Architects are drifting away from democracy

Education for participation in planning is not education about aesthetics, or about cost-benefits or central place theory, it is education about power

Colin Ward

For seemingly no reason I had no time to write this month and, instead, I read a lot.

The title of this post comes from this article, Architects are drifting away from democracy that a friend of mine – a woman and an architect that I admire very much – shared today on fb.

The article highlights an aspect of the profession of architects and planners, that I have often experimented on my skin: “Civilian interference in the design process Is not Exactly Welcomed by the profession”says the author.

I would add that having democratic opinions, like believing that the results of a good architecture are not just in the developer/city’s income or in the number of people who visit it, but also in its degree of “accessibility” (who are those who will visit/use that specific architecture? women or men? children? poor families? or only rich families? disabled? is it an open space that can be inhabited or also crossed from animals? is it a space that can be used as a “learning environment” for schools or does it help developing our physical or mental abilities?) is not welcomed at all in professions.

How many of you reading this post, if you are a professional (except for those in the field of humanitarian aid or medicine, maybe) were ever addressed with this kind of statements? “To turn down or to question a job for ethical/ecological reasons is not professional. To question the economic reasons of a project for the ecological ones, is not sustainable”.

Well, it happened to me several times. “Someone else will do it if you don’t and will probably do it worse. Compromise is part of the profession” is the psychological trap of those who bring forward the general dominant thought of “getting things done” and the logic of economic profit as a measure of success for anything. I usually do accept the challenge and try in every way (often secretly) to bring both the customer  and the design on sustainability goals, but I am aware that once you accept certain initial conditions you will not be able to achieve certain results, if not quite very limited: a “compromise” precisely.

The theories of sustainability are finally questioning this model, but even these often do not stress enough the aspects of social sustainability, justice and especially of the “right to participation” that are implicit in the idea of ​​environmental sustainability.

And what about the architects, not to mention the archistars (the planners less)? Often they dodge completely the moral/civic question perhaps because they believe that the scale at which they work does not affect the large systems, and instead it does: this is the meaning of the theory of systems.

Professor Francesco Indovina of the IUAV University of Venice, likes to say that “the city is the ecological niche of human being” and I love this quote because it sums up the attitude of care and attention that we should put in designing our cities, an attitude that should be proactive, as Jeff Bishop says, to take in serious consideration the political implications of designing places.


Rittel H., Webber M. “Dilemmas of general planning theory, 1973

Indovina F. “La città sostenibile: sosteniamo la città”, «Archivi di studi urbani e regionali», 2003, 77, p. 12

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New ways, more satisfying in terms of graphics, to display your maps. I think some of my friends might appreciate ;)


If you love the functionalities of online mapping services such as OpenStreetMap and Google Map, but you are fed up with their graphic design, the company Stamen Design has developed something for you: three background maps that you can use to render your own OpenStreetMap mashup. These three maps are: (1) Toner, a sharp high-contrast black and white that reminds me futuristic urban planning maps; (2) the more conventional Terrain which looks more like a shaded relief; (3) and the beautiful watercolor (my favorite) which is described as follows: “Reminiscent of hand drawn maps, our watercolor maps apply raster effect area washes and organic edges over a paper texture to add warm pop to any map.” Since these maps use Open Source data (from OpenStreetMap) and are licenced under a creative commons licence, it would not be surprising to see them (and others) more and more frequently on the…

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MoRUS – Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

Thanks to urbanculturalstudies :: this is news that really makes me happy!

Finally a group of New Yorkers, activists and supporters of the idea of reclaiming space for open – public – creative use, decided to start MoRUS – Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space. Based in Lower East Side, the  proposed museum will collect videos, photos and testimonies of the countless experiences of occupation and rehabilitation of abandoned spaces in New York City (see also my previous post). To donate or support

One consideration. When things end up in museums, usually they are over. But it should not be so in this case.  Perhaps MoRUS could consider even the idea of being a resource center for all those who want to gain skills and get tips to squat or enhance a place. A  Street Work Centre  for Living Museums as Colin Ward would call it.

“Too often today a museum is classed as a social amenity rather than an educational institution […]for many in the museum profession are far too concerned with presentation and display. To many, museums have become synonymous not with reasoned and objective enquiry but with the unearthing of the curious […] This is undoubtedly a remnant of the nineteenth century when a museum was nothing but a cabinet of curiosities” (Jenkins 1969 in Ward, Fyson 1973)

“As a conservationist I am forced to the conclusion that museums  are very much a second best to the conservation of objects in their real environment. This is not always possible, though it should be one of the main themes of museum work. […] its collections should relate to the locality in which it is sited […] There is little evidence yet that anyone has come to grips with the museological implications of a genuinely community-problem-conscious museum” (Ward, Fyson 1973)

I would love it if this new museum could fill the gap!


J.G.Jenkins, “Folk Museums-Some Aims and Purposes”, Museums Journal, June 1971.

C. Ward, A. Fyson, STREETWORK The exploding school, Routledge & Keagan Paul, London 1973.

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Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space in New York City


A new, exciting museum is being planned to keep alive the rich history of reclaimed urban space in New York City. The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, MoRUS, will be located in the storefront of the historic East Village building C-Squat and will house artifacts like videos, photographs, fliers, posters and communiqués by grassroots community members who have squatted abandoned buildings, championed community gardens, and protested the restrictions placed on public space. MoRUS has the potential to strengthen transversal relays between activists and academics, and establish the environment and setting for new social creativity. However, it is not yet open to the public because it still needs additional funding. If you are interested, you can donate here:

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Built environment :: a heavy legacy

Ordos, China

via BBC News – Ordos: The biggest ghost town in China.

This picture is taken from an article published on March 17th on the BBC news magazine. It portrays the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia. 10 years after construction, the new city stands largely empty. The author, Peter Day, tells us:

“The story started about 20 years ago, with the beginning of a great Mongolian coal rush. Private mining companies poured into the green Inner Mongolian steppe lands, pock-marking the landscape with enormous opencast holes in the ground, or tunnelling underground. Local farmers sold their land to the miners, and became instantly rich.

Jobs burgeoned. Ceaseless coal truck convoys tore up the roads. And the old city of Ordos flourished as the money flowed in. The municipality decided to think big, too.

It laid out plans for a huge new town for hundreds of thousands of residents, with Genghis Khan Plaza at the centre of it.

Ten years later Ordos new town is an empty new city.

And it is merely the most spectacular example of a new Chinese phenomenon, in many cities – unsold flats, unlet shops, empty office blocks. It looks to outsiders as though the great Chinese building boom is over, the real estate extravaganza that shook the world.

Western financial experts who fear a bursting of the Chinese real estate bubble point out that the Chinese economy is more dependent on house building than the United States economy was, before the sub-prime lending bubble burst in 2007.

Many Chinese local authorities seem to have become dependent on the proceeds of big land sales to developers.”

Many are the reasons to fear empty houses and abandoned cities phenomenon, and these reasons are not (only) economical.

The ecological issue related to land use and in particular to the consumption of soil for urban purposes is understandable at an intuitive level, but it seems to be not yet adequately supported by studies nor embraced (or at least understood) by local governments.

To give the proportions of the speculation phenomenon in Italy consider that, since 1960, constant growth of the housing stock has marched at a pace of 4 million homes for each decade, thanks to an economic policy which saw the construction industry as a leading sector of the economy. In the past 20 years this phenomenon accellerated even more. Only thanks to the economic crisis it has suffered of a temporary setback.

Soil consumption in Lazio (Rome’s region), black untill 1950, yellow after 2000

Il consumo di suolo in Italia.

Davide Lorenzo in his thesis work La casa appropriata (The appropriate home) reports:

“In 2005 the total stock of dwellings in our country (according to Projected estimates of Cresme Istat data) was about 28 million of which only 22.5 million occupied. We are thus faced with a phenomenon that is unprecedented in history and has no equal in Europe: almost 5.5 million homes in Italy are not occupied, ie about 20% of the total stock, of which only half are be second homes (vacation, and more and more for reasons of mobility work or study) and the remaining (approximately 10% of total) are absolutely unused.”

Despite this abundance,

The latest census (2001), showed that the number of overcrowded dwellings was around 2 million (representing a that date nearly 10% of the total the housing stock occupied). The demand arising is then calculated, around 350 000 dwelling
(of which about half would be sufficient to satisfy that slice of
question relating to the conditions of worse discomfort). To those numbers we should add the phenomenon of cohabitation that, always based on the Censit data , is calculable around 60.000 dwellings. And of course, to those numbers should be added the primary request arising from actual conditions of housing exclusion, by theabout 24.000 families residing in “other accommodation” (caravan, tents, campers, cabins, etc..) and the almost 9.000, which currently do not have even such shelters alternative, and are defined as ” homeless”

but in fact

“In the second mid-90s, the market through the process of “Financialization” lived  one season characterized by major expansion (n.d.r. of housing stock), by a steady rise of property values and prices rents, together with less and less dedicated attention by public goverment to the issue of access to housing, which has now spread well the families of the so-called middle class” (D. Lorenzo, “La casa appropriata”, Roma 2008)

Empty houses, it seems, are not (again not only) the result of an exceeding offer compared to the demand, but instead are mainly the result of an unbalanced market which plays in favor of speculation, rather than trying to answer to a real necessity of homes at a fair price.

But maybe as someone said “the Times, They Are AChangin” ….


Peter Day, “Ordos: the biggest ghost town in China”

F. Indovina, “Appunti sulla questione abitativa oggi”, 2005, e allo studio condotto

Legacoop, Ancab e Cresme Ricerche, “La questione abitativa e il mercato della casa in Italia”, Roma 2005

D. Lorenzo, “La casa appropriata”, tesi di laurea, Facoltà di Architettura, Università Roma3, Roma 2008

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Women’s City

Today is Women’s Day.

Two days ago, Rome’s Public Attorney published the data about crimes against women in Italy: it results that between 2010 to 2011, the increase of crimes against women is about 34.4%. Telefono Rosa, an organization that helps women victims of violence, says that these data are ruthless: “one death every two days”, 28 victims are in fact registered by 1 January 2012 until today.

Femminicidio – Feminicide – Action for women – di B. Atzori, P. Lipari, S. Orlandi, S. Polito – YouTube.

Violence against women is a topic that often is associated with the safety of urban public spaces. Many times (with good reason) people blame the public spaces that are designed without adequate lighting or that have blind spots, or are surrounded by buildings empty at night because of office space etc. It is true that these architectures are often designed without any regard for “diverse” users such as women, children, people with physical or visual disabilities, or the elderly. I am one of those designer who does a lot of attention to these aspects and there are many like me.
But if we really read the data, it is evident that the vast majority of these events occurs in home, by husbands against wives, by mates against companions. The machismo is not necessary a prerogative of males, as such, but it is certainly still a prerogative of the society in which I live.

This probably means that there are other constructions to be demolished, other architectures to be fought: the patriarchal family is one of them. Workplaces that discriminate against women or lesbians are another one.

Otherwise the prevarication of the strong over the weak will always be expressed in urban space.

Dedicated to Bruno Grandi  May 7, 1942 – March 8, 2012

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Reclaiming public space in NYC

Last summer my husband and I spent a month and a half in NYC to seek work and get back in touch with my friends and my past. A wonderful experience, to be repeated soon. One of the things that I had set out to do during our stay was to visit the High Line, the new park located on Manhattan’s West Side.

new york city_highline_2011_01

The “park” was built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Abandoned because of the growth of interstate trucking that leaded to a drop in rail traffic, in 1985 a group of property owners lobbied for demolition of the entire structure. But Peter Obletz, a Chelsea resident, activist and railroad enthusiast, challenged demolition efforts in court. Then, in 1999, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, residents of the High Line neighborhood, founded the Friends of the High Line to advocate for the High Line’s preservation and reuse as public open space.

We visited the park three times, twice during the day and once at night. The atmosphere is lively. The project recovers almost entirely the natural vegetation that growed during the period the railroad was abandoned, and it alternates unusual views of NY to well done resting areas.

Doubts remain whether it should be called “park” or not. The feeling visiting it, is more of an open-air museum or botanical garden, partly because of the attention you must take when using the space: the vegetation is delicate and can not be trampled. “Showcase” is the first word that comes to mind, and also the users behave as if they were on display.

new york city_highline_2011_02

But the real interest lies in the process that led to the creation of the park. It was necessary to give an economic input in exchange (specifically it was additional volumes) to the owners of the buildings that overlook the strip of park, but it is still amazing the amount of funds raised and ultimately the fact that the property is now fully public (the association is responsible only for managing the park). This scenario is almost unthinkable in Europe.

And now a couple of young architects of New York are trying to do the same with another abandoned area. We’ll see … but there is no doubt that that’s the way you do it! To reclaim and transform abandoned places in public places, from down to up, through proposals, promotion and involvement!

LowLine: An Underground Park on NYC’s Lower East Side by Dan Barasch — Kickstarter

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