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Diary of a Planner by Bernardo Secchi | Planum 2002-2013

Diary 08 | Three words

by Bernardo Secchi

 Italian Version

Three apparently distant words perhaps allow us to clarify some of the issues regarding the passage from the modern to the contemporary city: self-reference, archive, scenario.

Today self-reference is a term used in a vaguely pejorative sense. Architects and urbanists are often accused of excessive self-referencing, of basing their projects not on facing the external world, its problems and evocations, but rather basing them on their own identities which consist in personal images and ways of doing things; of exhibiting this "authorial" identity above and beyond all irony and legitimate pretension.
However, the accusation, aimed today at architects and urbanists, but not only, appears ambiguous because our era's professional market and cultural conditions seem indeed to reward the most perverse forms of self-referencing - resulting in a plethora of judgments and attitudes in which it becomes difficult to distinguish facts and personal frustrations from more extensive and general reflections.

Self-referencing belongs as much to the history of architecture as to any other discipline. At the beginning of the last century, this concept lay at the center of avant-garde claims in many artistic fields. It was a way to break with programmatic music, dance, painting or literature, to break with wanting to have things convey something that was external and extraneous to the specific disciplines. The position characterized the entire twentieth century; but beginning in the early 60s, along with the criticism of the eminently ideological character of many scientific and professional practices, it was forcefully proposed once again, albeit in different terms. Since then, the search for disciplinary and artistic autonomy has become incessant. It is enough to recall the pages of Manfredo Tafuri or the very beautiful correspondence between Aldo Rossi and Carlo Aymonino.
Music speaks of music and architecture, purified of all ideological content, speaks only of - and should not speak of anything other than - architecture. It is not so much a matter of separating the writing from its content, but rather finding anew, within its own history and theoretical, technical and figurative materials, their constitutive rules and the criteria for their modification and transformation, the language and the discursive structure allowing them to act as a filter between themselves and society - a filter that, time and time again, becomes metaphor, memory, theory, and formal and constructive innovation.
Over time, this position has undergone some evident shifts. Obviously, leaving aside the most naive forms of self-referencing to the individual and his/her own specific history, I will simply and allusively indicate them as the metaphysics of the author, of the maestro, of the trend and of the school, or of the temptation to refer to oneself, to self-include and self-define oneself within the principal artistic movements of the last decades. No self-referencing, nor, for that matter, any hetero-referencing, is pure and innocent.
For most of the twentieth century, the planner has obstinately refused self-referencing. If there is one thing that distinguishes the architect and the urbanist, taken as two archetypes that are never totally embodied in historical figures and in specific personal stories, it is this very sharing, or refusal, of self-referencing.

The planner's work has often been ideological, in the sense given to the term by Roland Barthes - the search for something outside one's own work that creates, justifies, and legitimizes it: the conditions, the needs and the aspirations of the classes least favored by history, the struggle to overcome the perversions of the marketplace, land values, consumerism, bad administration, participation. The "ecologism" pervading so much of contemporary urbanism is one of its most recent representations.
Refusing all forms of self-referencing, the planner has progressively become estranged from the tensions that animated the avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century and that also lay at the origin of a profound renewal of his/her actions which lead to a persevering search, in its very tangible and theoretical materials, for the physical dimensions of an individual and collective welfare whose economic, social and political dimensions other researchers were simultaneously expanding upon. At its extreme, we find the dissolution and disappearance of all visual representation of the project for the city within the language of urban policy.
This shift has lead planners to pay less and less attention to the object of his/her own studies, the project for the city, and more and more to the rules according to which the same must be built - in other words, to the rules that could order the process of its construction. It has led them to develop, accordingly, an eminently formal and juridical conception of spatial, as well as of social, relationships; to empty the legislation of its very content and embrace a procedural conception of juridical relationships reducing even this to its mere bureaucratic version.
It is as if the city and a territory were infinitely malleable, devoid of specific materials endowed with their own - however flexible - identity, language and structure; as if their specific knowledge were just as malleable and devoid of points of resistance; as if the project for the city were only the contingent result of negotiation among representatives of vast groups, whose rules of interaction can only be submitted to internal criticism - relating simply to the formalities of interaction among the different groups.

Obviously, I am providing an extreme version of the two sides of the same coin: at one extreme is a possible "authorial" identity and at the other "the author's death" and the emergence of a diffuse identity defined by norms and rules that are external to it. In reality, as I have already said, self-referencing or hetero-referencing are never absolute.
This has not always been so. It is enough to recall the first CIAM conferences and the initial phases of the Modern Movement; or the long chapter of the construction of the European "public city" in the years between the two wars and in the thirty "glorious" ones of the last postwar period. However, it was already clear as early as the 1960s in Europe, that the two figures were becoming detached, producing different identities and discursive structures, in some ways in opposition to each other.

Today, if I look at the architecture journals and the architecture of the European city over the last decades, I see an attempt, which is, more often than not, an implicit one to disengage from the important commitments of the past and from specific responsibilities towards society and its future. Few recent projects, by their mere presence, present a critique towards contemporary society and few dare to envision a different future. Few architects commit themselves in this direction. But the same can be said for urbanists. Few planning projects critique, through their mere presence, the distribution of power, the rules of interaction among the different social and interest groups, and the images of each. Overcome by the tediousness of their attempts to create legislation without totally comprehending its goals, urbanists have often become alienated from society and sent adrift like "ships of fools."

This stance can appear excessively critical, but it is not. It leads me to suspend judgment and to invite everyone else to do the same. During the pause, we might be able to collect a series of projects in order to create a kind of ideal library of the project not to provide, as has always been done, a collection of exempla to be held up for admiration and imitation. Through their investigation, we might be able to undertake a new exercise.
To collect and to archive exempla is an ancient tradition: the lives of Plutarch, the lives of the Saints collected by Jacopo by Varagine, the passages of St. Francis… today's journals of architecture and planning. Selected on the base of critical tools that are often left unsaid and introduced into an archive such as (predictably in our field of studies) a journal, an essay, a history of architecture or urbanism, a lecture or university lesson, the exemplum is offered for imitation and reflection, after having been ordered, most usually, in terms of geographical, chronological or, less frequently, thematic criteria.

To construct and assemble a collection requires both selectional, as well as organizational, criteria which, inevitably, illuminate the objects included in it. Placing them in a certain light constructs, at least partly, their sense and role: that they are believed to have had or are expected to have, for example, in the transformation of the city and the territory. Thus, the "dark crowd" of projects by authors who remained in the background rarely appear in the collections; yet the city and the territory are materially constituted by their results and by the echo of the great exempla that are sometimes, but not always, reflected in them.

A different problem is posed when, as with Michel Foucault(1), an archive is built and organized with the intention of enquiring into what - within specific local, social, economic and institutional conditions - the concrete exercise of a profession like that of the architect and planner allowed to say; or when our glance questions the exempla chosen in function of the solicitations, stimuli, suggestions, but also in function of the limits and obstacles posed by the city and territory, culture, imagination, techniques, norms, institutions and relationships among subjects and institutions.

"By this term I don't mean the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its persons as documents attesting to its own past, or as evidence of a continuing identity… Why, instead of being adventitious figures… they are born in accordance with specific regularities; in short, why, if there are things said - and those only - one should seek the immediate reasons for them in the things… nor in the men that said them, but in the system of discursivity, in the enunciative possibilities and impossibilities that it lays down. The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events… But the archive is also that which determines that all these things… do not withdraw at the same pace in time, but shine, as it were, like stars, some that seem close to us shining from far off, while others that are close to us are already growing pale."

In this case, a field of investigation opens that retards the attribution of value to this or that project or plan and looks instead towards scrutinizing the role of a specific intellectual and professional group during a particular social era.
Independent from their authors' intentions, if observed in this light as elements of this particular archive, the architecture and urban projects emerge ex post from their initial self- and hetero -referencing and are placed within a context of social relationships occurring over time that rendered them possible or impossible, "in function of the spirit or in function of things." Independent from their authors, the projects have been, and will always be, judged by those external to the processes of their production in terms of the ways in which they received, and receive or refuse, the innumerable practices of the city and the society.

It is of maximum importance, in my way of seeing things, to place attention on the conditions of possibility or impossibility.
Modernity maintained that it was dominated, as in the case of classical evolutionist biology, by circumstances and necessity. The task of research, including design or planning research, was to give order to a situation according to rules that, in their rigor, became necessary. Much of architecture and urban history was driven by this tension that obeyed, over time, different criteria of rationality.
Instead, the contemporary world appears dominated by constraints and by possibility, by the exploration of what it is possible within constraints that are not totally external to our action and that are not known ex ante. The task of research, including design and planning research, is to clarify the path between constraints and the conquest of the possible.
The archive that I propose becomes testimony to this effort: to the attempt, for instance, to overcome the constraints of available resources and techniques, or those regarding relationships of power, of culture, of taste; to build a city in which different individuals and group cultures can represent themselves and find their own space.
The projects in my archive, the ones that were built as well as those that did not have the opportunity to come about, speak of this effort and of its strategies, or of renouncement, of opportunistic adjustment, of subjection. And, as such, I observe and study them.

Perhaps, on the one hand, what is more important is that placing attention on the "possible" transforms the nature of the planner's hetero-referencing, forcing him/her to confront his/her own goals with the concrete physical and theoretical materials with which he/she hopes to achieve them; to find them within his/her own history; to recognize the criteria for their modification and transformation; to find their own language, discursive structure; and to embody them as a filter between him/herself and society, a filter that, time and time again, becomes metaphor, memory, conceptualization.
Whomever observes the profound changes in the best urban planning over the last years recognizes the beginning of this course and cannot help but recognize that it commences when the planner started again to speak of planning in the words of the architecture for the city, placing new attention on the project for the land, a preliminary and open metaphor of every territorial and urban textuality. This textuality is subject to continuous re-invention, and is not given a priori. It is created in every design or planning experience, but which, on a conceptual level (and not formal imitation), moves an ancient wisdom accumulated over a history made up of an endless series of continuities and discontinuities.
On the other hand, attention to the "possible" contradicts the tendencies towards architecture's self-referential closure, forcing it to examine its own exterior, that is the city and the territory neither conceived as an undiversified, infinitely malleable structure, available for any colonization process, nor conceivable, within a new historicist vision, as a set of signs whose interruption or continuation is for us to decide.
In this sense, in the uncertain exploration of the possible - in the construction of scenarios for the city and the territory - architecture and planning might find a new meeting point for reasons that are not superficial.

(1) Foucault M., The Archaeology of Knowledge & the Discorse on Language (translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith), Harper Torchbooks, New York 1972, p 129.