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Cities, Heritage

To Italy, and back

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The first search in preparation for my impending visit to Italy led me to caution travel tips on how kind is the city to women traveling alone. It reminded me of a poem I read about the necessity of women’s body to constantly negotiate shared space in the public realm. It was only then I realized the unconscious habit of being in control and knowledge of space that I existed in at any given time. Safety is a paramount concern for us and a constant need of its assurance denies carelessness. However, can we ever be too careful? I believe strongly that there is a difference in the memory of place experienced with and without an element of fear. We have a memory of experiencing fear more than our memory of experiencing a place. Fear activates our senses of defense and control for the immediate environment.

Italy is like the inside of a history textbook, and just as deep, complex and overwhelming. Like in the fantasy movies where you open a magical book, dive into it and exit in a parallel reality. There is so much to see that two eyes seem insufficient to capture the natural and manmade beauty of the place. The history associated with it abound in urban spaces, architecture, arts, culture, lifestyle, is simply awe inspiring. I loitered about most of the time in and around the urban historic core watching the place, people, and activities happening around. When I returned I managed to map (click to view) the route along which I walked using Google Maps down to the detail of the winding paths, and spots I took rest at. There is a simple logic to the organization of places, the seams are almost absent between the older cores and the newer developments. And although the new buildings conform to the old style, they retain their new character and hardly ever seem out of place.

Of the things invariably connected to walking in large cities is the availability of public transport. It is often said that the success of a place relies on the choice between the available options for public transport. These systems are often interdependent – where one terminates the other takes over, but not necessarily hierarchical. There is a well-organized and well-maintained system of public transport in Italy. There are not just metro rails, trams and buses, taxis, tourist rickshaws to cover distances large and small but dedicated bicycle tracks and racks for parking at designated places. The availability of a choice of public transport also reduces car ownership, and when there is an efficient system is in place it is possible to have areas that can be car-free zones. All the historic urban cores I visited were pedestrianized conveniently connected by public transport.

At the heart of large urban plazas are usually the cathedrals, awe-inspiring examples of magnificent architecture inside out. The cathedrals are so marvelous; it’s a spiritually aesthetic experience to be in them. Every inch of space not only of religious significance but has such attention to detail that one is left spellbound. It is difficult to decide what to look at! The cities are huge, but there hardly seem enough people. Many places are unpopulated, roads empty, stations empty, buildings empty, left me wondering if there are people at all. It was only when I walked into the central square I realized where the people are. Given its scale, it seemed as if the entire population of the city could be fitted into the central square (not literally). A keen sense of private and public spaces in built into the form. Without previous knowledge and access, it is not possible even accidentally run into an inconspicuous private space. Scale plays an important role in the transition between private-semi-public-public without relying too much on surveillance devices. Places designed to human scale create a sense of enclosure within which control and surveillance through the presence of other people in movement or resident are achieved.

I conclude here with some of my thoughts, rather questions. It so often happens that we visit western countries and especially European we get so besotted by the places. And naturally our response is to emulate the kind of urbanism in our cities. As is the belief that economic development, in this case with respect to the built environment, precedes social or cultural change. The benefits will slowly trickle down to the last of the people in the economic ladder, and change will overcome in all other aspects . When we are duplicating western urbanism we are designing our cities on principles that do not really align with our sensibilities. In which case, do we really wish to thrust upon the cities mere ideas we find inspiring? There is little doubt as to as a society we always hope and aspire for better future – may we also lose at the same time much of our own knowledge?

Is it that if we imbibed a civic sense and local municipal bodies provided basic services and utilities in all areas of rich and poor people alike, would our response to cities expansions be still to impose those inward-looking developments that exist as self-sufficient complexes? Has the western suburbia manifested itself in gated communities being very much a part of city extents, well connected yet its back turned against the city? The super SEZs, IT SEZ’s thriving on the infrastructure and services of the city does not contribute to the quality of places to its built environment. It’s public and semi-public spaces, neither inclusive nor democratic, are fenced, protected, under constant surveillance. We are constantly harping about the benefits of mixed use development which I think is funny because that’s the kind of urbanism that is authentic to us. From studio exercises to architects offices mixed use development is the most trending subject. The question is when or why we lapsed to understand that our urbanism is characterized by it so far that we reiterate it as a new finding.

More often than not we have had to unlearn and question some of our beliefs about old cities. Either we are totally romanticizing them as places of amalgamation of architecture, heritage, arts, culture, and lifestyle selling for the purpose of tourism or as heritage walks, photo walks, culinary walks etc. Or we see them as deteriorating, run down places, stereotyping the people who live in them. The proposals, it at all, are exercises in beautification, façade improvements, investing in tourism infrastructure in otherwise sacrosanct historical areas. In the latter case, elaborate proposals are made that do not ever come close to the implementation or dismissed as they are such complex entities that apathetic authorities rather shrug and ignore they places exist. But yet  we compare our old historic centers with that of the west, and in an ambitious appeal by aesthete override the ground realities. This is not to make a sweeping generalization that there are no architects, designers, and planners who are not sensitive to the urban processes. But it is to say there are very few and that we really need to change our approach to old cities’ development. In the rhetoric about increasing urban population, we often forget older cities are often the hosts of migrants acting as transitional spaces. Our focus should be as much on old cities as much for the new not only in terms of historical importance but also  as unexplored areas of development.

Note: A slightly longer version can be read here

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