"Urbanity cannot be planned. It takes shape by itself."

A talk with Professor Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Architect and professor emeritus for the history of urban design at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

April 1, 2021

Professor Lampugnani, you have been an advocate of consolidating our cities for more than ten years. That process is now being carried out in a number of places, especially in Switzerland as part of the new Swiss Spatial Planning Act. Are you satisfied?

Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani: Not particularly. In many places, consolidation is used as an excuse for building on surplus plots of land that are unsuitable and polluted. There are excesses from edifices of oversized proportions to hideous skyscrapers exhibiting a dearth of urban planning. And, with few exceptions, consolidation is not taking place in the city but in the suburbs, precisely where it is needed the least.

Why is consolidation not needed there?

The suburban areas are already too big and we shouldn't be allowed to extend them even more. And because we shouldn't continue to force people to live where they don't actually want to.

Where do they want to live then?

In the city – where they have the best infrastructure, the best stores, the best cultural offering. And the best jobs that they can reach on foot or by riding their bicycle or kick scooter so that they are not reduced to living the life of a commuter.

Does everybody truly want that?

No, of course not. For sure, there are some people who prefer a house in the country and are willing to sit in a commuter train or their car for an hour and a half each day to have it. But many people – I guess most people – do that because they have no choice. And that is because they can't find an apartment downtown or because they can't afford what they do find.

Yet, if the cities become consolidated, won't they then become inhospitable and unattractive?

Do you find the historic center of Rome inhospitable and unattractive? It's two or three time as dense as the relatively crowded districts 5 or 6 in Zurich, although it has an astonishingly tightly woven network of streets and squares that effortlessly compensate for the compact building dimensions. Zurich is not Rome and should not become like Rome. Neither should Geneva or Basel. What I am trying to say is that consolidation in itself is not negative. It depends on how much you consolidate and how you go about it.

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How do you feel that consolidation should be carried out?

There is no simple recipe. However, there are examples. During our research and analysis, we discovered that some zones in Zurich, like the one around Idaplatz or the first section of Scheuchzerstrasse, have been consolidated significantly. We were amazed because those areas have beautiful, green courtyards, large balconies and loggia, luscious front gardens, and green spaces. Yet, the buildings are skillfully designed and adjoin one another, thereby achieving high density. And, it should be noted, they have not only high building density, but they also have high occupancy.

What's the difference?

Building density refers to the floor area that has been built on, and occupancy refers to the number of people who live or work in that area. While building density is, of course, a prerequisite for occupancy, it's the latter that's crucial. After all, there is no use in having a large number of apartments and offices if they are underoccupied or vacant. Only a large number of people make a city urban.

Everybody is talking about "urbanity." How would you define that?

Cities were created so that people could live together in the most ideal, productive, and pleasant manner possible. In a city, we want to exchange ideas with other people, benefit from them, enjoy being around them, and build a community with them. Perhaps even, as philosopher David Hume stated in 1752, refine our character and our behavior. If we do all that, it creates urbanity.

How do we achieve the density that creates urbanity?

Urbanity cannot be planned. It takes shape by itself when we establish the right conditions. For example, when we build city neighborhoods instead of suburban settlements. That is to say, in place of cookie-cutter dormitories, we build conglomerations full of variety. Not faceless barracks, callously erected side by side, but houses that complement one another in such a way that they create beautiful and usable spaces.

That all sounds plausible and rather obvious. Why is it not happening?

The building codes we have to deal with were written in an age when growth was unlimited. In many respects, they are now out of date. Just think of the noise pollution ordinance, which sets standards for city residences that are more appropriate for the country. They force us to turn apartments away from the street, which goes against every form of urban architecture. When renovating and repurposing existing buildings, which is now one of our main tasks, we are helpless under current building laws. What's more, the procedures of partnership and participation on which we like to base urban planning today, can easily lead to watered-down solutions. Just like good architecture, good urban design needs an individual who backs the project with his or her skill, expertise, and passion.

You call for streets and, above all, for local squares where people can spend quality time. Why should an investor dedicate expensive land to spaces that do not generate any return?

Because it's wrong to assume they don't pay off financially. On the contrary – a park or square is not only a gift to the city and the public. If it is appealing, it substantially increases the value of the surrounding properties. Back in the day, British aristocrats were aware of that when they improved their private estates, which were purely speculative projects, with garden squares. Their gardens are largely still private today, and only residents have a key to them. Their apartments "look" out over the green space, and they pay astronomically high rents for that.

Do you believe that it is possible to convince investors today to act in a similar manner?

I don't just believe it, I know that it's possible from my work as an architect. Smart investors haven't needed to be convinced to engage in good urban planning for a long time now. They demand it, and they do so with the same matter-of-factness with which they demand state-of-the-art energy systems and, increasingly as of late, buildings designed to retain their value.

Haven't they always done that?

No. For a long time, short periods of depreciation and correspondingly cheap buildings with quick expiration dates were considered good business. Fortunately, more and more investors are realizing that durable buildings offer greater advantages, especially as long-term investments. They are easy and economical to maintain. Tenants prefer them and they are conducive to stable tenancies. In the best sense of the word, they are sustainable because they reduce the consumption of embodied energy. And in contrast to speculative, throw-away architecture, they are suitable as the building blocks of a city that can last and, therefore, that can create identity.

Are you still an avid supporter of consolidation today, now that COVID-19 calls for social distancing?

Yes. If we give up on the idea of urban consolidation, we will continue to destroy the landscape in suburban regions which is to blame not only for numerous other ecological disasters but also for the current pandemic. And if we give up on living as communities, we will lose not only human intimacy but also the foundation of our society and culture. And along with it, we will lose a lot of what warms our hearts and makes our lives worth living.

So, you are an optimist?

Building is always optimistic when it involves more than a mundane fulfillment of needs. We must build for the life that we long for, not one that we have to endure.

Professor Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani

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