The Center's Origins
When we were in Strasbourg in the autumn of 1989, I met an old lady in a dusty perfume shop. She asked me “Where are you from?” and, when I replied to her “From Florence”, she immediately deplored “What a ugly, terrible city. I have had an idea of it passing trough it by train. Only enormous grey anonimous blocks!”
I did not reply, but I thought that that lady, as a part of common people, was adfirming that suburbs are bleak everywhere, because suburbs are not cities.
It is no the first time I mention this sketch, but it seems to me significant for people interested in Urban Design.
We were in Strasbourg because the Centre had been invited by the Council of Europe to develop an international conference about the “city tomorrow”, thanks to the big effort of our friends Charles Bachofen and René Tabouret. The Council of Europe gave us the acknowledgment of a consulting Institution: a very important step.
In 1989, thanks to the collaboration of Hildebrand Frey and other colleagues at the University of Strathclyde, the Centre was invited to take part in the events of Glasgow European Capital of Culture.
If we like, however, tell the story of the Centre, we must start from its beginning.
A young architect from Florence had got married to a German girl and had gone to live in Darmstadt. His name was Giuliano. When he came back to Florence, he came to visit us at the University bringing regards from a teacher of the Technische Hochscule. This Professor had the intention to exchange some teaching experiences with us. We enthusiastically accepted. After a few days, Fritz Seelinger was in Florence, together with his tall blond haired students. They were full of enthusiasm, very clever in drawing and painting. It was the beginning of a relationship, which should have been developed for many years.
In the meantime, Piero Paoli and I had been thinking that Urban Design should be a field of interest not only for us, but also for other Schools. Our curiosity pushed us to investigate, to find addresses, to call by telephone Italian and European Universities, in order to know who could be interested in Urban Design, and how Urban Design could be developed, carried on in teaching and in practice. As a result of our investigation, some Italian Schools replied to our appeal: Rome, Venice, Turin and, last but not least, Naples, where our relationships are still good and strong. In the rest of Europe, a lively interest and a real intention for a good collaboration was expressed.
After these first steps, we were invited to give some lectures in Darmstadt, in Stuttgart, in Nottingham...In a couple of years our net was involving more than one hundred
Universities. It was a lot, if we only consider the lack of technology in comparison with today’s media.
It was evident that the approach to Urban Design was strongly influenced by the different cultural tissues. The British and Northern empirism, the German idealism, the operational French approach, the Italian leanings to theory, were good represented in our net. The durable fight between Plato and Aristotle, well represented by Raffaello in the painting “The School of Athens” must proceed to guarantee dialectic among cultures.
Coming back to the story of the Centre, we thought it could be useful to try a comparison of the cultural approaches in the European countries through the easiest field: teaching. The first exhibition was led in Florence in 1986, about the teaching experiences in Urban Design developed by Florence, Darmstadt, Stuttgart and Nottingham. At this point, somebody realized that something less temporary than an exhibition of drawings could be developed; somebody proposed that a little circle could be established, in order to promote the research items of Urban Design, based on the results of that first exhibition. We had in our mind a multipolar Centre, in which each University could play an equal role. Though our German and British colleagues agreed that Florence should be the base of the Centre, because of its cultural, historical heritage.
The Centre was established in September 1986 by the four mentioned Universities and Schools. We were all in Florence in that time for the first international conference we had in the meantime organized, so we had the opportunity of signing this agreement. The first conference was successful, more than we could imagine. We understood that a big opportunity was in our hands, and that its probabilities of going on was depending on our task only. From 1986, yearly conferences were held about items of teaching, researches, practice in Urban Design, every time more specifically approached.
At its beginning, the name of the Centre was in Italian only, because the British colleagues feared that “Urban Design” could create a misunderstanding with Urban Planning, so it was proposed to translate the Italian denomination into International Centre for Studies in Urban Architecture, but it was not successful, and created some confusion. “Urban Design“ won.
Il the same years, some cultural enrichments out of Europe had been made possible. In particular, a relationship with the University of Texas was possible, thanks to Paolo Barrucchieri, an Italian architect (son in law of Leonardo Ricci) who was teaching in America. His University had a location near Florence, in Figline Valdarno, where some of us had the good opportunity to teach to American students for two years, through seminars
and project experiences in Urban Design. There was a final jury providing credits for the University of Houston. It was a quite interesting work for us, able to broaden our cultural horizons.
The Centre has carried its life for many years, thanks to the effort of many colleagues that have given trust to this idea. If we are still here after thirty years (in spite of some unavoidable days of stagnation), it is because we have believed and believe that the dialectic, as Raffaello represented, must be continued.
It is not out of consideration affirm that, for the group of Florence, Urban Design is related neither to a specific scale of project, nor to a particular step of the project process. Urban Design is a methodological approach, whose main sense is to put at the heart of Urban themes the human relationships conceived as a complex system and a relational tissue. On the base of this approach, the individual architectural spaces can be defined by those relationships only. As a method, Urban Design cannot therefore be defined within a particular scale.
by Antonella Cortesi