Started some 20 years ago, Turin’s transformation is an opportunity to take stock of the relationship between architecture, urban layout, land use, and the character of a city in a period when, for the first time since the Second World War, the different professions involved are all once again vying to exert a predominant urban planning role. In his 1988 book La città contesa. Dagli ingegneri sanitari agli urbanisti (1885-1942) - The Contested City. From Engineers to Urbanists (1885-1942) - published by Jaca Book, Guido Zucconi describes the period immediately preceding the World War II as the moment when the architect with specialist
urban-planning know-how asserted his pre-eminent role as the designer of the city.
The current revamping of Turin is nothing new. Ever since it became part of the Duchy of the Savoy, or Sabaudian, family nearly 5 centuries ago, Turin has changed both shape and vocation several times, always, however, remaining a city on a European scale. Initially a minor post-mediaeval township, it became the modern economic and cultural capital of the Duchy and seat of the Duke’s court. Later, it was for a time the capital of a reunified Italy, then a major industrial city and finally, with the new strategic plan, geared to becoming a tertiary sector hub with a strong focus on research.
It was only the first transformation, however, that grew out of a positive event. All subsequent changes were brought about by a profound crisis that undermined the city's very existence. Each time transformation was triggered by crisis in the city’s main activity, Turin being characterized since the outset as a city with one focal activity. Yet each time, however, the physical and functional voids that came about were filled by previously secondary or accessory forces that then became the new drivers of development.
Turning our attention to the morphology of the city, form and function are particularly linked in a city like Turin. Indeed, the relatively few noteworthy architectural features - like the huge La Mole and the Torre Littoria - often sit uncomfortably in their urban setting. This is because Turin is largely a city where form is also function.
The product of strict planning by the Savoy dynasty, the city is designed as a single continuous system marked out by a series of prominent architectures that are, however, designed to be part of a single conceptual unit. The duchy gave the city a clear military layout based on sound engineering skills. Right from the first century of the duchy’s existence, its architects - men like Ascanio Vittozzi, Carlo and Amedeo di Castellamonte, father and son - were also first-class engineers. From the mid-17th century onwards, the military character of the city would lead to the building of many outlying royal residences and Alpine fortifications together with a series wide urban roads extending outside the city, for example, between Castello di Rivoli and Basilica di Superga, and the Royal Palace and the Palazzina at Stupinigi. These axes were a very modern feature of a broader design to set the seat of Savoy power against the backdrop of the Theatrum Sabaudiae. It was at this time that the court architects - especially Francesco Juvarra - set about creating a series of connecting focal points in the city that served as functional units, architectural landmarks and urban quarters. Good examples are the Quartieri Militari and the Contrada di Porta Palazzo.
The 20th Century and especially the post-war period saw a waning of the Sabaudian influence. The idea of a unified urban whole gradually fell from favor, indeed was rejected as an obsolete carryover from a restrictive Sabaudian topology. The complex structural matrix imparted to both the city and its territory was seen in a derogatory light and condemned out of hand. Development now became sectoral, with the creation of a series of enclaves. As a result, neighborhoods like Barriera di Milano, although not far from the city center, are light years away in conceptual and perceptive terms.
CONTEMPORARY TRANSFORMATIONS. FORM VS. MANAGEMENT
The rebirth of Turin, after a long period as an industrial hub, marks a return to the city as a continuum of its former physical and historic self.
The vision of a unified entity has returned and was once more proposed by the General Urban Development Scheme of 1995, albeit for different reasons, since the plan still had a strongly functionalist bent. The new Development Scheme proposed the recovery of the city’s industrial brown sites - more than 10,000,000 m² in the 20th Century neighborhoods - known as the “Spine” and forming a sort of “backbone” designed to impart functional and geographical continuity, re-connect the disjointed parts of the city and solve the longstanding issue of the separation of the city center from its outlying areas.
A weighty infrastructure program was got underway, not only to drive upgrading of peripheral areas, - a constant issue for contemporary urban planning - but also to amalgamate the whole urban fabric by redefining a series of coordinated functions for the various parts.
Although given a boost with investments for the Olympic Games, and despite its well thought out strategic vision, the far-reaching transformation project, especially the development of the “Spine”, has proved a partial failure from many points of view. Economically speaking, the local real estate market collapsed and has not recovered following the 2008 financial crisis, unlike what is happening today in Milan. From a formal point of view, the buildings that have gone up often lack character and fail to be part of that unified vision. Finally, functionally, the reliance on traditional models has led to oversize retail and residential complexes in strident contrast with the aim of the city to be characterized by extensively spread services.
The lack of oversight on the part of someone or somebody in order to keep the original formal vision on track, together with the progressive withdrawal of public funding - even in partnership with private investment - have led to the development of enclaves that contain no reference to the city's historical past, nor do they propose an innovative vision for future development. Even the few architectures of note find themselves isolated and failing to trigger an interlinked system. The most glaring examples of this dispersion and loss of overall vision as implementation has proceeded are the entire “Spina” 4 and some of “Spina” 3.
The “Spine” idea is an excellent one since it links up with Turin’s essential, consolidated Sabaudian layout along axes connecting distant points, creating physical, symbolic and functional continuities.
Although the initial city plan was strongly forward thinking vision, its implementation has failed to deliver, often the victim of self-referential interventions. In fact, it would be an interesting intellectual exercise to investigate when and how the disciplines of town planning and politics have become so divorced.
Where planning efforts have had success is in the recovery of a sense of identity by the city, albeit a multifaceted plural identity. This renewed sense of belonging to an existing urban fabric has triggered widespread revitalization and transformation processes that thanks also to the Olympic Games has led to a new perception of the quality of life Turin has to offer.
The vast changes introduced with the General Urban Development Scheme should be developed with huge investments, and directed by a single coordinating body. But down the years, funding difficulties have been encountered and the steering function lost. However, precious support for the “Spine” project and the regeneration of the disused areas in general has come from the admirable vitality of Turin’s two universities: the Polytechnic, which has overseen the doubling of its facilities in “Spina” 2, the work at Mirafiori TNE, Lingotto, and soon in Valentino; and the University of Turin, with the Luigi Einaudi CLE Campus, and in the near future, the Manifattura Tabacchi area and the Scientific Center at Grugliasco.
The unraveling of the overall general plan has also been countered by the go-ahead dynamism of an innovative cultural sector for which Turin is now becoming a byword, perhaps justifying the term genius loci. A series of separate projects has been completed by different cultural-sector players backed by various economic bodies. They have unexpectedly proved to be the main drivers of renewal, very probably because for them a formal project and its implementation are one and the same thing.
Players include the Merz Foundation and the Ettore Rico Museum, internationally renowned organizations, which although fairly small in size, have completed a series of major urban transformation projects such as the MEF A.R.T. project of the Ettore Fico Museum that proposes to extend the cultural activities in the "peripheral" Barriera di Milano district to the rest of the metropolitan area.
It is obvious that the urban development model that prevailed in Italy from the end of the last war is now in crisis. A city’s future development is no longer defined by the existing structure but by a strategic vision decided at the political level of what that physical transformation should be. Increasingly too, this vision is not one of expansion or replacement of the urban structure but rather a series of architectural interventions applied to the existing fabric.
Method. Upgrading of disused areas and repurposing existing structures for a city of culture and events
At least the rebirth of Turin as a tourist, cultural, university and research center is taking place in continuity with - and not in denial of - its industrial past and in acknowledgement of its engineering and technical legacy. And redevelopment is being implemented within the existing urban fabric rather than with urban expansion. The city's industrial decline not only left a political vacuum in terms of urban management; it left vast swathes of abandoned areas throughout the city. These brownfield sites benefit, however, from the legacy of their past. They are already included in the city's physical infrastructure network and are part of an urban fabric. But as the underlying reason for these links no longer exists, redefinition is possible. A clear example is the recent development of “Spina” 2, where fundamental metropolitan services, like the OGR mechanical workshops, the prison Carceri Nuove, the city’s slaughterhouse, Foro Boario, and the Barriera customs depot, were historically headquartered. The area has maintained this metropolitan service function, no longer geared to 20th Century industrial production but to administrative and cultural activities. It is now the site of the new courthouse, the extended Polytechnic, the repurposed mechanical workshop (OGR) area, and the new headquarters of the bank Intesa Sanpaolo.
Peripheral areas - a term here used to denote an urban typology rather than an urban topology since much of peripheral Turin is in fact very close to the center - that once owed their raison d'être to their close links with an industrial facility, have lost their sense of identity. To counter this, urban renewal consists of a series of small-scale interventions with the double aim of upgrading the existing fabric and making the quarter an integral part of the whole urban system.
Architectural projects are therefore central to Turin’s urban transformation. The restyling drive has gifted the city with a huge number of quality landmark buildings given over to culture and research. The many museums - both new and renewed - are key to Turin’s new vocation as a cultural tourism center. Annual visitors have climbed from 2 to 7 million in the period from 2002 to 2016.
This has been accompanied by projects to enhance and broaden service availability with the development of a new event format spread over many urban venues. The Motor Show (Salone dell’Automobile), which folded in the early 2000, has been redeveloped with the Parco Valentino formula and is today the International Auto Show. Other venues around the city include the International Auto Show, Il Salone del Gusto, the Jazz Festival, the Book Fair, MiTo, Artissima and Club to Club. Each uses the city as the backdrop for their shows, relying on a
well-connected infrastructure network.
Conclusion. Turning intangible function into urban form
Turin still has ample room for “growth”. Debate today centers on the future of the city’s still unused architectural heritage. This includes the dilapidated buildings of Italia ‘61, the Turin Expo, and the Cavallerizza Reale complex. The debate is today conducted within the framework of a renewed sense of identity and belonging among Turin’s citizens that goes beyond considerations of architectural worth to include economic and political issues like, for example, the extent to which safeguard of the res publica should be both a public and private matter - a central feature of the recent electoral campaign.
The “hard” physical city is today being overlaid by a city made of ephemeral events and short-term uses, a fact that points yet again to the need to recover an organic vision of how the city is managed. The current administration appears to have this intention with a return to its Sabaudian city planning roots.
It remains to be seen whether intentions will become a modus operandi for this historic city and whether the architecture actually built will fully reflect the original urban design.
*Benedetto Camerana, architect, landscape designer, Ph.D. in History of Architecture and Town Planning. Chairman of the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile since 2012, of the Lingotto Consortium, Turin, since 2013, and member of the Domus Academy Metaphysical Club, Milan since 2015. In 1997, Camerana founded Camerana&Partners in Turin, a professional organization working with Italian and European architects.
**Eugenio Bosco, architect (the Valparaiso Escuela de arquitectura, and Turin’s Polytechnic) has experience in projects both in Italy and Spain. Since 2015 he has worked with Benedetto Camerana on large-sale urban planning and design projects.