Places, Not Spaces

December 7, 2009

“Often I try imagining what the future has in store for us. In just a couple decades, powerful and uncontrollable transformations have occurred to the landscape and ultimately to our lives. This fact makes me at times feel helpless, but at other times hopeful at the thought of what can be done today for tomorrow.” Architect and painter Maya Brittain examines the transformation of the Veneto region in Italy during the last thirty years and the influence that it has had in the urban fabric and its citizens’ lifestyle.


Mas issue living places not spaces 01

Bassano del Grappa, Italy. © Maya Brittain.

Today I find myself living the powers of the modern system from a more rural perspective. I am half American, half Japanese and am an Italian citizen. In the 1970s my father found himself in the heart of Rome, Italy after roaming around the world for half a century. When he set foot on Roman ground he immediately knew that would be home for the rest of his life. It was his first time feeling at home.

I was then born in Rome and lived there until my young wings felt an irrepressible urge to fly away. I have always felt privileged and proud of where I grew up. Having seen and lived in places not worth being proud of, I ask myself whether a positive experience of the place one calls home should be a privilege. We are social beings and interactions with other humans are one of our most basic needs. The connection can be a passing gaze, listening to an animated discussion, hearing the footsteps of a woman hastening to an appointment, or overhearing the sound of a piano being practiced. These moments are not accessories to a life but they are happenings that together form the experience of living. We have a civic and moral duty to create, with care and thought, the places in which these connections can happen. Places are not an accessory to a life, but a cardinal premise to living.

After living fifteen years of my life in the USA between Chicago and New York, now I am back in Italy, and have been living in the Veneto region (one of the twenty regions of Italy situated in the northeast) for just about three years. My first experience of living in the Veneto region was completely idealistic. We lived in an old Palladio villa right outside the town of Bassano del Grappa and life felt like a dream. There were vineyards outside our windows (the region is world renowned for its wines), and farmers bringing harvests into the courtyard of the villa. It was Italian country living as a foreigner would imagine. A designed misconception.

I tell my Italian friends I live in Veneto and they laugh, imagining me with my computer amongst cows. They are not so wrong since Veneto was a poor agricultural region until just 30 years ago. The agricultural region then abruptly transformed, becoming the heart of a quickly beating industry, bringing aspects of urban life that no one really knew how to handle. The hardworking farmers had a chance to improve their standards of living.

They started creating empires. Pride, dignity and comfort took on entirely different meanings. The region now finds itself being the third richest and most industrialized region in Italy in terms of GDP, right behind Lombardia (Milan) and Lazio (Rome).

This astoundingly fast economic growth brought changes to the landscape of the once rural Veneto. Warehouses, factories, and new housing appeared from nowhere overnight. There was no time to think about how to effectively merge these constructions with what existed. It was the moment to take action and, impatiently and avidly, the land was sewn with erections.

Detached and far from sight of the old town, the old and the new were kept far apart, a division visually clear to this day. The older town halts on the edge of a weighted down artery. The daily frenzy of trucks overloaded with goods en route make these arteries tremble at their constant passing. In other cases, the major artery passes right in the middle of the old town splitting its heart in two. These arteries successfully keep the dirty stench of sweat away from the old town, keeping the last pristine for the tourists. What existed pre 1970s, enclosed and segregated behind walls, is preciously preserved. The rest, an unplanned, messy assembly of mono-functional edifices, like a disease, are quarantined. The isolated edifices extend ad infinitum until they meet another artery fencing in another pristinely preserved old town. The areas in between historic towns become never-ending urban sprawls. Buildings line up, indifferent to how they relate to each other, with no evident sense of integration with neither urban nor rural contexts.

But what is the reality behind the charm of these old towns? The town is old, most often of medieval origins, and most often what someone would consider charming. Unbelievable amounts of money are spent on keeping the city center as intact as possible. Like a mummy, it is kept in memory of what once was. The charming city center starts humming with tourists later on in the morning, making the Veneto region the most visited region of Italy. Instead, the Veneto man or woman, known nationally as the hardest working citizen of Italy, finds himself behind the steering wheel, sinking into the highways flanked by isolated edifices, as they march to their workplace. The old town remains empty of its citizens and ironically, to this day, the citizens still identify with it. However, during the weekend the city experiences frenzied movement, when the citizens from all around come into town, to remind themselves of what a beautiful place feels like. The caricature of modern life has been transcribed instead into nowhere land.

Land is our life insurance. Regardless of what formidable scientific, biological, technological developments we are able to conceive, it remains de facto our only true life support. But today, we find ourselves to be, by most standards, its most aggressive and dangerous predators. In the past few decades, a lifestyle that depends on speed, energy, and consumption has reached far, rudely invading even the most serene rural landscapes. Taking into consideration the energy crisis, population growth, and climate changes, we will soon have to take a step backwards or maybe forwards to remind ourselves what it means to live, what it means to nurture a life. Many are trying to bring awareness to the fact that we have a past, a present and even a future to take care of.

Will the abundance and subsequent desire for more need to reach a level of saturation before common sense finds a platform? Is the presence of a couple charming spaces in the old towns a good enough balance to the unplanned and segregated areas? Who forgot the meaning of the old inscription on the library of the medieval town of Marostica? “E bello il paese ove uno nasce” (Beautiful is the land in which one is born).

Change is an essential event to life and problems are present, even in the best of families. Any psychologist or self-help book states that the first and most important step to cure is the acknowledgment of the problem. I am convinced that in the Veneto region this is a step that still has not been taken. Not only is the administration blind to the vast environmental, social, and economical consequences of their confused building strategy, but also they are feeding off of the blindness of the citizens.

The first step in confronting the problem in this area is by rekindling awareness in everyone, administration and citizens alike. Once the citizens and the administration realize that the Veneto region has an incredibly beautiful territory, rich of cultural history to promote, there is no doubt that this pride will awake a sense of civic duty. The solutions available, that would need to be adjusted to the specific situation, are numerous.

One important aspect is the creation of a set of principles in form of a law by which buildings and its developers would have to abide. It is a process that is underway in Italy today but has yet to be approved. The criteria that are examined in this law include the obligation to study the possibilities of reuse of dismissed or underutilized buildings before deciding to build new, and the obligation to pay an ecological equivalent to the impact the new building would cause. These principals are presented as a way to awaken a sense of responsibility in the public and private developer and not as an obstruction towards transformation.

Another part of the solution includes the reintroduction of mixed-use building types. This would result in a lifestyle that would rely less on car use and would promote walking, thereby creating more livable spaces. The area in which I live in (like so many other parts of the developed world) is fractioned into residential zone, industrial zone, commercial zone… This organization requires miles and miles of car usage, preventing the development of civic life, social life or any lifestyle that might come close to profound. Management of parking design concentrating on the welfare of the territory, would stop parking from being considered this century’s open space and would limit the creation of impervious grounds. Encouraging architectural solutions that strive to create better and healthier connections between new developments and its context will prevent isolated buildings and conflictive juxtapositions that unplanned schemes result in.

Most fundamentally, what is needed are solutions that create places and not spaces. It is very probable that the historic center will not remain as central of a figure as before. It is instead hopeful that a sensible approach to design will create new places that people will be able to identify better with. The ever expanding collection of generic boxes await to be given some sort of social identity. The creation of a strong connection to the various human activities (productive, cultural, recreational) that today are dislocated will hopefully leave places in which to let life blossom. The last remaining rural lands around the world quietly await their moment to be urbanized. What I have seen in the Veneto region and what I hope to help change will hopefully be a useful experience towards making future change a beautiful enterprise.