Sunday, 27 February 2011

the Paradise, The grave, the city and the wilderness


The images from yesterday's keynote lecture at the University of Warwick conference

Monday, 21 February 2011

Slippery Subject

The following review by Federico Caprotti of The Politics of the Piazza appeared in the journal Space and Polity Volume 14 Number 2 2010 pages 209-210

Eamonn Canniffe (2008) The Politics of the Piazza: The History and Meaning of the Italian Square (Ashgate: Aldershot), pp. 288, ISBN 978-0-7546-4716-4, £40.00.

Public space has always been fluid in the Italian city. Public and private spheres intermingle and intersect in myriad ways in the cities of the peninsula, from the narrow, conspiratorial calle of Venice which open up into wide, sudden piazze, to the regenerated landscapes of concrete and steel in Milan's new urban quarters. The piazza is a feature which has remained central to the articulation of public life in Italy throughout the past two millennia; it, too, has undergone transformations in form, function, and meaning. From Roman fora to the spaces used by political movements such as the girotondini in the 2000s, the piazza is deeply rooted within Italy's material and political consciousness. In The Politics of the Piazza, Eamonn Canniffe does a good job of tracing the development and transformations of urban space which have resulted in the spatially, culturally and politically multi-layered urban spaces we witness today in the Italian city.

Canniffe takes the reader on a detailed journey through time, taking the Roman period as a starting point, and ending with the piazzas of today, with their advertising hoardings, art walls, and virtual technologies. Overall, the book tries to show that in the transformation of the spaces of the piazza, 'shifts between autocratic and democratic forms of government employ subtly nuanced spatial and iconographic languages to form the self-image of the polis and project an ideology onto a wider world' (p.1).The book is articulated in four sections, comprising 14 chapters. The first section's three chapters trace the roots of Italian urban form, from Roman times, through early Christianity, and on to the Middle Ages. In the first chapter, for example, Canniffe teases out the complex, multiple urban accretions in Rome's forum, an urban space which developed in several variations over many centuries. The chapter posits a well-defined contrast between the transformed Roman forum and that of Pompeii, seen as a snapshot, frozen in ash in A.D. 79, or that of Brixia (modern-day Brescia), first excavated in the 1820s during a period of Austrian occupation.

This is followed, in the second chapter, by a fascinating analysis of the changing urban imaginary introduced by Christianity. With the waning of the Roman empire, new centres of urban public life arose within existing cities. Canniffe argues that one of the main changes to take place was the shift in urban focus to Christian sites, previously relegated to the urban periphery: the ‘paradigm which provided the model for emulation’ (p.38) was no longer Rome, but Jerusalem. In Rome itself, a ‘new holy city was created out of the carcass of ancient urban practices’ (p.39). Indeed, new Christian buildings were sometimes radically different from what had existed before, for example in the promotion of collective worship in churches: the distinction between religious and public spaces thus became less porous. Overall, the chapter convincingly argues that the public spaces of later medieval piazze can be found in embryonic form in these spaces of juncture between Christian religious buildings and the street, where believers gathered before ceremonies. This is exemplified by cases such as the Lateran; however, Canniffe also uses examples from other imperial cities, such as the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan.

The early modern city forms the focus of the second section of the book, which takes the reader from the early and high Renaissance (Rinascimento would have better served the book’s purpose), to mannerism and the baroque. The fifth chapter, in particular, is a highly enjoyable study of urban space in the high Renaissance, focusing on the role of Bramante in Vigevano, but also on exemplary cases from Rome and Venice. The third section then moves on to considering the piazza and urban space during the formation of an Italian national consciousness, from neo-classicism, to the Risorgimento – Italy’s struggle for national unity – and the use of urban space, planning and architecture during the fascist era. In the tenth chapter, Canniffe deals with the thorny issue of fascism’s considerable impact on Italian urban space, and presents insightful analyses of key spaces such as Moretti’s Piazzale dell’Impero (incorrectly referred to as Piazzale del Impero throughout the book), in Rome. However, the author gets carried away arguing about the links between anthropocentrism, fascism and urban space in the Piazzale dell’Impero, stating that ‘an anthropomorphic reading of the space would feature the circular fountain as the head, with the central platform as the spine, the monolithic inscribed blocks as the ribs, and the obelisk as the penis’ (pp.200-201). As imaginative as fascist architects and planners could be, this reviewer thinks that they were probably not that imaginative.

The books’s fourth section is exciting, in that it moves into the contemporary era, considering neo-realist urbanism, Aldo Rossi’s influence on neo-rationalism, and the city of the Anni di Piombo (the ‘Years of Lead’). The Politics of the Piazza ends by delving into the still-changing role of the piazza and its intermeshing with the ‘politics of the present’ in an era in which political struggle and the commercialisation of urban space go hand in hand.

Canniffe's writing style makes the oft-complicated layering of meanings, buildings and spaces in the piazze he analyses easy to understand and follow. The book could easily have focused on Italy's 'main' urban centres as sources of examples; however, Canniffe also traces the development of the piazza through other centres too, notably smaller towns such as Brescia, or even smaller settlements such as Torcello, in the Venetian lagoon. However, the book is marred, in places, by inaccuracies in editing. For example, in the discussion of the reuse of amphitheatres in Lucca (p.34), the author refers the reader to an illustration of this example; however, the illustration which Canniffe points to is located in the following chapter, and does not show the impact of Lucca’s elliptical amphitheatre, but the space facing the basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan. Likewise, Novocento (p.186) should be Novecento; and political parties’ names should be capitalised (p.253). Notwithstanding these minor inaccuracies, the book is a good read and will be an ideal addition to any collection focusing on the politics of urban spaces, urban culture, and history. The richness of use of visual materials is another positive feature: the book is illustrated with numerous black and white photographs, as well as plans and diagrams. Finally, The Politics of the Piazza is well-referenced, without getting bogged down in distracting debates and literatures: the focus here is always on the slippery subject at hand, the piazza in all its manifestations.

Federico Caprotti University College London

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Required Reading

A new review of THE POLITICS OF THE PIAZZA appeared in

TOWN PLANNING REVIEW Volume 81 Number 6 2010


The Politics of the Piazza:

The History and Meaning of the Italian Square

Eamonn Canniffe, Farnham, Ashgate, 2008, 304 pp.,

Since the rise of New Urbanism in the 1990s

onwards, the Italian square – better known

as the piazza – has become a reference point

for those who advocate a return to traditional

urban form. Therefore a book dealing with

its history and meaning should be a welcome

addition for urban design practitioners and to

the literature dealing with this topic. Eamonn

Canniffe is well placed to provide this being

a former Rome Scholar, a principal lecturer

at the Manchester School of Architecture

and the author of several books dealing with


His book is a densely written account

which examines the roots of Italian urban

form, followed by a chronological sequence

from the Renaissance through Mannerism

and Baroque, neo-classicism, Fascism,

neo-realism and neo-rationalism to the

present day. The author’s text is illustrated

with his own black and white photographs,

some it has to be said of variable quality. In

addition there are 19 ‘diagrams’ of some of

the piazzas examined. Many of these are

rather dull isometric line drawings, produced

in a style reminiscent of James Stirling’s

isometrics of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of

the diagrams appear to be photographs of

coloured drawings of interesting and even

delightful spatial studies, perhaps produced

by Canniffe when he was a Rome Scholar. It

is a pity their provenance is not explained in


Undoubtedly Canniffe’s examination

of such places is thoughtful, but in many

cases the details can only be appreciated

by those readers already familiar with the

piazza concerned. A good example of this is

the description of the Piazza IV Novembre

in Perugia, where three to four pages are

devoted to a highly detailed history and

analysis supported by photographs, but with

only two indifferent isometric diagrams. This

calls out for an annotated plan so that the

author’s comments can be followed, as well

as mapping to locate the piazza in the interesting

urban fabric of Perugia.

Although the author professes to be

examining the ‘history and meaning’ of the

various squares he studies, some of the key

examples seem to be short of relevant detail.

For example, his discussion of the famous

Piazza del Campo in Siena does not explain

its establishment as a result of the struggle of

the city to exert its authority over the group

of powerful families that controlled Siena in

the mid to late thirteenth century. Instead we

are given a description of the form of the

piazza which again lacks the focus of a plan

and cross sections to aid understanding.

Parts III and IV of the book provide

accounts of less familiar more recent periods

of Italian history. Of particular interest is

Italy’s periods of Fascism and neo-nationalism.

Piazza della Vittoria in Brescia was the

culmination of the re-planning of the city in

the late 1920s and served to glorify Mussolini.

It referred back to the Roman era in its

arrangement, detail and ‘refabrication’ of

genuine remains of the period. Interestingly

the author draws out the links with Camillo

Sitte’s organic, picturesque approach to the

handling of urban fabric, due to the architect

Piacentini being a disciple of Sitte. The

author comments perceptively here that

‘Piacentini’s work enabled authoritarian

power to be validated through the appeal to

specific urban memories, resting on foundations

which were archaeologically speculative,

reconstructed for propagandistic

purposes’. Such a comment could perhaps

be levelled at some of the work by adherents

of the New Urbanism movement, which

can often have an emphasis on debatable

historic references! It is a pity that Piacentini’s

baroque-style scheme for what is now a

suburb of Rome called EUR did not form a

greater part of the account. Originally EUR

(standing for Esposizione Universale Roma) was

intended as a world fair site for 1942, which

was cancelled. The design of EUR was

controversial and only resolved by commissioning

leaders of both the ‘reactionary’ and

‘progressive’ factions in Italian architecture

and urban planning. The author’s exposition

of this scheme and its place and meaning in

the development of modernism would have

been welcome.

The author acknowledges that neorealism

produced few significant new urban

spaces in the post-war period and his account

here relies more on publications (and even

Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita)

than spaces. However he does use Stazione

Termini, Rome, as an example, although

the related Piazza del Cinquecento is hardly

the designed or evolved space that is the real

object of the book. (This is a large space

devoted to a bus station and a traffic roundabout

opposite where Diocletian’s Baths once

stood.) He makes much of the incorporation

of the fourth-century BC Severan Wall into

the Terminus as it passes through the façade

at an oblique angle. Perhaps the cantilevered

vaulted roof reflects the shape of the Severan

Wall? However, the wall appears more like a

fly encapsulated in amber – a curiosity from

the past devoid of meaning rather than a

treasured cultural artefact.

The most significant urban theorist of

the neo-rationalist movement was Aldo

Rossi, who published the influential book The

Architecture of the City in 1966. While Rossi’s

book refers to historical examples (Piazza

dell’Antifeatro in Lucca built around the

remains of a Roman Amphitheatre), most

of it concentrates on buildings rather than

spaces. Canniffe does use Rossi’s incomplete

La Nuova Piazza, Fontivegge, as an example

to discuss for this period. Despite four pages

being devoted to this building complex (and

three large photographs showing the overscaled

buildings in Rossi’s rather primitive

style), it is impossible without knowing this

scheme to gain any real idea of the form of

this ‘piazza’.

Despite the author’s attempt to describe

the ‘piazza’ without an actual plan, this is

actually a public building complex (centro

direzionale) with a large ‘E-shaped’ block

standing to the side of a rectangular space in

which a double wall encloses a staircase-like

fountain stands. In this reviewer’s opinion it

hardly justifies its description as a piazza as

the term is normally understood – that is, a

public square surrounded by buildings. This

‘piazza’ relates well neither to the railway

station nor to the rest of the urban fabric of

Perugia, even accepting the piazza’s incompleteness

and Canniffe’s frank description

of the surroundings as being chaotic and


The penultimate chapter of the book deals

with the work of Carlo Scarpa in designing

memorials – notably for Piazza della Loggia in

Brascia. Here Scarpa proposed reconfiguring

the entire piazza, although this scheme was

then sharply reduced in scope. The author

makes a fascinating link between Scarpa’s

use of the ancient symbol of the labyrinth

and Italy’s confused political scene; polarised

between communism and capitalism, fascism

and democracy and what he calls ‘The

monster at the heart of Italian society – political

violence’. Canniffe devotes a lot of space

to an exegesis of the ‘labyrinth’ as a motif

of Scarpa’s conception of city space. He also

Book reviews 717

places a lot of emphasis on the ‘meaning’ of

Scarpa’s enigmatic memorial in the Piazza

della Loggia. How this abbreviated memorial

relates to the ‘labyrinth’ is unclear, although

the proceeding more elaborate scheme with

low walls around the site of the bomb blast

could be so interpreted.

The final pages are focussed on the

threat to traditional urban spaces from the

encroachment of commercial material –

notably the use of giant advertising screens

to cover restoration projects and even new

buildings. The impact of permanent giant

hoardings or projection screens on public

spaces is well illustrated; Canniffe notes there

has been a ‘collapse of conventional issues

of scale’ involved and that a city’s contemporary

appearance is being determined by

‘branding’. He ends by posing questions on

whether the piazza has a long-term future:

will the collective experience of sharing

images and information in the public realm

still be significant? Will the piazza remain the

appropriate location for political discourse?

Or will it be seen only as a repository of the

‘rich legacy of the past’? The author would

surely give positive answers, even if the piazza

as a form will involve further transformations

and adaptations.

Without doubt this book is impeccably

researched and has a rich nine-page bibliography

worthy of follow-up study by interested

professionals. There are few books that tackle

the subject with the depth of knowledge and

insights displayed by the author. While short

on plans of the piazzas described, it can be

welcomed as one of a short list of reference

works that are required reading for students

of urbanism and practicing urban designers


Derrick Hartley

University of Liverpool

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Architectural Consequences of Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom



Jonathan Alfred Noble's African Identity in Post-Apartheid Public Architecture: White Skin, Black Masks will be published in March 2011, the second volume in the Ashgate Studies in Architecture edited by Eamonn Canniffe


Since the end of Apartheid, there has been a new orientation in South African art and design, turning away from the colonial aesthetics to new types of African expression. This book examines some of the fascinating and impressive works of contemporary public architecture that 'concretise' imaginative dialogues with African landscapes, craft and indigenous traditions. 

Referring to Frantz Fanon's classic study of colonised subjectivity, 'Black Skin, White Masks', Noble contends that Fanon's metaphors of mask and skin are suggestive for architectural criticism, in the context of post-Apartheid public design. 

Taking South Africa's first democratic election of 1994 as its starting point, the book focuses on projects that were won in architectural competitions. Such competitions are conceived within ideological debates and studying them allows for an examination of the interrelationships between architecture, politics and culture. The book offers insights into these debates through interviews with key parties concerned - architects, competition jurors, politicians, council and city officials, artists and crafters, as well as people who are involved in the day-to-day life of the buildings in question. 


Dr. Jonathan Alfred Noble is a lecturer at The University of the Witwatersrand

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Deeply Unfashionable Buildings

The following review by Colin Davies of my and Peter Blundell Jones's 2007 book


appeared in The Architectural Reviiew in October 2007

Case Study Analysis

The first volume of Peter Blundell Jones's Modern Architecture Through Case Studies looked mainly at pre-war buildings, including unquestionably canonical works like the Bauhaus, the Villa Savoye and the Casa del Fascio. But it also included four post-war buildings, the latest of which was Kahn's Kimbell Museum of 1972, so the chronological subtitle of this second volume is rather puzzling.

The new book is puzzling in other respects too. This time Eamonn Canniffe has contributed about half of the studies, even though the two authors, to quote from the introduction, 'hold different ideological positions, would not have included the same examples if working alone and do not always agree in [their] judgements'. This might account for a certain lack of focus in the book as a whole. You begin to wonder who and what it is for, exactly. Perhaps it is trying to extend the canon, rejecting many obvious mainstream examples (no late Corb) and including some downright obscure buildings, such as the Chapel at Dachau by Helmut Striffler and the Waisenhaus in Eichstatt by Karljosef Schattner. But it also includes some over-familiar buildings like the Centre Pompidou and Foster's Willis Faber Dumas in Ipswich. Or perhaps there is some hidden theme, something of particular relevance to architecture now. If so it is very well hidden indeed. What could Carlo Scarpa's Castelvecchio Museum possibly have in common with Aldo van Eyck's Orphanage in Amsterdam, or Eisenman's Wexner Center with the Smithsons' Economist Building?

It doesn't really add up, but it's a rewarding read nevertheless, and a useful reference work. The case-study approach has limitations, but 4000 words devoted to each building allows for an unusual depth of scholarship. In order to understand a piece of architecture it is important to look at it closely and know something about the circumstances of its creation. One cannot, for example, fully understand the relationship between the Leicester Engineering Block and the Stuttgart. Staatsgalerie without knowing something about the internal politics of James Stirling's office, and Venturi's Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery would be an enigma without a knowledge of the influence of the Prince of Wales. So this is a book worth reading for its own sake, as history. Its core readership will be students and they will learn a lot from it, but it might be hard to interest them in what they will surely see as a collection of deeply unfashionable buildings.

For all its faults the purpose of the book was to write a history that did not follow the usual path of excluding anything that fails to fit within some determinist model of inevitable progress. It seems on reflection to mark a phase of rapid development, disappointment and confusion and therefore might be thought of as timely. And those last three words of the review I wear with particular pride.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

"the Paradise, The grave, the city, and the wilderness": travels between the past and future Rome

This phrase from Shelley's Adonais is a route into the concept of Rome as a palimpsest, more evocative in its four overlapping terms than Freud's famous image which compares the city to the human mind 'an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one.' Shelley's words suggest the different ways , surely many more than merely four, in which the physical fabric of the city might be read, above all the city which remains a fundamental locus of European culture.

The pattern which can be read in its monuments, as forensic clues in some vast site of investigation, tie events across time to provide the matrix through which urban representation occurs. My paper will explore the city through the narratives which have animated its spaces in fact and fiction, or in the grey zone which includes both those realities. Rome as image of the city is as pervasive as the image of Rome, and therefore the readings of Rome stand proxy for many of the manifestations of the contemporary urban condition.

The above text is the abstract of my keynote paper at the forthcoming University of Warwick conference
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