don’t pass me by” architecture. These are structures meant to capture attention from a speeding car on a highway and provide the architect with 15 minutes -- or 15 seconds -- of fame. We have moved to a society which values perception of design over the skeleton of design. Zucchi illustrated this concept by showing multiple images of European shopping outlets built to look like quaint medieval cities. Though many stores had been approached about the possibility of renting the upstairs apartment, this is impossible because there is nothing upstairs. The windows are merely black plywood. Zucchi called these cities “pre-washed,” like the jeans that are so popular in this age.

Minneapolis Skywalks Image:

Some cities have started to be stratified with different patterns of occupation. In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, the sprawling city streets have been augmented by layers of skywalks and tunnels. The modern city plan meets a system that looks much like a medieval city map. With these layers, the city of the future aims to be more dense. If our cities are more dense, they require less energy per capita to sustain themselves and are more ecological as a result. Zucchi sees this as a return to our more natural roots. Rather than adding to the already confusing environment of the modern city, he suggests that designers thoughtfully graft their interventions into the existing fabric of the city, possibly creating new opportunities for the citizen.

“When you give a gift, the best gift is one which is unexpected and different, but is used all the time,” Zucchi commented in reference to one of his projects, a park for a suburban Italian community. This statement is a challenge for us, as designers, to think about the consequences of our designs on those who will -- or will not -- use them.