Back o Future. Morpho-typological approach and environmental performance of urban fabrics

From Firenze University Press Journal: TECHNE

University of Florence
3 min readNov 10, 2021


Carlotta Fontana, Department of architecture and urban studies, Politecnico of Milan

Shuyi Xie, School of Architecture, Huaqiao University, Xiamen

Human settlements grew up in layers over time, due to the action of many generations, taking shape according to the geo-climatic peculiarities of places and to local resources. This co-evolutionary nature of the built environment, noticed a long time ago by scholars, such as Geddes and Mumford, pairs with the notion that the built environment itself is mostly made up by ordinary buildings. One cannot understand the structure of cities without exploring the urban common fabric, the back streets, their pattern and the way they change in time (Habraken, 1998). Evolutionary overtones ‒often recur in the works of Saverio Muratori in Italy and M. R. G. Conzen in the UK (Muratori, 1959; Maretto, 1960; Muratori et Al., 1963; Conzen, 2004), who recognised the role of time in shaping the built environment, and identified the permanent morphological elements as long-lasting traces of complex cultural systems.

Urban morphology represents the physical grounding of populations, as the process of urban growth reveals a civilization’s progress. Local cultures operate over time, shaping the environment by uses, dimensions, materials and forms, which endure or change ‒ that is: evolve ‒ according to their capability to meet the challenges posed by the succession of historical events. Thus, permanence represents an evolutionary condition of fitness, and morphological endurance represents diachronic fitness of urban fabrics. The morpho-typological aspects of traditional architecture as a response to environmental forces represented the core of Victor Olgyay’s seminal bio-climatic studies (Olgyay, 1963).

Giving full account of the huge variety of buildings in different regional traditions, Olgyay demonstrated how all main typological variations find a reason in the environmental site-specific situation, and can be seen as «building expressions of true regional character», harmonising their place and shape to the constraints posed by local climate and topography. Further development of this line of research, which takes into ac-count the whole urban morphology rather than single buildings (Martin and Steadman, 1971; Martin and March, 1972; Bottero et al., 1984; Alvarez et al., 1991; Weber and Yannas, 2014; Franco, 2015; Morganti, 2018; Scudo, 2018) brought about a deeper knowledge of the relationship between energy and the built environment. Both the solar radiation that buildings receive and their energy needs de-pend upon the set of geometric and dimensional characteristics of the local urban form: the road network and orientation, the plots, the blocks and the intermixed open spaces all combine to determine the energetic behaviour of buildings.

Such behaviour should be an-alysed within the system of urban morphology to be fully under-stood (Morganti, 2018). Accordingly, persistent urban settlements layered over time within the mould of local geo-climatic characters provide significant clues about their ‘environmental fitness’ and promote meaningful strategies for adaptation and sustainable reuse. This consideration gives a further, fresh perspective to morpho-logical studies, which have recently been proposed as a planning framework to promote guidelines and to support self-maintenance by inhabitants, towards sustainable reuse and urban regeneration of historical neighbourhoods in South-East China (Xie, 2018, 2019).


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