Mutations. Cities at a Crossroads in the New Century | The Plan
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Mutations. Cities at a Crossroads in the New Century

Fragile Earth and Active Matter

Over the last 30 years, cities have been the scene of profound changes. Cities are still the plastic testimony of the radical transformations undergone by society and social relations. At a global level, urbanization continues apace, a phenomenon well predating the pandemic but an alarming indicator as a result of this experienc. It is estimated that by 2050, 75% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, compared to 50% in 2000 and 10% in 1900. This exponential growth will increase density and land consumption in already saturated urban contexts, especially the world’s megacities with over 10 million inhabitants, of which there are now about 20. So what challenges will cities face in the third millennium? What major changes will they have to deal with in the wake of environmental, post-pandemic, social, migratory, economic and political emergencies that brought them to this critical point? Is it plausible to think that the physical aggregative model that is the metropolis is being challenged? Although currently occupying only 2% of the Earth’s surface, cities are responsible for 75% of global energy consumption and 80% of greenhouse gas emissions (UN-Habitat data). In addition, air pollution and population density have contributed enormously to the spread of the pandemic. These are just some fragility indicators of the metropolitan setting. However, metropolises must be considered within the context of the world’s general vulnerability. Environmental disasters, often caused by inconsiderate human action, trigger catastrophic events such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes while progressive climate change is a brooding threat. The two are often correlated: natural disasters unleash the destructive force of a disrupted natural environment; climate change weakens our natural defense and antibody systems. The Earth is fragile, its vulnerability the cause of many interconnected factors. The wealth of data now available gives us a picture of a disrupted planet that is all the more difficult to manage since the data are being constantly updated. The maps of areas at risk reveal a mobile geography, no longer conceived as the static representation of a single physical factor, but the constant complex monitoring of many variables at play. The result is an unstable yet ever-changing picture that our current rigid systems are poorly equipped to handle. An example is the joint action of global warming and the heat island effect that has raised the temperatures of buildings and public spaces to intolerable levels. Countering this effect will require rethinking the very nature of spaces and buildings, the materials used, protection and mitigation devices, the shape of empty spaces, building envelopes, the connections between the parts, and the reactive and adaptive capacity of the whole.

The built city is largely made up of inert matter that consumes rather than produces energy. The challenge is to transform this material into active matter, i.e., into an extraordinary mass of climate, energy and environmental mitigation. This reasoning applies to the infinitely large and the infinitely small, swinging like a pendulum from the macroscopic level of the city, considered huge mineral concretions, to the microscopic level of all matter. They are two different approaches to achieve the same goal: preserving what remains.

The problem is acknowledged as urgent by the Directives on climate change and energy saving on a vast scale. Work has been ongoing. For more than 20 years, state-of-the-art concretes and new patents have been used in environmentally innovative constructions: from the Tx Millenium used for the Dives in Misericordia Church by Richard Meier in Rome, and the biodynamic photocatalytic concrete of the branch-pattern façade of the Italy Pavilion for Expo Milano 2015 to the i.crete system used by Gehry Partners for the frame of the Beekman Tower in New York and the family of UHPCs (Ultra High Performance Concrete) used by French architect Rudy Ricciotti in several of his works. There is also the 3D printed XtreeE structural column developed by Philippe Morel’s experimental research into the reuse of recycled materials. All these experiments and techniques strive to make the materials that make up the buildings, infrastructures, public spaces and landscapes of our cities active agents against climate and environmental degradation. In the words of Maria Voyatzaki: “Architecture is not built from mute materials, but rather from mutant materials while still in an affective relationship with materiality” (Carmen Andriani, Future Concrete, 2016). There is no longer any distinction between what we call raw material and form since material is now recognized as having active intelligence. Technological research is intertwined with formal research, the quality of a space is defined in terms of its ability to cope with change. It is an inverted transition, from the molecular nature of matter to the manifestation of form, through the inscrutable trajectories of creative intuition and the scientific process by which form is created and space constructed.

Durability and Resilience

One of the challenges of the third millennium is to drastically reduce the consumption of land and the use of raw materials, constantly monitor energy and water consumption, and build to ensure a social impact that will be useful to the environment. In the face of these new scenarios, our culture of building is changing and with it the status of the project. If we are to cope with progressive or sudden changes, our capacity to adapt city planning systems and building design, renovate our large pool of decommissioned structures, completely rethink our infrastructural framework and build flexible responsive systems will be key. Mitigation actions aimed at reducing or preventing risk have the dual objective of raising tolerance thresholds and reducing vulnerability over time not only by acting on the causes but above all controlling the effects. This is the principle of durability, a word that includes the time factor, i.e., sustainability, a concept taken to mean everything that improves the present without compromising the future. However, mitigation actions are not always preventive: they are elements of resistance aimed at stemming immediate damage but not preventing it in the long term. What must be aimed for is a more complex adaptive process through which cities learn to respond effectively to natural disasters. Designing our inhabited environment therefore takes on another responsibility: the ability to adapt to ever-changing conditions, “to reorganize in the presence of new conditions”.1 This is the concept of resilience, a transdisciplinary notion taken from mechanics and applied to the physical city. In its original meaning, resilience indicates the ability of a material to react to shocks.
The transposed meaning signifies the ability of a context or subject to adapt to a critical, traumatic or unstable condition. A rigid system reacts inadequately both to a sudden shock and slower change. The resistance it puts up leads to rupture. Instead, system malleability is a prerequisite of an ability to face traumatic change. This has several manifestations: adaptability of land-use planning tools, the reactivity of built materials, and the ability of an ecosystem to find a new point of equilibrium in the event of an external threat. Many American and European cities have studied adaptation strategies, implemented timely projects and specific climate plans. New York’s PlaNYC, initiated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 to reduce emissions and energy consumption and extended to 2030, puts innovative actions for mobility, waste, energy and climate center stage. Policies adopted in California are geared to prevent the destruction of the San Francisco Bay. The proposed topographic modeling of Antwerp’s riverfront by reinforcing the river banks aims to reduce flooding risk. In the Netherlands, 50% of the land is only one meter above sea level. All the country’s universities are engaged in a unique research program supported by the Government on the consequences of climate change and experimental housing models in response to change. Prototypes under study include the Amphibious House, a hybrid typology resting on the ground thanks to a double system of concrete and iron poles but able to float like a boat, and the so-called Escape Houses, prototypes by the architects of MVRDV: in the event of flooding, they literally rise up and orient themselves in space, the free space below becoming a compensation area. Prototypes are complemented by strategic plans. For example, OMA’s 2012 plan to contain flash floods and storm surges in New Jersey provides for four actions that translate into four urban devices: resilient infrastructure and soft landscapes to defend the coast (resist); strategies to delay the flow of water (delay); collecting and directing stormwater into green infrastructure circuits (store); and finally, discharging urban drainage systems (discharge).2 There are many good intentions enshrined in international protocols, regulations and global organizations, such as the Urban Agenda 2030, signed in 2015 by 193 member countries of the United Nations with its 17 “sustainable development goals”.3 Everything revolves around the great political and cultural question of good building, and the need for a shared and long-lasting vision. In this sense, architecture can make an important contribution by bringing to the table creative imagination, a systemic vision and coordination ability of the many specific aspects that go into a successful project. The challenge is to build and regularly monitor an integrated consistent system made up of activities covering a range of different purposes.

The Pandemic and the Metropolis. From the “Diffused” City to the Urban Archipelago

Pandemics can be likened to a series of sudden shocks - unexpected and capable of causing irreversible damage. The ongoing pandemic has once again severely tested the adaptive capacity of both environments and human beings. It clearly shows up our global fragility, forcing about four billion people into lockdown lifestyles for fear of contagion.

For long periods our homes have been both a private and public space. Cities, incredibly empty, remained in another place, in our imagination, viewed from behind a window or experienced within the narrow radius of permissible movement. Unsurprisingly, large urban agglomerations emerged as the most vulnerable. The metropolis, the icon of the modern city, has long been considered the ideal associative structure guaranteeing individual freedom and development opportunities. However, recent decades have seen cities contract by implosion, building on the built, reversing the process of optimistic expansion that characterized big cities at the end of the last century. This phenomenon has affected many Western metropolises, some of the most sedimented and consolidated over time, a trend that was accentuated by the economic crisis of 2008. Terms such as recycling, reuse and regeneration have become common jargon and a focal concern of architects and urban planners, placing the question what we hand over to future generations center stage. Today, more than half the world’s population lives in urban settings; there are about 20 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants. Istanbul, a world city straddling two continents, is the most populous megalopolis in Europe; Hong Kong, the planet’s virtual economic crossroads, is among the most densely populated. Density is the main feature of a metropolis. It determines its skyline, its inhabitants’ lifestyles, contains a multitude of microcosms but paradoxically does not facilitate neighborliness nor the equal distribution of services. Climate disruption and the pandemic emergency have accentuated the contradictions and aporias of the metropolis, highlighting internal disparities, spatial injustice in terms of uneven service distribution and public mobility, social and income differences, the widening rich-poor gap, and the inevitable link between high air pollution rates and the spread of the pandemic. Large cities have become less attractive economically and as sources of social opportunity as we experiment with new ways of working, learning and doing things at a distance. Although deleterious and not of our choosing, this long period of suspended time has forced us to reflect. Our interactions are also changing. We need a city capable of allowing a new way of relating with the earth and enjoying open spaces. We need to reinstate community relationships in livable neighborhoods whose services and welfare are an integrate part of their context and not separate entities. The medium-sized city is back in vogue. We talk of the community value of the many small villages that now lie abandoned. So, since Italy has a wealth of small towns in its hinterland, it is not so much a question of rethinking the urban dimension, but rather of rethinking regional areas as a series of different size, closely related, interconnected yet self-sufficient urban aggregates. This is none other than Oswald M. Ungers’ “archipelago” city (The City in the City), Francesco Indovina’s diffused city (Dalla città diffusa all’arcipelago metropolitano) or Boeri’s “metropolis-archipelago” entering the public debate once more. The challenge is to give the concept of archipelago a wider geographical dimension, i.e., consider the metropolis as a set of villages, and smaller agglomerations as small cities, and afford the open spaces the same construction value as built areas. The emergency we are experiencing requires a trans-scalar approach connecting different ecologies. We need to rethink lifestyles, enhance territorial cultures, trigger new forms of knowledge and approach, invent innovative spatial systems and infrastructure programs that, as Saskia Sassen points out, are new social, technical-political, and conceptual catalysts. The large urban agglomerations - the mineral concretions of the 20th century - will have to be thinned out and re-naturalized, establishing a pact with Nature of which we, like all forms of life on our planet, are a part. Open spaces, understood as relational, dynamic, equipped and productive spaces but also and especially as environmental, urban connective infrastructure are the best means of achieving this.

The Example of Rome

Often the open spaces in cities are mere remnants, part of an urban hinterland that separates rather than connects. This is especially true of large sprawling cities. Rome is a prime example. A polycentric metropolis and the largest agricultural municipality in Europe, Rome has an extraordinary environmental and historical heritage. It has always been an archipelago metropolis, expanding to englobe small outlying municipalities and generating a potentially interesting territorial development model. The Roman countryside, the unbuilt connectors between the different urban islands, can be defined in many ways: as the spaces enclosed by built-up areas, the uncultivated halo surrounding the tall buildings on the city periphery; areas preserving Rome’s historical rows of pine trees; residual space waiting to be put to new use; productive agricultural land; natural residual space of Rome’s historic topography; excavated, re-organized archaeological sites; and footprint of Rome’s famous urban arterial roads.4 Whatever the definition, these variegated spaces are usually poorly connected, often incomplete and poorly maintained. A system of countryside and parks, a porous series of different connected open spaces, demands ecological infrastructure on a metropolitan scale. Already in 2003, the land-use plan, approved in 2008, was based on some good principles. About 90,000 ha were allocated to this environmental system that were to be completed with new subway lines, university campuses, sports cities, youth cities, museums, and especially new urban and metropolitan centers.5 Scattered throughout the geographical extension that is Rome, these new centers are designed to be decentralized points of agglomeration, characterized by “high quality of design, easy accessibility, well-knit functions integrated with the urban and natural fabric with special attention to public space”. The plan does not aim to create aggregations or larger urban districts but rather to upgrade the performance of an already diffused urban context by creating links and osmosis between the various clusters to the mutual benefit of all. It is not just of question of implementing one-size-fits-all solutions but also of preserving particular urban identities, which in Rome spring from the particular characteristics of its countryside that mark out even the most central quarters, its multi-layered historical and archeological past, and its
often-surprising mix of the artificial and the natural. In a 1965 interview with the NY Times, Federico Fellini remarked, “When I am in Rome I have the feeling of finally being home”. He describes the city as an apartment and the streets as the corridors of his own home. Again, in a conversation with Charlotte Chandler, he declared, “Rome is a city as eternal as it is internal”. This is borne out by the beginning of La Dolce Vita, when Marcello and Maddalena, lovers for a night, arrive in the flooded basement of a house in a peripheral area far from the city center, Via dei Cessati Spiriti, a perfect example of Roman toponymy.


Cities are once again at a turning point and undergoing change. The change may be a mutation, a metabolic variation or a metamorphosis. Every city will experience this change according to its own character and behavior. Sassen writes that cities “[…] are complex but incomplete systems that cannot be fully controlled. It is this mix of complexity and incompleteness that has given cities their long lives across enormously diverse historical periods”. It is not the emergency situation that will undermine the city, either as an urbs or as a civitas. We are profoundly urban creatures and the model-city, although remodeled into a territorial archipelago made up of self-sufficient and related islands, will continue to be the goal to pursue as a means of self-emancipation and in order to call ourselves modern. An evolved form of human association, the city is an individual and collective right, yet it must change its lifestyles and organization if it is to survive. Nor is it simply a question of upgrading green standards or planting more trees. It is all about everyone being willing to profoundly change lifestyle. The fragmentation of skills that we have witnessed in recent decades is no longer the right approach. Specialization carried to the extreme must be corrected for the absence of any inkling of the humanities, which is more than ever necessary in order to place the body, the “zero point of the world” (Foucault), the junction where spaces and paths intersect, the active tool of spatial and emotional experience and the interactive agent defining the ever-changing form change will take.6 For if technical solutions are not accompanied by across-the-board, humanist, empathetic awareness of meaning, no solutions will be able to provide the answers we expect. The concepts of responsibility, freedom and ethics can also be extended to the role of the architect in society, and his ability to coordinate the various actions in a long-term systemic vision. This is what design architecture is all about: sensitivity combined with technical know-how enabling the designer to imagine the future that awaits us and knowing how to achieve it.






1. “Building Resilience to Climate Change Through Adaptive Management of Natural Resources”, Emma Tompkins, W. Neil Adger, 2003.

2. Paesaggio come esperienza. Evoluzione di un’idea tra storia, natura ed ecologia, Paola Sabbion, FrancoAngeli, 2016.

3. The future of cities, Livio Sacchi, La Nave di Teseo, 2019.

4. Excerpt from the Nuova Centralità Urbana Metropolitana Romanina project presentation by project leader Carmen Andriani, 2004-2006.

5. “Rome: Recent Changes and Promises of Future Developments,” Laura Ferretti, in l’industria delle costruzioni, no. 455.

6. See also Corpi tra spazio e progetto, Cristina Bianchetti, Mimesis Edizioni, 2020.


This text is an unpublished compendium of some of the author’s published writings and ongoing research


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