It’s a matter of things *, Manuel de Solà-Morales (1939-2012) taught us. He dedicated his entire career to exploring different ways of making cities, de fer ciutat: by meticulously adding new programs to an existing urban fabric, by inserting new infrastructures, by creating new collective territories or by simply changing the way we look at things. One particular thing he taught everyone working with and for him, is to never be easily satisfied: a map, a plan or a section needs to be drawn over and over to get things right. An idea needs to be developed, changed and updated till you get to the point. No fast interventions, nothing taken for granted, no prejudice at the moment of making decisions about how to integrate a building, about how to make new connections between city parts, about how to allow people to inhabit their neighborhoods. Time matters, but only if the project allows you to stretch it.
An unconditional belief in the urban project is another aspect. Considering his projects in Porto, Leuven, Saint-Nazaire, Scheveningen, and Barcelona or his latest proposal for the Opera Square in Antwerp, there is no doubt about their potential and accuracy: his portfolio of built projects is a clear victory for the alternating and intermediate scale of making a city, or of making it better. The body of work he achieved proves that, unlike more recent pessimist slogans that claim the end of any possible coherent intervention by architects or urban designers in a postindustrial and neoliberal landscape, it is still possible to make changes, to make things matter.
Based on de Solà-Morales’ legacy of a highly critical theory and praxis of urban projects, it is necessary to respond to a series of contemporary phenomena on how to produce, transform or use space. Besides organizing conferences, workshops, editing magazines, expanding international networks, and making sure our offices run, let us not forget to simply think and rethink the way cities (can) work. Only after that, will we be able to discuss, exchange, build, and make a difference.
Within the contemporary landscape, many global and local transformations take place: recent specialization and segregation of urban space, together with a different model of productivity and related mobility, changes the way cities grow in a physical, social, cultural or environmental way. Exponential growth of the non-traditional informal city, next to a popular mainstream branding of more traditional shrinking cities, defines different spatial models and their architecture. In a society where the representation of reality often replaces reality (Jean Beaudrillard), we need new tools to disentangle the complexity of our environment and to rethink organizing principles so as to produce or transform space. Simultaneously, an exponential change of scale, at an increasing speed (Françoise Choay), challenges us to systematically update our reading and intervention techniques. Both concepts were extremely present in the discourse behind the projects Manuel de Solà-Morales conceived and realized: from the largeness and all-round permeability of the Illa Diagonal project (with Rafael Moneo), to the multiplicity proposed in the Geneva or Porto projects, to the revolutionary proposal for El Prat Nord. More than a glossy image or a fancy slogan, a coherent and critical idea behind a project defines the way it can be developed and lead towards its possible success.
Manuel de Solà-Morales’ (DUOT, ETSAB) well proclaimed theory of urban growth, based on the triple mechanism of land division, urbanization and building (parcelación, urbanización y edificación) helps us to understand the way our cities grow. As some cities shrink and others grow exponentially, based on new logics which we needed to map, we started taking this theory to another level by updating its core elements and referring to a transformative processes instead of a growth model. Now it is time to speed things up. Let us think about reutilization processes, dislocating programs instead of adding them, accepting voids as spaces that are not to be filled or sit abandoned, but should just be. Let us think twice before intervening, we should avoid overprogramming or isotrope planning. Let’s focus on simple adjacencies instead of forced connections, give priority to the desire to share over the need to protect, secure or separate… Let us think before we decide to sit together. Besides a matter of things, it might be a matter of thinking. Gracias, Manuel.
Kris Scheerlinck, Antwerp, February 2012
* de Solà-Morales, Manuel, 2008, “A Matter of Things”, Nai Publishers, Rotterdam.