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

Diary 09 | Generations

by Bernardo Secchi

 Italian Version

I have always avoided thinking in terms of generations: of architects, of planners or other figures. I have always believed that this kind of thinking was an invitation to write history as a succession of people rather than movements. And I have always thought that the history of the city and architecture, like planning, was defined by other forms of continuity and discontinuity.

However, at a certain age, it seems natural to reflect upon and question the meaning both of one's own work as well as that of one's generation; or at least of the one that came of age and worked during a certain time-frame in Europe. For me, those years lie from the 1960s to the present.

My generation in Europe, at least until now, has not lived through dramatic events in close proximity; wars and crises have occurred at a distance from the world that we have known and in which we have worked as planners. And until very recently, when we have worked in other parts of the world, it has mostly been in the role of "expert," invited or sent by governments or research institutions.
But this same era, even if only in terms of the western world or even just Europe, has been marked by radical changes in cities, territories and the populations that inhabit them. Some have seen the end of modernity, others the birth of a new one. It seems that my generation of planners provided a meager contribution of ideas to these changes. The same cannot be said of those who have worked in many other different fields.

My generation was born to planning during years of fervent and impassioned criticism of a kind of unique thought that was believed, for years, to have driven it. In the hasty and polemical interpretations at the beginning of the 1960s, the imperfect knowledge of the preceding period, of its roots, its articulation and its conflicts, led to the identification of planning with CIAM and the Athens Charter or, even more generically, with Modern Movement urbanism and its widespread application during the postwar period. In the eyes of those who grasped the profound changes that were soon to come about in western society, its economy and institutions, modern planning became koinè, but in the meantime seemed to be reductive on the theoretical level and a banal machine on the operational one.
The hetero-directed individuals of mass society, of David Riesman's "solitary crowd", could not be reduced to the four functions of living, working, recreation and movement. The articulation of living space could not be organized in zones where the four fundamental functions were represented primarily through specific settlement principles. The dimensions of welfare could not be traced back to (albeit) abundant endowments of space and apparatus. Processes regarding the building site of the city's construction and, more in general, the relationships between urbanism, institutions and power could neither be conceived within the logic of the sovereign state nor within that of the disciplinary society. In society, like in the city, the coagulation of solid clots - of urban facts - became more and more recognizable, rendering each description more complex but also more meaningful, like in the nouveau roman. The movement and the unexpected drifts of western societies raised issues and problems that required knowledge, critical tools, and theoretical and operational apparatuses that were much more sophisticated than those developed by the planning field during the first half the century.

The figurative revolution of the pioneers of modern architecture - a mythical generation of great masters whose histories had been written by Pevsner and Giedion and who, in that same period, began to disappear - paradoxically appeared to contrast the idea - rooted in disciplinary society and, in fact, underlying 1950's planning - of a society made up of extensive classes motivated by homogeneous images, values and needs. In other words, modern planning partially appeared to be overly laden with ideologies - conflicting among themselves and having different roots - whose terms had to be defined through the meaning used by Roland Barthes a few years before: urbanism and architecture, attempting to locate themselves above the lacerating divisions that had permeated Europe during the period between the two wars, took upon purposes and tasks - on political and social levels - that they could not achieve and manage. Modern planning, in the eyes of those who recognized the ineluctable bonds with the more general economic and institutional systems, could not interpret and understand a society, a city and a territory which seemed to dissolve more and more into situations and groups referring to different kinds of behaviors.

Many, in my generation, refused terms such as militancy or mission and rigorously sought to purify planning of its ideological contradictions without, however, losing their ever-present civil commitment. Mission, militancy and commitment, in Sartre's sense of the term, have created invisible watersheds for a large part of my generation.
For this reason, planning has opened itself with curiosity to other disciplines. Along with other artistic forms and areas of study, the field has sought to consider the city and the territory in a secular and precise way, to become the archaeologist of the city and contemporary society and at the same time to imagine scenarios for a possible future. The discipline has explored new cognitive strategies; it has become absorbed in the criticism of a kind of unique thought which emerged from conflict and from the tiring practice of participation; it has experienced, with generosity and passion, the epistemological crisis faced by western thought through the last decades of the century, questioning - over and over again - its rules as well as its ties with power. Along this tiring journey of collective formation made up of so many, and different, individual routes, my generation has often anticipated issues and problems that would become prime subjects for other researchers and disciplines. At the same time, the planner's scope of study has broadened enormously; refusing all rigid divisions between research and design, the planner has often become an excessive figure, but has also remained, in the words of Edgar Morin, one of the very few "well trained minds."

At the end of this road, my generation of planners and architects must face a new kind of unique thought and a new ideological excess. All efforts appear to have been in vain, though sometimes serviceable in perverse ways. In the trivialization of language at end of the century, a new unique thought took on the mythical vestments of an often counterfeit "market" and the semblances of captivating images devoid of any specific social reference.
Much more aggressive on a cultural level, my generation has no ideas that become shared projects for the city and the territory and seems incapable of a suitable and effective reaction: it withdraws from the field and denies the very idea of project or practice in rhetorical ways, adapting to compromise and abandoning itself to a directionless and opportunistic pragmatism. In some cases my generation openly embraces the new myths. Why?

There could be many explanations. Architecture and urbanism have become, in the words of Pierre Bourdieu, more open "fields" in which it is difficult to create either stable systems of authoritativeness, overall processes of experimentation, or even mere positions which circumstance and time allow to be completely expressed. This contrasts the tremendous inertia of the materials that these fields attempt to modify or transform. The inevitable bonds developed with public administrations, politics and the marketplace seem to have made the relationship between our era's urbanism, architecture and society extremely precarious and unstable due to the uncertainties and disorientation that, at least in Europe, dominated the last part of the twentieth century.
But perhaps this does not explain the marginal position held by planning in the that part of that century. At the root of it all, it seems to me that my generation has not fully understood two fundamental questions, often interpreting them in trite and reductive ways.

On the one hand, my generation has not understood that the diffusion of the urban phenomenon across whole continents created, and was the result of, a new culture and a new concept of space. It was an idea of grossraum, in the sense given to the term by Carl Schmitt, which did not think of urbanization as the simple continuation of the growth of the modern metropolis. Some years ago, Peter Hall linked the expansion of the urban phenomenon to new mobility and communication technologies, as did Schmitt in part. But we find greater historical depth and greater stratification of the latter's analytic levels. The contemporary grossraum, so widespread as to cover the entire planet, discontinuous like a leopard skin, practiced by every subject by points rather than areas, negates the idea of a frontier, of a limes, that advances and takes over more and more land from the "countryside." This is the result of, and supports, new bio-political strategies; different subjects deposit their logos and commercial, or status, symbols, using borrowed military techniques, overlaying them upon a palimpsest of more ancient and rooted signs in which long traditions and different cultures are condensed and which resist a new spatial idea. The urbanization of the world no longer follows rules of the traditional theories regarding location and urban growth, but molds them to the laws of new strategies of control exalted by the rhetoric of fear and safety: control of the marketplace, control of the neuralgic ganglions in the mobility and the communications network, control of urban ecology and habitable space as in the extreme but ever more frequent cases of gated communities.
On the other hand, the planners of my generation have not fully understood the nature of the democratic power that is simultaneously produced through decentralization and concentration. For example, they have seriously underestimated the dynamics that involved the set of desires and needs in which the identity of every subject and every social group is condensed and represented, pro-tempore. They have grossly underestimated the fact that, to a great extent, the same set of desires and needs are created, to use the words of Martin Walzer, within unintentional associations, within a cultural dynamic that cannot be separated from the development of mobility and communications technologies and from the expansion and diffusion of the urban phenomenon. Reducing the expression of democratic power to the sole sphere of participation, my generation of planners and architects, in good or doubtful faith, has given up facing, if not rhetorically, such problems of so much greater depth.

The city, and here I mean society, has always been constructed based on a project, often implicit, that pointed in the right direction. It has been built, time after time, based upon the need to be protected from nature or from enemies, or upon the limits of technology or available resources, or the desire to represent or auto-represent power, or, again, the desire to discipline and control society or its strategic areas. In the end, each era has represented its spatial concept in its project for the city and has done so while acting upon images and collective behaviors through designs in which that same idea of space was represented: contained within the medieval finitudo, striving for the infinite in the Baroque era, submitting to an apparently uniform discipline in the industrial city. Underestimating the importance of these images, and the processes by which they became mental images recognized by entire societies, has perhaps been my generation's most serious error.

My generation has, for a long time, been highly suspicious of design in its most ample sense; perhaps concealing within this attitude the lack of a personal idea regarding the future of the city and territory in keeping with the new era. We have unduly contrasted a vibrant but groundless sense of guilt regarding design with regulation, procedure, behavior. Faced with the complexity of the building site of the city, in the evident absence and impossibility of an authority to whom to entrust the unitary character of its own project, in the obvious embarrassment of accepting the role of representing a-critically the disciplinary society, my generation of planners maintained that the law was the most solid element of mediation between project and society and had faith in the architecture of institutions, norms and procedures; this layer has expanded and dilated so much over time as to suffocate both project and society.
Sometimes, I think of my generation of urbanists as a stoic and suicidal one.