Cities are a product of time

From Firenze University Press Journal: TECHNE

Stefano Della Torre, Dipartimento di Architettura, Ingegneria delle Costruzioni e Ambiente Costruito, Politecnico di Milano

«Cities are a product of time. They are the moulds in which men’s lifetimes have cooled and congealed» (Munford, 1938).

This Munford’s sentence, divided in two short phrases linked to each other, puts Time at the centre of the reflections on the city. I deem it is quite legitimate and consistent with the kind invitation to comment, although maybe unforeseen to transfer this reflection from the topic of the city to architecture meant at all levels.

The main reason of interest of the sentence can be found in the tight relationship that summing up the two phrases Munford establishes between Time and «men’s lifetimes»: put otherwise, between Time and the users, but also the soul of cities, and of architecture as well (Munford, 1938).

Actually, the two parts of the sentence may even seem contradictory. In the second phrase, Munford uses an intriguing metaphor, that is city as a mould, the matrix that gives shape to men’s lives, because it builds limits and directs their attitudes. Men’s lifetimes, obviously in previous eras, in this mould took their shapes and apparently by their solidifying became something tangible, and a somehow monumental presence, as we are going to see. The idea of a mould evokes something definitely solid and complete, a concrete and almost nondeformable reference system.

If one reads only the second period, it would be possible to think that the shape given as the city was planned got the power to condition and rule the human activities. Undoubtedly, living in some urban environments designed by the architect with strong authorship (I am thinking of the Bicocca quarter in Milan) could produce alienation and depression. But according to Munford the city is produced by life itself, as time goes on. This idea that time can “produce” may sound amazing. In Greek mythology, that is in the basic foundation of Western thinking, Chronos was born as the god of seasons and fertility of agricultural cycles, but then became the one who eats his own children, the «all-subduing Time» (Simonides of Ceos) that threats memory.

Nevertheless, writing this sentence Munford imagines a time that works positively, building and strengthening. This time is not even the mighty sculptor described by Marguerite Yourcenar, which ultimately seems more the power of the nature that carves, marks, sculpts «by taking away». (Yourcenar, 2005).

Instead, Munford’s time rather works by addition, shape, models, casts, giving durable substance to men’s lifetime. Therefore, the shaping action of urban space works through a becoming, which thanks to the interaction between the urban structure and the life builds the city that human beings, the future citizens, will experience. Summing up, if the city is a product of time, the city, the mould itself, is born by becoming, and its shaping action has nothing deterministic. Indeed, if one goes on reading that page of “The culture of cities” it becomes clear that men’s lifetimes get their durable shape through art, generating moments which can be involving and long-lasting, but also renewable. In the city, time becomes visible: buildings and monuments engage many persons but above all, times stratify, clash, challenge each other until «modern man invents the museum» as a tool for order and apparently also for freedom from the burden of history.

From Munford’s sentence, extracted from a seminal book, which inspired many of ours (including me), an important lesson can still be learnt, but today it is also possible to take some distance. The lesson I deem forever timely is about understanding the city as where the footprints of age, of several ages, stratify, challenge each other and clash. These dynamics are exactly what gives the city its character, exactly as a place is a city as it is open to the stranger, not suspiciously closed. Its openness makes the city where innovation happens; its density of memories makes the city an inspiring location.

In this perspective, on the basis of this understanding of the idea of city, the famous and often cited aphorism by Kark Kraus, saying that the great historic Vienna was once new, reveals all its brilliant vacuity: the process through which Vindobona’s urban plan became real took some time, and before the streets and parcels scheme could perform as a “mould”, the power of time already changed the plan into an experienced and alive reality; time’s shaping action in Munford’s sense had already been exercised, maybe even time’s sculpting action in Yourcenar’s sense already happened.

One of the most enlightening games, whilst studying cities with ancient layouts, is exactly to go beyond the first recognition of the planned scheme, to detect old exceptions, the curved paths that signify the occupancy of previous voids or the privatization of large public structures. From these analyses, the city comes out as a product of «the great hope of an organic becoming», as Gianfranco Caniggia would say; a product of a typological process, in which spatial, cultural, juridical, economic relationships produce the configuration of the space and the construction of the whole and its parts.

(Caniggia, 1992).

Thus understood, the physical structure of the city cannot be divided from the collective action of the citizens and their presence. The city is something that cannot be reduced to its form, it is built up by unforeseen human gestures, as well as by the presence of human beings. By the way, I’d like to take, from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the case of Bauci (Calvino, 1972), built on pileworks so that inhabitants could stay «contemplating with fascination their own absence». In my opinion, a warning on the absurdity of the city empty and metaphysical, which photographers of (metaphysical) architecture love so much, but gives an odd idea of city, or at least an idea pretty far from the concept of the open and alive city that Munford preached to generations, since 1938 till today.

Including users among the determinant factors of the urban scene is a crucial step, which taking some risk we can transfer from the urban to the architectural scale. Vitality, openness, dynamics, change: these are the keywords consistent with thinking cities as a product of time, appreciating their imperfection. Avoiding to give into the temptation to discuss the concept itself of time, the reasoning we are developing clearly evoke a quote by a popular scientist as Ilya Prigogine, who took the city as a metaphor opposed to the crystal, in order to explain some aspects of his vision, usually cited as «from Being to Becoming» (Prigogine, 1986).

The disordered and productive vitality of the city is opposed to the determinism of the crystal: beautiful, immutable in its isomorphism, ready for a shooting session for a photographer specialized in still-life, or (metaphysical) architecture. The crystal is not affected by time and does not promise anything more than its own perfection. When Giò Ponti asked to love architecture saying that «architecture is a crystal», he was not laying, he was asserting a poetics, the vision of an architecture allergic to imperfection and change (Ponti, 1957).

Here the change of scale is ambitious, but significant. Thinking the city as a place to live is easier, to give up thinking architecture as something to be forever conserved as brand new, made to challenge time and not to grow with it.

Yet even the building gets substance by memories through time, by layered signs, by an evolving and growing sense of place. To think buildings as crystals turns into a limit, thinking them as cities opens to many opportunities, also for their future transformations, for a creative reuse, for a conservation not to be reduced to embalming or freezing.

Going back to Munford’s metaphor, in Ponti’s and many others’ vision the mould is what matters, men’s lifetimes, because of their own creativity risk to impair the given perfection. The overlapping of many layers or periods makes conflicts, such as even according to Munford’s it turns into an insufferable burden: the excess of life and memory would become a threat for life itself, if a part of the memory would not be made harmless by closing it into the museum. As Munford says: «then, in sheer defence, modern man invents the museum». Modestly speaking, I am afraid I know directly and in detail several municipal museums, in various towns and cities, full of relics of old quarters demolished by the 19th and 20th century urban renewal. Museums for consolation, born to make illusion about conservation, pretending to keep alive through few selected exhibits the memory of much more complex stories. Or archaeological museums, which all around the Mediterranean Sea by some findings randomly gathered give the excuse to real estate speculative operations in protected areas.

Therefore, I am not available to accept, not even in Munford’s book, the good old common sense, which supports sentences, such as «remembering everything, one goes crazy», or «conserving everything, it’s like getting plastered». Considering the footprints of the past, conserving them, doesn’t at all mean freezing the status quo: it means managing change in an open and farsighted way. In reality, the frequent conflicts between innovation and protection of heritage tend to vanish, if the past is understood with care and curiosity, and the new is evaluated on the long term and not on ephemeral needs. Most of the urban transformations we have witnessed proved to be inadequate after few decades, making everybody regret the demolition of what got lost or just represented in the museum. And I am not speaking of romantic nostalgia, but of serious evaluations of economic convenience. Lessons to be learnt, to free ourselves not from memories, but from common sense, which is the true insufferable straitjacket.

Stepping again to the architectural scale, how many times did the approach to existing buildings have the target of reordering reality steering it to perfection? Well, if architecture as well is the product of time, if architecture as well becomes inspiring for life thanks to the layering in the lived spaces of the sings of so many periods, the capacity is needed to appreciate becoming and imperfection as values. It is mandatory to look elsewhere to find new metaphors: for instance, in natural history as Steven J. Gould told, and Telmo Pievani tells pointing out the signs of ongoing evolution as the promise of a future that will be determined not by the triumph of entropy, but by the progress of coevolution (Gould, 2012; Pievani, 2019).


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