Interview. 'Perhaps a good urban environment should not be built based on lifestyles, interactive sensors, traffic diagrams or climate change forecasts, but on the deeper states of human well-being.'

Timeless future cities, adapted for people not trends

“All it takes is a snapshot taken with my iPhone of one of my four children asleep in the morning on the couch—and this dating from well before the coronavirus lockdown—to bring down the entire theoretical construct of functionalist housing and its two-way correspondence between rooms and activities,” the architect Cino Zucchi tells il manifesto.

“Within a radius of no more than two meters from his sleeping body, we see a laptop with the frozen images from the last business meeting, a cup of coffee, the remains of a Japanese-Brazilian meal ordered on Deliveroo, freshly discarded Amazon Prime packaging, a mobile phone with messages from a foreign boyfriend together with the icons of the many apps that make up the vital tools of a new ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ living in the ecosystem of the contemporary city.”

But then, the architect asks, how can one translate all these considerations into the design of new housing and new parts of cities?

“While there is a certain ease in changing the space of an apartment with furniture or by moving walls, we cannot throw away entire neighborhoods and cities as we do with an obsolete smartphone. We often live in houses or neighborhoods built in the past by people with values, technology and lifestyles that were very different from ours. The city always comes as an answer to the question that triggered its somewhat ‘out of time’ project; but it also lasts far beyond the moment when the need that generated it ceased to exist or changed. In addition to trying to interpret the demographic, sociological and ideal trends of a society, it is therefore necessary to provide spaces and buildings with a generosity and ‘robustness’ that make them capable of resisting and changing in relation to the needs derived from the next ‘black swan’ event, which will happen at a time, in a place and in a manner we do not expect.”

Starting from a snapshot of everyday life, Cino Zucchi arrives at wide-ranging reflections on some of the questions we ask him about the relationship between COVID-19 and space. An internationally renowned designer, critic and professor of architectural and urban design at the Polytechnic University of Milan, Cino Zucchi is the owner of the CZ Architects studio, based in Milan, one of the areas where the effects of the viral contagion seem to have made themselves felt in the most violent manner.

With the COVID-19 emergency, our domestic space is the image with which we present ourselves to the world; our looks, hairstyles and ways of doing things are entirely replaced by that fragment of environment that can be glimpsed in the background of our image on the screen. This process of externalizing our most intimate places goes hand in hand with an increasingly tangible experience of globalization: we share with the outside world the most hidden spaces, and at the same time we bring into our home the effects of a product of globalization, of an idea of a world without borders that seems to have dematerialized into a cloud of both sharing and contagion. What do you think about this?

Each “catastrophe” often accelerates phenomena that were already present, suddenly revealing the potential fragility of their structure. The digital revolution had already profoundly changed the way the so-called “millennials” inhabit domestic space, and perhaps today it has forcibly transferred some of its characteristics to the older generations, who have been forced by the situation to undergo a boot camp training just as violent as that of the teenagers that Hitler sent to the frontlines. The short-circuiting and loss of precise boundaries between the private and public dimensions is perhaps one of the most obvious consequences of social media, and goes so far that it is influencing fields no one thought it would, such as economics and politics, in its continuous oscillation between “not-in-my-backyard-ism,” media assemblages, Big Data, populism, fake news and social control. The distinction that Michel de Certeau made in L’invention du quotidien (1980) between the “strategy” of institutions and the “tactics” of their users—who find new ways of using the systems and procedures established by the former—could be transferred today from the web of the city to that of the Internet, analyzing how our spontaneous practices tend to hybridize the use of virtual space with that of physical space.

The virus undermines the concept of the city. Glimpsed from the windows, experienced in the heartrending queues at the supermarkets, or crossed daily by those who continue to go to work, urban spaces appear different, enigmatic. The confinement is demonstrating how it is possible to live without a city, investing everything in the possibilities of the domestic environment. Do you think that these aspects could have repercussions for the future visions that will imagine urban places and forms? 

“Does your lifestyle need a city? Wouldn’t you rather be a citizen of the world? Don’t you think a gap between your dreams and the real environment is necessary? Is the city still the landscape of the future?”—these were some of the provocative questions asked to the audience at the 1970 Osaka Expo by the radical group Archigram. On this issue as well, architectural culture was already questioning itself before the pandemic regarding the consequences of social media on the use of urban space. Not more than three months ago, the words co-working/co-housing were spreading in almost epidemic-like fashion when talking about the relationships of architectural projects as key elements. Should we now coin new buzzwords, like “co(rona)-working” and “co(rona)-living,” perhaps helped by some psycho-sociologist on TV?

The prophecies and “projective futurologies” formulated by architect-gurus at the urging of journalists hungry for news fail to take into account two important factors: the relative “inertia” of the urban form once built and the unpredictability of events such as financial crises, wars or ecological catastrophes. Shopping centers designed according to market forecasts are being abandoned and demolished. The photos of deserted Italian squares nowadays teach us one thing: the public spaces of the city “consist” of both empty and full spaces, and do not contract like a deflated balloon if people stay at home.

Perhaps a good urban environment should not be built based on lifestyles, interactive sensors, traffic diagrams or climate change forecasts, but on the deeper states of human well-being. A porch that shelters us from the rain, a bench exposed to the autumn sun or the shade of a well-placed tree work just as well for couples snuggling, elderly gossips, cyberpunk gangs or melancholy existentialists, and gently bid us welcome on the day we get a promotion, or on the day one of our parents dies.

In some cases, the domestic space becomes an obsessive enclosure, constantly observed and controlled, constantly subjected to hard tests of efficiency. Work, leisure, affection and social life are projected into the home, the only place in which it seems worth investing during these times. What changes will occur after this experience in the design of space? Will a sort of supremacy of the residence environment be established? Or, now that we know how to do without certain spaces, will we find ourselves looking at other horizons, perhaps accelerating towards the virtual reality project? 

Like the crystal ball of a soothsayer, the famous section of the Un-House/Environment Bubble conceived by Reyner Banham and François Dallegret in 1965 depicts how media connections could have achieved the ideal of a house-cum-amniotic sac, potentially ubiquitous, but connected to the world, and the disappearance of houses as we conceive of them today. Everyday life continuously tests and adapts existing spaces to unforeseen needs. In a world obsessed with just-in-time, thinking about “just-out-of-time” architecture also means reflecting on long life, on the plasticity of existing environments, on the regeneration of cities, on reuse, on the life cycles of artefacts: a “new ecology” capable of integrating urban and natural environment, where technical innovation is not a formal fetish, but a tool for responsible action on an planet that is increasingly small and delicate.

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