The design of the “Milan model” – Interview with Stefano Boeri pt.2

What role do design and architecture play in defining the much-debated concept of the “Milan model”? How does it fit into what has been described by some scholars as an “unprecedented marketing campaign,” capable of shifting the social and urban balances of a city and now arrived (?) at a point of no return? So many questions related to the role of design for Milan are being explored in these days of Design Week through talks, events and installations, to others asked for an answer to one of the key figures for design and for Milan, the archistar Stefano Boeri, president of the Milan Triennale and signature of some of the city’s iconic projects such as the Bosco Verticale.
After the first part of the interview published on in the past few days, Stefano Boeri answered other questions that question man and the meaning of inhabiting cities.

After an initial rediscovery of the outdoors and nature due to the first pandemic, don’t you find that people have gone back to locking themselves in cities?

We are probably experiencing the conclusion of a long life cycle of our cities, which began two centuries ago with industrialization and its attractive power. Today we should ask ourselves whether the pandemic crisis will deal the deathblow to that model of the city that had in the power of a few great condensers of bodies – factories, general markets, railway stations, slaughterhouses, stadiums … all the way to shopping malls and airports – its functional organization. With accelerated digital literacy and the pervasive experience of remote-working during lockdowns, I actually think it will open up for many individuals, families, and social groups the prospect of a substantial reform of their times and lifestyles; for some even an actual relocation of their expectations outside the perimeter of the city.

I believe, and hope, that the future of the urban world will move toward a more controlled building density, in time and space, concentrated by areas, by neighborhoods or “urban hamlets” rather than by individual epicenters; by zones of variable density, rather than by building emergencies. We must therefore change the city if it is to continue to be the primary habitat for our species. We must design urban neighborhoods where the spatio-temporal tripartition between work, residence and leisure is rapidly replaced by a progressive co-presence of all vital functions or at least by an intense osmosis in uses. Neighborhoods will have to become multifunctional areas suitable for allowing the free flow of life choices, in which to settle also multifocal parks, theaters, museums, cinemas, according to a polycentric spatial criterion. However, this model of a “city by neighborhoods,” of a “city where you can find everything in 15 minutes”-taking up Carlos Moreno’s proposal for Paris-responds only in part to the demand for a general rebalancing of urban energies that the pandemic and climate crises pose to all of us today.
The opportunity remains open, not to be missed, to accompany a likely reshuffling of human presence in the territory with the regeneration of the thousands of agricultural villages and historic hamlets that dot the interior areas of European countries.
And above all, the issue of a new relationship with the sphere of phenomena that we are used to calling “natural,” that multitude of faunal and plant subjects that are beyond our control and that we have tried to remove from the spaces of urban life, or to circumscribe within fences and enclaves, remains open.

Many people continue to choose to live in cities. Do you think the reasons include the fact that having physical limitations and pre-plotted paths such as streets and sidewalks, rather than open spaces in which to have to find a balance with nature, is more comforting?

I am often asked what, for me, a city is and what brings us to live in a city. The truth is that I can answer this question only in the negative, telling what certainly a city is not or, rather, should never be. Being together among like-minded people is not a city; a continuous expanse of buildings, without a center and an end, is not a city. What distinguishes a city from any other piece of inhabited territory is the absolutely unique relationship that can be created between a community that is home to people with different origins, cultures, traditions, and needs, and the form of space that this community inhabits.
There is no city without a collective imagination capable of thinking about it, of feeling it as a common horizon of daily life. It is the relationship between the density of built spaces and the variety of cultures of those who inhabit them and feel represented by them that creates that city-effect, that cohesive urban community that, on the contrary, we feel is no longer there if the intensity of either term decreases.

Ten years ago, in a book entitled The Anti-City I had tried to reason about the contemporary city and the controversial issue of urban dispersion. In those pages I emphasized how the dilution of urban intensity (i.e., the loss of density of buildings and at the same time the reduction of the social variety of their inhabitants) is at the origin of that phenomenon of dispersion and negation of urban life that I had precisely called “anti-city.” The subject of that book was the “diffuse city,” the gigantic phenomenon of dispersion of the built environment that in Europe and Italy had been produced since the mid-1970s, creating everywhere anti-cities of detached houses, apartment blocks, warehouses, shopping centers, car washes. A seemingly illogical conformation, created by the individual and uncoordinated action of thousands of individuals, families and groups put in a position to be able to build their living space, but without any shared design, without having a project or a vision of a city, nor of a community.

A city is the outcome of a temporal stratification that leaves traces that – however much they may be eroded or erased – persist in the present of urban life, conditioning its future. It is a wrinkled surface, created by the superimposition of the legacies of different epochs of human life, on which transitions between different cultures and styles of living are continually activated and deposited on the ground and become new physical and social landscapes, which in turn will leave traces and ruins on which new places and new vital relationships can be born. For this reason, the evolution of a city should be observed by considering its nature as a palimpsest, paying attention both to the expectations of the communities that inhabit it today and to the new challenges, which include open spaces and integration with nature, if designed and thought out in a logical and coherent manner; this is the consolatory aspect of the urban dimension.

Milan has been a city in big expansion for the past 15 years. Are there any downsides to this rapid development? Is there a limit (including geographical) to this transformation, or will some areas of the city have to be demolished?

The city of Milan is certainly going through an important period of transformation. About fifteen years ago, when attention to environmental issues was not yet so strong, we had proposed the Metrobosco project, which envisaged the connection of green areas around and inside Milan; among other advantages of urban forestation, the project would have stopped the uncontrolled expansion of the city outward.
Today, another challenge to which Milan must necessarily look is the intervention on its urban voids, taking into account as much as possible the preservation of the environment and the need for open spaces in the city. I am thinking above all of the transformation of the 7 disused freight yards in the city: a unique opportunity for urban regeneration and to make Milan a greener and more accessible city, capable of accommodating even the most economically fragile segments of the population, such as young people, whom we are in danger of losing due to an out-of-control housing market. We had developed a proposal for the slipways during the ideas consultation held by FS Sistemi Urbani in 2017; our idea was for a “Green River” to connect the seven slipways through a continuous system of parks, woods, oases, orchards and gardens for public use, green corridors and bicycle paths built on the railway tracks’ buffer strips. The greenery would occupy 90 percent of the available areas, while high-density urban edges were planned on the remaining 10 percent, capable of accommodating activities that are lacking in Milan’s neighborhoods today, such as residences and study/workshop spaces for young people, as well as cultural and citizen care services (libraries, clinics, kindergartens), as well as social and market housing. Even if the project will not be realized in its full dimension, we hope that it can still remain a reference for enhancing public space and social, as well as environmental, dimensions in the Milan of the coming years.

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