The burden of Italian cities

What do we think?

Having now spent a considerable time living in and travelling around Italy, we have been able to observe an unsettling pattern amongst Italian cities. Their centres are, without doubt, amongst the most beautiful and humane in the world. Even Milan, normally understood to be the ugly cousin of knockout cities like Rome and Florence, has a distinguished elegance that makes it a pleasure to inhabit. Yet travel more than a few kilometres away from the centre and every single Italian city rapidly degenerates into peripheries that are poorly planned, have few amenities, comprise oversized, undistinguished apartment blocks and employ a depressing sameness in every direction.

While it is true that Italian cities are not alone in suffering from this peripheral degeneration, there are many European cities that don’t. Oslo, for instance, has a charming centre whose periphery is gradually taken over by parkland and forest. Or there’s London, whose old suburbs offer the most civilised and sought after real-estate in the city.

What did we learn?

The divide between Italy’s beautiful centres and ugly peripheries can, in large part, be attributed to the post-war economic boom. From the late 1950s to early 1970s, Italy hosted massive internal migration from the south to the north as workers looked to cities like Milan, Turin and Genoa for employment. With the populations of these cities swelling by hundreds of thousands, the urgency of new housing was met without planning or design.

But we think there is another, more deeply-ingrained reason. We think that Italy is burdened with a great weight, perhaps more so than any country in the world, that affects every facet of contemporary society, from planning to architecture to government to employment. This weight is its past. How can we, the collective Italian people say, possibly measure up to ancient Rome or the Renaissance? It is better that we don’t, that we leave the centres for what they are and move contritely to the suburbs.

In our opinion, this is a paradigm that constricts Italy’s present creativity and will lobotomise its future – it is no coincidence that the contributions Italy makes to modern architecture pale into insignficance alongside neighbours such as Spain, France and Switzerland. We say: enough with the self-defeating attitude and get on with the business of living.

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