Case Study: The Agro-Techno Village in Milan
Università degli Studi di Pavia, Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture, via Ferrata 3, Pavia.
(This article is a revised version of a research project led by the author in collaboration with other members of the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture of the University of Pavia, not formally published elsewhere)
The architecture and European cities are involved in a phase of transformation due to changes in production systems, work organization and habits of consumer consumption. This new situation creates uncertainty and fear, but at the same time, it gives to the architecture and the city new opportunities and hopes. However, at this problematic phase, the architecture and the city find themselves inadequate to handle the new changing, finding serious problems of obsolescence of the existing architectural heritage and weakness of the landscape. In one word: the European city is old.
The perception of contemporary territory is that of a homogenous continuum in which the city and the landscape, despite being fragmented and diverse, can be likened to one large space. Therefore a kind of fusion of the city and the landscape can be identified, where past city borders are no longer distinguishable as they have disappeared into a network-based settlement fabric. An example of where this process has reached significant levels are the areas surrounding Milan, comparable on a European level with areas of the Rehn, the Randstad Holland region, the Alentejo area near Lisbon or the Rhone in the Lyon area. In these areas the rural environmental, landscape and architectural heritage that constitutes the principal features of peri-urban space is under at risk. It is therefore important to reflect on the elements that are changing the contemporary concept of the city and the landscape, analysing these issues by starting with a very broad perspective of understanding rural landscape. The contemporary city and surrounding areas have great difficulty in defining themselves and their setting. There is a well knew connection in history between the city and the landscape that can be seen in its architecture: testimony to the city’s typological, morphological and technological transformation. This occurs because a city’s architecture is the backdrop for social and political events of every era and it therefore evolves with the prevalent cultural circumstances of the time. It is also a result of a change in the relationship between nature and settlement and therefore development of interaction between the city, landscape and architecture has changed the old scheme that set the city and the countryside against each other, to the point of losing their differences and being considered a single element of the same landscape. Today this relationship is not as apparent as it was in cities in the past. It may be recovered by new investigation and researches on architecture and landscape design. Furthermore, the contemporary architectural culture, especially that in Europe, focuses on conditions such as the physical, environmental and social deterioration of rural and built-up areas and on developing interpretation and design intervention tools aimed at redeveloping them. New terms such as “rur-urban” and “eco-village” are increasingly being used to refer to structures capable of connecting rural and urban areas.
The context outlined so far, fits in completely within theme of the Milan Expo 2015: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for life”. Starting from the nutrition issue, as is possible to read in the introduction of the Expo theme - “Food is vital for the sustainable development of good quality, reliably available nutrition, respect for the fundamental life needs of every human being, and health” - the territory plays a central role. In fact, the Expo theme involves not only the nutrition in its strict meaning but also involves the territory, cities and architecture development.
Planners and Architects have to accept the challenge to develop the urban city and build architectures that are able to reduce the soil consumption and comply with nature. It seems to be in front of an unsolvable paradox, but even if we are still far from a completely new image of architecture and cities, there are many indicators which are telling us that we have already entered in a phase in which the project, freed from constraints of tradition, can dialectically contribute to new development.
As a proof of this, we are witnessing to the performed themes in exhibitions, biennales and events of architecture and urbanism throughout the world in which they are focusing on development issues of the contemporary city in connection with nature for sustainable development.
For example the next Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture 2013 of Shenzhen, P. R. China, with the theme “Crossing Urban Boundaries,” it will explore the “city” through the lens of borders, boundaries and edges. The Curatorial Statement written by Li Xiangning and Jeffrey Johnson pronounces: “The city can be examined in many ways and across many disciplines. Multiple readings from diverse perspectives provide an array of interpretations that express rich and varied narratives. There is no single story and method of documentation. […] Even with the flattening of the world through globalization, we are witnessing complex shifts in “boundary” conditions throughout the urban world”. Moreover, “boundaries” continuously mutate and transform with multiple morphological and ideological shifts, which provide their constantly evolving identities. In fact, the UABB Curatorial Statement underlines that: “Today we have “edge cities” that operate as thickened boundaries between the urban and rural. There have been cities split in two by wars, beliefs, politics and walls. There are industrial perimeters that once defined the urban boundary, both physically and economically, that are now outmoded and inhibitors of growth. There are tightly controlled and bound enclaves with distinct identities that are nestled within cities. There are more and more gated communities being constructed in urban and suburban areas. [...] The studies will delve into the causes, effects and consequences of boundaries on urban public spaces, the conditions of marginalized spaces, and of the urban-rural peripheries”.
The Academic directors of the Shenzhen Biennale, at the end, do a question: How will the architecture be adapted into the future city as both a productive site for innovation and as a reminder of its recent past?
Moreover, from another point of view, it is the same questions also asked by the landscape architect Dirk Sijmons, curator of the next Rotterdam Biennale 2014.
The theme of the sixth edition of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam is “Urban by Nature”. The introduction of IABR–2014 claims “that we can only resolve the environmental problems of the world if we resolve the problems of the city. Looking through the lens of landscape architecture, IABR–2014 – aims to redefine the city and urbanity, to analyze the relationship between city and nature, and from this to present concrete design proposals that allow for a better planning and governing of our complex urban landscape. If we see the city as our natural ecology, analyze its structure and metabolism, and understand and use the process of its material flows, we can make the city more resilient and thus act to contribute to a more sustainable future world”.
Dirk Sijmons uses the concept of the Anthropocene as an apt and provocative term to describe the age and the world in which we now live. As he wrote in the Curatorial Introduction: “Seeing human intervention as a force of nature that affects the earth has undermined the pseudo-opposition between ‘nature’ and ‘human society’. This opposition has dominated thinking, blinded us and hampered effective action for centuries. We humans thought that we existed outside nature, and nature outside us. Nature was seen as the domain on the other side of the fence, where we could draw unlimited resources and dump waste forever. Anthropocene, we no longer have to maintain the fiction of a division between what is natural and what is artificial. We can face the fact that they are closely intertwined. We can also acknowledge that many of the processes around us are in fact hybrids: combinations in which both ‘natural’ and ‘human’ forces are at work. What we have hitherto dubbed ‘natural’ is also artificial, and what we used to call ‘artificial’ is also natural. This applies to land use, river and ocean currents, flora and fauna, to the climate, and it also applies to one of the biggest and most visible hybrid forms on earth: the urban landscape.
The simplistic arrangement of the past, in which we had placed city and nature in opposition to each other so that they excluded each other, is no longer valid.
Perhaps we humans are ‘by nature’ inclined to live together in expanding settlements – perhaps we are urban by nature. That insight liberates us from a lot of moralistic brooding about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the relationship between nature and city. In the Anthropocene we realize that city and nature overlap spatially and impact each other functionally”.
It is clear that for designers this is a unique challenging situation. And the questions that the theme of the Rotterdam Biennale makes are: What opportunities do these new hybrid forms present for organizing the urban landscape in an appealing and livable way? What new terminology can we use to discuss the city in the Anthropocene? What are the prospects for action for planners, nature conservationists, landscape architects, and urban designers?
So, we have to understand that the design have to start from nature and invests in technology and the architecture has to behave like an element of Nature.
This reconciliation between technology and Nature might generate a new category of Architecture: maybe the only kind possible in the future? It was the question asked in a recent interview to Bjarke Ingles, which he said: “I think that especially here in Italy, entities like Superstudio and Movimento Continuo, cultivated this idea of man-made ecology, of having generated something like a romantic seeding, a sort of naked family, but it needs wireless and all today's appliances. I think one does not rule out the other. I think that the architect should design ecosystems. The key to sustainability is that we are actually able to achieve all of the improvements in lifestyle and life quality and health and life expectancy that we want, but in a way that is perpetually renewable.”.
We are looking for an architecture and urban space that combine Technology and Nature in a sort of mutual exchange and hybridization. Bjarke Ingles claims to be not afraid of tradition and innovation and not be intimidated by habitual thinking; and even as he said: “One of the principles that have always characterised our work is the notion of bigamy, the idea that you don’t actually have to choose between one or the other, you can often have both, and I think that when you combine two similarly mutually exclusive ideas you often get a very interesting third thing that combines the attributes of both.
You must not be intimidated by habitual thinking, and I think it works both in the general conceptual sense, like hedonistic/sustainability, pragmatic/utopia, but when you combine them, you have the idea that sustainable system buildings can actually improve the quality of life and there are a lot of examples of this”.
Starting from those inspiration points, a group of researchers and professors of the RIALTO S.r.l. have developed a research project. The research project is focused on seeking new pronouncements about the human being environment, on the construction of a new paradigm that will shape an architectural and urban project oriented to sustainability. The research takes on the issue of regeneration and renewal of the rural landscape, with particular focus on intervention in urban periphery and farm buildings, whose wealth is determined by a qualifying relationship with the landscape and that risk losing all value as a result of a series of built additions and urban expansions lacking in quality. To this end, the research aims to identify descriptive, interpretive and operative tools of architectural and urban design that aim to recognize, regenerate and transform into uses that are suitable for contemporary ways of living .
The research is realized through an experiment project on an area located in the East boundary of Milan City. The name of the project is “The Agro-Techno Village”. This project wants to combine the words technology and agriculture in a sort of mutual exchange and hybridization with the aim to create reconciliation between production, nature and urban landscape.
This article not intends to make a detailed and analytical description of the project but we believe it is important to outline the concepts and the goals developed for the research project. Therefore, are listed here below the guiding principles of design strategy:
1.0 - Starting from the point of view of Landscape
The relationship with nature and the environment created by men's work is direct and immediate in our project strategy. We start from the point of view of Landscape as the Article 1 of “The European Landscape Convention” defines it.
1.1 - Contemporary agri-landscape.
We consider the “agri-landscape” is representing the real contemporary landscape. The historical cities or the heritage cities, with a historic city center, an institutional center, etc., aren’t models of our time anymore. The agri-landscape is a space of experimentation in which to operate through creative design oriented to a figurative quality scenario full of complexities. In our strategy we want the nature and architecture participate with rice fields and the workers villages. It is a landscape of great beauty thanks to its idyllic and desirable character. The agriculture fields, the villages, the water (etc.) they become the natural park of the future and the functional and environmental protection must be demanded now.
2.0 - The sustainable city from the bioclimatic requirements needs a supportive and cooperative citizenship.
The city of urban and architectural symbols in which the citizen are passive consumer, is surpassed by the “network-city”, where the citizens are meant to be active users. It is a city in which the users-citizens activity is expressed in a diverse and changing urban environment. The new urban development request by European Community it is also a place without power hierarchies, a place of equal opportunities.
2.1 - Permeability
The complexity of sustainable agri-lndscape may not be a "zoning-city", but it is a multifunctional place, permeable to different forms of human activities. The alternatives to the “zoning” model are the networks space in functions and in built matter. The Network System, which is based on information, communication, energy flows, processes and technology systems, overlap today with the Nature System (agri-landscape) and the Urban System. The permeable city must integrate these three Systems, which are composed, in our strategy, by the farmers, the agriculture, the technology, the new urban spaces and the citizens.
3.0 - City as expression of social and individual events
In our strategy the accent is not displaying plazas, urban perspectives, etc., but on the expression of social, individual or complementary events which enable mutable performances in the places and also in time.
3.1 - Homogeneous boundary
The new agri-landscape, as a structured homogeneous boundary, hugs the space in a new urban symbiosis among villages, nature and city as an “energetic” exchange in balance with itself. Nature, as the farmers’ villages, is radically preserved. Spaces for overlapping aren’t specialized places, but generators of unforeseen activities where takes place citizen's communication.
Here, the urban landscape it is the framework for the perception of the natural and the artificial elements and the framework for social rituals where what is desired may be possible.
3.2 - The sustainable city is a compact and complex city.
The “compact” term is understood as a functional and spatial intensity and efficiency in mobility, energy consumption and production. Agri-landscape is composed as a system of meshes diluted in the rural-urban space over a non-hierarchical organization but equipotential organization open to the future development.
4.0 - Urban trans-generational process.
The agri-landscape is the result of a “trans-generational process”. It is essential to understand the planning not as a contract between different rights but as a genetic code that emerges from the physical and sociological context.
Old villages, agriculture and new city development and natural landscape are coexisting together. Our strategy dealing with deprived neighborhoods and we want to maintain the existing populations and their production system as long as it’s useful and convenient.
5.0 - Mobility
Mobility is essential for the sustainable environment requirements. The pedestrian is the project’s main character. The agri-landscape is dimensioned for an endless supply of pedestrian transits. A sustainable urban environment must reach vehicle and pedestrian compatibility on a broad strip for their coexistence. This strategy for mobility allows local traffic and the citizen to intelligently negotiate their mobility.
Annex 1 - The phased model construction
We have also briefly analyzed the phased model construction from these two options:
A. The construction of the complete agri-landscape and then implementation and random construction of urban units.
B. The construction from a random origin of the agri-landscape and follow the construction units by units.
We affirm a sustainable design must reconcile the previous existences with the project for new urban development.
We propose a ‘soft’ design over the environment so that, from the villages to the natural elements through road connection with the rest of the territory involved, we can reduce the soil consumption. The natural environment and the urban environment rarely have coexisted harmoniously. In our research we want to affirm that such harmony is possible without resorting to stereotypes as the Garden City. Contemporary sociology, in fact, describes the 21st Century inhabitants “as a human and nonhuman assembly”. The relationship between citizens and their artifacts is no longer a one-way hierarchy relationship. Coexistence and dependence are a reciprocal linking between both and defines a different physical environment.
This research confirms the interest and validity of the agri-landscape as a harmonious coexistence space for the three System or environments. In the agri-landscape, social tradition survive in a complex system which is validated, in this strategy, by urban phenomena interweaved in the landscape according to a culture that we can define as genuinely contemporary.
 X. Li, J. Johnson, A single “documentary” through multiple historical readings of “cities”, Curatorial Statement of “Urban Border”: Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture 2013 (Shenzhen), http://www.szhkbiennale.org/2013/?cat=12&lang=en
 D. Sijmons, An introduction to Urban by Nature, International Architecture Biennale of Rotterdam 2014, http://iabr.nl/index.php?/en/
 “A talk with Bjarke Ingels”, Milan, 8th – 15th – 22nd April, 2013, http://blinkproject.it/653,Post.html
 RIALTO S.r.l.: “Research Institute for Architecture, Landscape and Territory Organization” is a University Spin-off company of University of Pavia, www.rialtoresearch.it
 The topic of this research project derive from Italian National Research (PRIN) “Architecture as Heritage: innovative instruments for the tutelage and the improvement of the local border systems”; within this National framework authors from University of Pavia participate, deepening the theme “Regeneration and renewal of rural landscape”. The University of Pavia Research Unit defines a new strategy called “RurArchitectural Intensification” which is an innovative design action for architecture and landscape design. This operative action is applicable for regenerate and transform the contemporary city-landscape into use that are suitable for contemporary ways of living through the construction of a new paradigm that will shape an architectural project committed to sustainability. www.raintensification.com
 The European Landscape Convention - also known as the Florence Convention, - promotes the protection, management and planning of European landscapes and organises European co-operation on landscape issues. The convention was adopted on 20 October 2000 in Florence (Italy) and came into force on 1 March 2004 (Council of Europe Treaty Series no. 176), http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/heritage/Landscape/default_en.asp
 M. Mostafavi, G. Doherty [Edited by], Ecological Urbanism, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA, USA, Lars Müller Publishers, 2010.