Your Majesty, your Royal Highnesses, distinguished guests and friends,
My first words are ones of gratitude and excitement at receiving the Erasmus Prize and for this splendid celebration. I would like to highlight the importance of urbanism in defining the future of our communities and the extent of its influence on contemporary culture.
1-Times of major transformation in our society
When we welcomed the 21st century with enthusiasm, we became aware of new issues that had been underestimated: progress is not infinite, and we have to avoid waste.
We have to be rigorous in our approach to progress and avoid unnecessary alarmism such as that portrayed in the terms “risk society”. Our civilization has dealt with major challenges in the past, such as hygiene in the 19th century, and health care and modern urbanism in the 20th; why shouldn’t we be able to deal successfully with new challenges now?
There is a tendency to confuse civilization with civility. The former is constantly changing, and civilizations successively rise and fall. Civility, however, has to do with our individual condition, and it is here that urban life proves effective: we might say that human beings cease to be savages by means of collective life, which takes place predominantly in the city.
2-Urbanism is a question of ideas and it is a creative process.
The design of the city is a social and political issue, but it is also one of culture and aesthetics, and it is produced by projects and strategies.
The everyday discussion about functional values and the efficiency of the city is seen as a rational question, but there are also artistic values. Aldo Rossi compares logical and analogical thinking. The logical is easy to describe with words, whereas the analogical needs a series of images to be communicated, as affective objects, memory of a place. Everyone recognises analogical contents even if they don’t know how to express them. But both forms of thinking are vital when expressing the ideas that define a project.
Urbanism and urban Architecture have a creative component that is inventive but also cultural, capable of connecting with history and geography, that sometimes makes us uncomfortable, but which we have to be able to reason and explain.
This creative process is marked by a major evolution in working techniques that enhance our abilities, but it is also important to recognise that there are arts and disciplines that help us to define better the analogical component.
Painting offers new interpretations of the city that can inspire decisions in urban design projects, as in our contribution to the reorganization of the railway system and central urban spaces in Delft, with a reinterpretation of “View of Delft”, the fascinating painting by Jan Vermeer dated 1660. In this captivating work of cityscape, everything is rendered very real by the effect of the lighting and the clouds, creating the eye-catching effect of the city’s symmetry, in which simple elements become quite monumental. In today’s project, this rigorous combination of scales serves to recover a central public space by means of the major works of infrastructure that are anchored to the ground.
Similarly, El Greco’s interesting representation in “View and Plan of Toledo”, dated 1608, shows in great detail the synthesis between representation and reality, and heralds the possibility of its propositive capacity, combining “objects and context” in the rehabilitation strategy applied to the historic centre of Toledo, four centuries later.
This attitude is also put forward by Colin Rowe in Collage City, suggesting that we reconcile this challenge between architectural object and urban texture, represented by two constantly conflicting traditions: the radical who sees the city as a theatre of prophecy and the conservationist stance that sees the city as a theatre of memory.
Today’s city is open to the territory. City walls disappeared in the 19th century, and the ring roads that separated city from countryside are fading. Today, infrastructures have to be “arteries of urbanity” that weave the territory together, giving rise to a different relation between city and countryside. Natural space is one component more of urban space. We have to eliminate the boundaries between ecology and urbanism, because only in this way can we produce sustainable cities.
Mobility changes with new forms of communication, though there is no decrease in the volume of movement. Today’s city dwellers want to be able to choose their forms of communication at a given moment.
The concern of the architect who is interested in the city is to take action, and this capacity is synthesised in the urban design project, with its multiple scales and variants. Many people have to be convinced in the case of propositive development, but it is vital for the ideas to be shared, otherwise failure is almost assured.
Urbanism provides answers for today’s society, but we feel the need for an innovative or utopian approach. Here, the discussion between Erasmus and More could be relevant.
The most notable works of Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, and Thomas More, Utopia, are set in the context of this common approach, despite differences in contents and ambitions. Their works are set in the transition from the Renaissance as an artistic and cultural trend to the Reformation, with the accompanying social and political transformation.
In Utopia, the urban formation is regular, as far as geography allows, and each house has its gardens with fruit trees and plants. The island is a federation of cities and land is the principal asset in Utopia, signifying an important social gambit in the Europe of the time. The residents moved house and land every ten years to give greater social mobility to this complex set-up.
Erasmus did not seem to share in the “communism” reflected in More’s stance and was not much attracted by such a “strictly regulated” society that “smelt of” a monastery, as he wrote in his treatise. In The Praise of Folly, too, he criticised the ideal “wise man” of Utopia as being completely inhuman and incapable of human feelings. Then we can see two interesting radical positions, innovative vs. utopian, to conciliate…
5-Some biographical notes
Barcelona has been my point of reference in training and experimentation—first at the LUB—for developing new forms of interpretation of the urban phenomenon and understanding its huge impact on the living conditions of the population, and I would like to thank my teachers and colleagues for their rigour and generosity. It was a rich period that continues to germinate in many of my present-day reflections. Barcelona is a city with brilliant episodes such as Art Nouveau, with Gaudí and Domenech, and urban projects such as the Eixample, designed by Cerdà for city expansion in the 19th century, but also with periods of grey growth and speculation during the dictatorship after the Spanish Civil War. Understanding these processes was a seminal stage.
I would also like to thank the democratic leaders at Barcelona City Hall who believed in our abilities and asked us to contribute our work and ideas to the rehabilitation of neighbourhoods in the city, opening it up to the sea and creating a vibrant urban economy. Barcelona has undoubtedly become a point of reference for good urbanistic practice in Europe, showing that city design is possible and that it has to work at several scales at once, involving the various social agents, if it is to be effective.
Then, the opportunity of taking part in Europe’s multicultural discussion in the 1990s was determinant. In particular, the contrast with Dutch reality and forms of intervention, in Rotterdam, the Hague, Amsterdam, Delft and Helmond, among others, highlighted the possible subsistence of forms of strategic national planning, with more liberal, open processes in the development of cities and their urban fragments. The debate between city project and innovative architecture, between public space and landscape, has been a rewarding one. The urban tradition of figures such as Berlage and Van Eesteren is still very much present.
The contrast with other cultures, such as those of Italy, France, Portugal, Germany or Switzerland, has served to produce more specific suggestions and projects for each local reality.
In the last decade, my platform in Cambridge at the GSD allowed me to take a new look at emerging realities with a view to experiencing other contents: the contrast between the New World of the Americas and the Old World of China and India, and their urbanistic challenges. As Cerdà said, in relation to Barcelona: a good method of designing the city has to address our closest reality, but it must also embrace what happens in other places and interpret all this in keeping with the progressive culture of the time.
In these emerging realities, we re-discover questions that were overlooked by the urbanistic dogmas of the last century, such as the virtues of high density, the richness of mixed uses or the potential value of public land in urbanistic strategies. These questions involve very diverse conditions for defining the urban form and its evolution; perhaps Western culture can benefit from these experiences in the near future.
6-Perhaps a new humanistic, cosmopolitan attitude is needed …
Cities no longer respond to the “idea of a machine” that inspired city design in the 20th century. Today, they are processes that are transformed and modify very fast; rather than machines that move, they are biological metaphors.
Here, the figure of Edgar Morin and complex thinking help us to decipher how to approach and work with complex structures, in processes where their development changes the rules, creating new patterns for mutation. Ultimately, it helps us to achieve a new simplicity for planning the unknown…
The form of the city is the result of many elements, but the configuration of “space”, be it built or un-built, is undoubtedly a key to its correct materialization. It is easy to understand the past and interpret the present, and designing the future requires us to understand both, but it has to be created, but future has no form, and has to be created, and its formalization is one of the most difficult and fascinating tasks for today.
This seems to call for an open, humanistic attitude that avoids the narrow dogmas of the past, and here, once again, the debate between More and Erasmus is highly relevant; let’s make intelligent use of their memory…