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Let’s start from scratch

The recent opinion expressed by a German magazine – “Bauwelt” – sums up fairly well the alarm felt by foreigners in the face of the irresistible degradation of our historical, artistic, landscape and natural heritage, which has been ongoing for decades.

In Italy, writes G.R. Hocke, “it’s still not possible to speak of any systematic conservation of monuments, because no complete list exists”. Although it’s true that the “brutal offensive of reinforced concrete has come to a halt, speculators have paused owing solely to the state of the economy”. […] In the meantime all kinds of historical monuments deteriorate and decay, including – shamefully – renowned areas of inestimable artistic value. […]

We are dealing with a form of absolute public thoughtlessness. “Italy”, continues the article, “is one of the countries that makes most from foreign tourists” (more than 600 billion per year), “and spends on its historical and artistic heritage the laughable sum of 2 billion”, less even than Spain, a much poorer country. […] Truly surprising is the indifference of politicians, who are ready to trumpet the country’s beauties in words, but who “in their speeches totally overlook a problem that is absolutely vital for Italy”. In fact, Italian politicians “lack the sense of tragedy that they should feel for the destruction of one of the most beautiful countries in Europe”.

It would be true patriotic charity to collect every police report, every protest, every sign of disappointment by foreigners concerning the decline of what was once considered the Garden of Europe and Homeland of Art. We may recall […] the intervention of Italian university lecturers who, “alarmed at the daily insults to Italian cities and countryside”, in 1962 advised the Education Minister of the urgent, “absolute need to halt, by any means and against the pressure of any outside interest, a situation that day by day augments the already highly serious damage to our country”. Nor should we forget the vote of the Italian commission at unesco in 1963, which, while sharing “the lively preoccupation increasingly and intensely manifested by cultural circles, even at international level, for the damage already perpetrated and for those who, with present dramatic evidence, threaten an immense and irreplaceable heritage of culture”, addressed a “heartfelt appeal to the Government of the Italian Republic to adopt, with the urgency required by the seriousness of the situation, the most suitable measures available to it”.

That very same year, there was even a proclamation by officials of the Cultural Heritage Bodies who, defining as “highly serious the situation of the nation’s archaeological, artistic and landscape heritage”, denounced “the impossibility of carrying out, under current conditions, any efficacious measures for the safeguarding and divulgation of the assets entrusted to them”, even threatening resignation and a general strike, the closure of museums, excavations, art galleries, etc.

In a few words, this is the opinion of foreigners, of our universities, of international organisations, of the very officials in charge of such protection. We should state immediately however that it is not a matter – as some would have it – of lack of funds, of insufficient staff, of the inadequacy of existing laws. We know that funds are always found for useless, rhetorical and damaging initiatives; we know that too many officials are not up to their task, and – as far as existing laws are concerned – the little good they contain is, as a rule, never applied. The problem is more widespread, and consists of the cultural backwardness of our society, its inability to understand how high the stakes are, the absence of any political will, or rather of any true up-to-date policy for the conservation of what history has so erroneously left us as our heritage. This is evident most of all if we just consider the two most serious aspects of the situation: the destruction of our inner cities, and the destruction of our countryside and Nature. With regard to our inner cities, we started on the wrong foot immediately after the War: bowing to common sense and owing to the lack of any principles of town planning on the part of our administrators and public opinion, just as it was under the Fascist regime (and with the same trust as Molière’s physicians in enemas and blood-letting), we insisted on “adjusting” our ancient city centres to “modern life”, simply by gutting them and replacing them with intensive reconstruction. The immediate results were the abomination of Via della Conciliazione in Rome (1950), the completion of the tabula rasa of the Thirties, and the reconstruction of Por Santa Maria at Florence, after the war damage: the most clamorous case, however was Milan, where the bombs, hypocritically greeted as a “tragic clean-up”, served as a welcome incentive for building speculation, and then for the massive, senseless reconstruction of the centre, and the realisation of the arterial road known as the “racket”, which, like every gutting operation, achieved exactly the contrary of its desired effect, determining the concession and blockage of the city centre. Rome, too, wanted to have another go in 1952, after the disasters of two decades of Fascism: an old project was re-proposed to gut the whole centre between Piazza di Spagna and the Tiber, but the uprising of cultural forces and the independent press achieved the unhoped-for effect of scrapping it. From that point began the struggle of a trained minority and qualified technical organisations against the bad governance of Italian cities […]. Gutting city centres became unpopular (even Milan realised a mistake had been made, and definitively suspended the realisation of the second leg of the infamous “racket”), but the bad example had already been given and, during the Fifties, was followed by smaller but illustrious cities, out of provincialism and as a tribute to private speculation.

In the name of the most threadbare clichés (“the city isn’t a museum”, “you must insert something new amongst the old”, “our era must also leave its mark”, etc.), incompetent administrators and third-rate architects launched a whole series of minor works in the heart of ancient cities, demolishing and rebuilding, widening roads, isolating monuments, etc., destroying the environment and the ancient city structure, attracting traffic and the wrong interests and activities in a delicate fabric wholly unsuited to deal with them. From Pavia to Cremona, from Brescia to Lucca, from Vicenza to Assisi, from Ferrara to Padua, from Ascoli Piceno to Orvieto, from Naples to Catania, and so on, Italy’s 100 cities experienced the most squalid time of their modern history, on the base of principles that had nothing to do with town planning and public interest.

[…] Inner cities are an irreplaceable element of our culture, on account of their historical and environmental value and their complex and stratified structure: and consequently today the whole of any ancient city is a monument to be saved. Claiming to “adjust ancient centres to modern life” is absurd, because demolitions and reconstructions, “guttings”, etc., bring down city centres like a house of cards, generating overcrowding, the mixing of disparate functions, a definitive paralysis of traffic. The relationship between old and new in cities should not be viewed architecturally but as an aspect of town planning: it is not a matter of inserting single new buildings into the ancient fabric but, on the contrary, of inserting the whole ancient centre, as a single organism, into the general overview of new urban developments, once it has been given a precise role. The historical centre must become a special part of the city and accept activities that are compatible with its structure (residential, commercial of a certain kind, cultural, etc.): this is why the city development plan must remove incompatible functions linked to the heaviest economic interests and motor traffic.

The only legitimate way of dealing with city centres is a “conservative restoration” (the “charter” for which was founded at the Gubbio convention of the 1960 National Town-Planning Institute (Istituto Nazionale di Urbanistica): which means restoration and stabilisation, removal of recent disfiguring and unhygienic superstructures, provision of any essential services lacking, internal recovery of buildings, recovery of spaces which, once open, are now enclosed within blocks, restoration of green areas, restitution of pedestrian areas to pedestrians. […] Despite the proposals, projects and studies that have been launched, no concrete conservative restoration experiment is in progress anywhere in Italy – a fact that, better than many words, best describes the situation.

The problem of city centres is therefore a problem of town-planning. Take a look at our cities today: you find an ancient core, full of history and art and eminent locations, degraded, tampered with, impracticable, clogged, no longer enjoyable except at night. Outside this, a modern city worthy of mankind: boundless and squalid outskirts, uncivilised districts contradicting the basic rules of living associated with our era. We haven’t been able to defend the ancient, and we haven’t been able to create anything modern, authentic, human, rational. […] Of the same kind are considerations concerning another aspect of the question: the destruction of green areas, the countryside and natural resources.

By and large, the operation has been carried out in two stages: firstly, in the years of furious and chaotic building which has saturated of our cities, existing urban parks were destroyed along with any surviving villas, which became goldmines for their owners. […]

Simultaneously, in every city, with an ignorance and sadism unrivalled anywhere else in the world, the last blades of grass were also eliminated from the outskirts, and millions of citizens have been condemned to subhuman living conditions. To demonstrate the astronomical difference between us and town planning in civilised countries, just take a look at the major districts of Paris’s suburbs, the “new towns” in the London area, Dutch, Swiss, German and Scandinavian suburbs and cities. For example, the 100,000 inhabitants of the new western districts of Amsterdam and the 60,000 of Vällingby (satellite-area of Stockholm) are provided with more public green spaces and recreation areas than all the existing public green areas in Rome for 2.5 million inhabitants and in Milan for over 1.5 million inhabitants!

Having saturated the cities, building speculators then attacked our natural resources in a wider radius, proceeding to the coastline and coastal forests, exploiting the boom in private car ownership. […] All this has happened, and is happening, without planning, without coordination between the exploitation of tourism, the economy, infrastructure, without any vision or overall policy. Due to the combination of what has been called “famished-family” speculation, and the activities of major real estate companies, […] our coastlines have been transformed into congested linear built-up areas. Any continuity between the coast and hinterland has been cut off, the pine forests have been chopped up: the only principle has been that of conquering the first line, making impossible any authentic regeneration of Nature, with a serious reduction in both time and space of economic income in the areas affected: the indiscriminate system of dividing into lots has privatised what should have become a permanent public heritage.

After the coasts, it was the turn of the national parks: it began in 1960, with the scandal of buildings invading the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo. This sanctuary of Nature, created to protect flora and fauna and to educate the public through contact with uncontaminated Nature, was sold off in lots; thousands of plants felled, roads laid out to give greater value to the plots of land. […]. A press campaign, more violent than any before it, managed to halt the disaster: but for many thousands of hectares, the biological balance of one of the most famous regions of Europe has been destroyed, and the public disapproval of the International Union for the Preservation of Nature was totally in vain.

We should wonder about this suicidal action, which destroys the very raw material of tourism itself, its very economic potential, and the major ingredient (not for long now!) of our country’s prestige in the world. Although the immediate cause is, clearly, crookedness of a politico-juridical nature that puts the land of our peninsula up for grabs by the blind forces of private speculation, its first roots seem to go back to more general, cultural, sociological, psychological causes, that should be carefully studied.

In the cultural field, for example, we are still paying the consequences of a philosophy, an idealism that seriously considered the beauty of Nature, and even Nature itself, to be nonexistent, reducing the “countryside” to an ephemeral subjective semblance, ignoring precisely that which constitutes the content and substance of the countryside (water, air, mountain, forest, coastline, etc.) and its primary purpose in the life of humankind: to maintain the biological balance of the world, as an essential instrument of public well-being. It is this approach, wholly visual and overly “refined”, that inspired the existing law, of 1939, for the safeguarding of “natural panoramas and beauties”: a law that substantially reduces the countryside to a state of mind, a “picture” to be contemplated, denying any objective value and practical function to Nature, and obstructing any assessment of it that is not discretionary, thus legitimising its destruction. It is understandable that, between the state of mind of the contemplative or holiday-maker and that of the exploiter, the latter will always win, as indeed has regularly occurred in all these years, with the approval of all the authorities. The poor superintendents, supposing they attempted to oppose selling off a pine forest in parcels, are left only (since we’re dealing with “aesthetics”) with the right to decide on the colour of the plaster, of the fencing, and the quality of the tiles.

A second reason linked to the first is, in the absence of our naturalistic and town-planning culture, the mentality of too many of those operating in Italy, in particular architects, engineers, and “technicians” generally speaking. […] The complex discipline of landscape architecture (not architecture in the landscape) does not exist. In other countries, it has been responsible for the creation of marvellous public parks, natural and well equipped, for people’s free time. Here, too, we have been kept out of the history of modern town planning. Whereas abroad the continual creation of new natural spaces is the basis of town planning, following norms and standards that always mirror the growing needs of mankind, we have continued to produce little traffic island gardens, flowerbeds that cannot be walked on, while trampling over every elementary principle of hygiene and town planning, preferring floral decoration to people’s psycho-physical well-being.

Thirdly, we are the victims of a recently arrived convulsive social phenomena, with consequent aberrations of behaviour, skilfully exploited by those interested in maintaining chaos. We have tackled new things with an old mentality; the rapid transition from farming and peasant conditions to an urban existence have made us mistake the destruction of Nature for civilisation, territorial disorder for progress, aggressive ugliness for vitality, polluted air for well-being. We have used rapidity of transport and increased mobility as a means of reproducing in tourist and natural areas the worst aspects of city life (gridlock, din, isolation, ostentation, etc.); we are covering Italy from one end to the other with a repellent uniform semi-urban crust that destroys every distinguishing feature and appears to be the portrait of a nameless and lost bourgeoisie.

These summary indications are exact to the extent of providing a general description of a deplorable situation. Nothing could be more wrong-minded that to deduce apathetically from them some simplistic condemnation, such as “Italians don’t like Nature” or “Italians are vandals” or similar slogans, which we must reject.

Indeed, how can we be annoyed at this, when for decades the only example provided by the State, municipalities, public and private organisations is the systematic destruction of the natural order for purposes that can only be described as despicable? When having a house surrounded by green, or bathing in an area of uncontaminated Nature, is considered a privilege of the wealthy, the ‘countryside’ a privilege for an elite? When decades of propaganda by the forces of speculation have stunted people’s awareness of their own rights in town planning?

[…] We can conserve something only if we know how to continually create Nature anew, through economic policies and town planning: a new countryside to serve mankind, continually producing new resources from our potential, in the interest of our citizens. The final aim, whether the preservation of our historical or of our natural heritage, must be for the public benefit, so that Italians, through their own direct knowledge, become its jealous guardians and learn to consider their land as common property to be proud of. […] A few frightening figures provide evidence of what we have said: 55% of our children (as certified by the sports and medical authorities in Milan and Turin) are unfit for any sporting exercise, owing to deformities contracted as a result of the inertia to which they are subjected, at home and at school, in our cities. Such cities, as we know, have fewer public green spaces than any others worldwide, and in them, the generation born from the miracle of the economic boom is forced to idle on the streets, in the midst of rubbish, owing to a total lack of green spaces: gardens, parks, open areas, playing fields and sports fields. Yet again, Italy is number one in the number of children killed in road accidents (over 500 per year), for the very same reasons. The cities we have built are killers, and exploitation of the last square metre is more important than the lives of our children […]. Naturally, the problem is a political one, and involves all our structures; we must all vote for town-planning regulations that totally renew our rules concerning building areas, that establish public interests above the labyrinth of private interests, and that rationalise our national territory, inspired by a respect for human needs, rather than – as has been the case up to now – by exclusive respect for the land registry.

We should not forget that, occasionally, the battle has been won, as in the scandalous case of the Appian Way and its landscape, which the Rome city plan has at last, accepting the decades-long appeal of culture and independent newspapers, destined as a public park, covering over 2000 hectares. […] This is a memorable victory, but is just the beginning, a premise, a point of departure: to make progress in concrete achievements, on the Appian Way as elsewhere in Italy, we have to keep in mind that we must start from scratch.

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