Aldo Colonetti and Mario Cucinella
As Mario Cucinella says: “the environment is a one-way journey; it’s not by planting trees between bits of concrete that we will combat pollution. That’s just an alibi.”
The relationship between nature and culture has always been at the core of the scientific and philosophical debate; on the other hand, culture is born where man opposes nature.
You need only think of one of his first acts when, about 2 million years ago, he splintered a piece of stone creating a sort of cutting tool that was found in the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania. This human imprinting was not found in nature but was rather a project to improve his own condition.
Thousands of years have passed since then; objects and tools have multiplied, villages have become cities, there’s the media, transport systems, houses; we face a huge problem that doesn’t only involve architects and designers. We are all, at once, actors and directors, the main protagonists of change but also the cause of all the contradictions associated with the development of society.
Mario Cucinella is an architect who has always been sensitive to these problems in design and at the same time who has been the protagonist of major interventions all over the world, in places like the African continent where we are faced with the first phenomena of the contradictory relationship between “nature and artifice”. Cucinella starts from a fundamental consideration: “designing and building
are never ‘innocent’ activities, they modify the existing equilibrium from all points of view. Certainly the energy equilibrium, but not only. What is travelling the world if not the transfer of cultural archetypes, attitudes that we are not always able to communicate with those who host us, traditions, materials, technology but also encountering different perspectives?”
The founder of an international practice based in Bologna, Milan and New York, Cucinella curated the Italian pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.
“Archipelago Italy” was dedicated to a central theme of equilibrium, not just of the landscape of our country but of the land and small and medium-sized inland cities.
Above all Cucinella is the founder and chairman of SOS (School of Sustainability), the only school in Italy, and one of the few in the world, dedicated exclusively to a culture of concrete sustainable ‘action’”. It hosts 30 students from all over the world and, as of this year, has a new HQ in Milan (www.schoolofsustainability.it).
“I believe that in order to think and act in one’s own profession in the name of a credible and not just utopian form of sustainability, especially with regard to the problem of ‘sustainable cities’, it is crucial to start from the following question:
who represents the rights of nature in this ecological transition/revolution? Today the debate is played out entirely in the realm of human interests but not in the interests of the planet. The voice of many environmentalists, organisations and researchers is not heard by a world that looks first and foremost to economic
interests. A recent book by Vandana Shiva, “Everyone’s Planet”, explains very well how global resources are in the hands of the few (1% of the total population).
Ecology is an important word, as is sustainability, and should be used with moderation and care. It is a journey that will last at least 40 years and must begin with an education strongly oriented towards this theme”.
A few years ago, in 2016, in a conversation with Gillo Dorfles on this topic and the relationship between cities, sustainability and public and private transport, some questions emerged that are on the agenda today. With his usual clarity and vision, always attentive to the concreteness of a project and its practical consequences in everyday life, Dorfles put it this way: “Today cities have, or in any
case should have, an almost imperative road system.
Naturally this allows for a more orderly and obviously more “sustainable” freedom of action and movement from all points of view. With respect to electric cars or driverless means of transport, I believe we will see them fairly soon in the large arteries of the outer urban ring roads. Transit arteries that will be specially signposted to allow for
driverless traffic. Urban sustainability means exactly this, that is, another type of urban planning system that takes into account the fact that a private car, beyond the concept of ownership, will always be humans’ only means of moving around an area freely. Oriol Bohigas, a dear friend and one of the most important urban planners of our time, taught me this. He was the author of the famous Barcelona plan for the 1992 Olympics and, in Italy, of a new urban layout for Salerno, which has finally become a real seaside city. Even this is the sign of a new way of experiencing the sustainable city.”
It is necessary to change, progressively, the paradigm, but without forgetting the need to dialogue pragmatically with the conditions of our daily existence, suspended always between major general themes on the one hand, and the daily experience of a place on the other, with the city as a place of work, of commerce but above all of cultural exchange at the centre.
We have come this far but the path ahead is still a long one because the closer we get, not necessarily to the solution, but to some “structural” stages, the broader the design spectrum gets. Everything is connected like a scale with an equilibrium that is never defined and always unstable because, as we said at the beginning of this piece, the relationship between “nature and culture” is inherently mobile, it can never be defined once and for all.
We will always be forced to study, to open paths for reform but also, if necessary, to interrupt a path already started because it is not effective from the point of view of individual and collective living. Some 12 years have passed since the exhibition “Green Life: costruire città sostenibili” (Green Life: building sustainable cities) at the Triennale di Milano in 2010, where the projects presented appeared as “virtuous examples” of great architectural quality but still within a pioneering
context. “I remember that exhibition,” says Cucinella. “I was included with the HQ we created for 3M Italia but the journey ahead is still a long one. I wonder if it is possible to be satisfied with a few paradoxes that will not be enough to create change? Faced with ocean pollution and an evident and scientifically proven loss of fauna and flora caused by ever more intensive fishing, our reaction is, for example, to make shoes with fishing nets lost at sea. In this instance, the circular
economy is a paradox. It is a way of thinking that grows out of a productive, not ecological, vision. Faced with an ecological problem, the answer is not preservation and protection but the production of objects that shouldn’t exist.”
Looking up, always having a theoretical reference model that includes the particular in the universal, in the words of the great philosophers, otherwise we always miss something we don’t understand. Hence the rejection of the world in its totality and the birth of an ideology in the name of a final and definitive solution that is obviously not feasible.
Let’s consider our cities; we are witnessing change, in part accelerated by post-pandemic conditions. Cycle paths, the use of outdoor spaces for living in the name of a sort of health safety, greater attention to greenery. Everything must be all right then?
“The cities have adopted urban forestry policies,” Cucinella points out “and this is good and the right thing to do, but it is not by putting trees in concrete that we will fight pollution. These initiatives help us build an alibi distancing us from problems that are difficult to face, even politically. Building is not a sustainable activity, for the simple reason that every building arises out of the use of primary resources and highly polluting industrial processes. The data is never made public,
we only see ads featuring near-zero impact buildings. This is not good for the growth of a new generation of buildings, it is not good for our cities either. This is a form of urban regeneration that often turns into gentrification; cities must pursue a policy of regeneration not only to increase real estate values but to increase social growth, as happens already to some extent in cities like London or New York.”
The city is part of a more complex and broader territorial system; cities are irreplaceable and future trends will see the multiplication of urban settlements. By 2030, there will be 39 megacities with over 10 million inhabitants (instead of the current 33) hosting 9% of the population and producing 15% of global GDP.
We need to rethink the whole system, putting the relationship between the “small” and the “big,” between the countryside and the city, at the centre of everything. The volume of greenery on the planet is about three trillion trees and is no longer sufficient to absorb the CO2 emissions we produce today. We would have the room, according to ETH Zurich, for another 1.2 trillion new trees, but this won’t be enough given current development.
As Cucinella observes, “we need to focus on the protection of the countryside, of the nature that surrounds our cities and our eco-systems. The city is irreplaceable, it must be protected, not transformed into something else, a sort of amusement park one can visit. The role of culture in the sense of an exchange of knowledge and experiences is fundamental in avoiding the sort of urban desertification we are witnessing, especially at certain times of the year.”
In order to think of a better future it is necessary to bring art, with its ability to look beyond the times we are in, into the mix alongside design activities. Without
however replacing science, technological knowledge and the activities of the so-called applied arts, among which the role of architecture and industrial design is fundamental.
Art to look ahead. In 1992, on the occasion of one of the first Triennales in Milan, dedicated to this theme and entitled “La città tra cose e natura: il progetto e la sfida ambientale” (The city between things and nature: the project and the environmental challenge), the section overseen by Angelo Cortesi housed an exhibition curated by Aldo Colonetti and Gianni Sassi called “Fare Naturale”. It included musicians (John Cage and Walter Marchetti), poets (Amelia Rosselli and Biagio Cepollaro), illustrators (Andrea Pedrazzini), artists (Nanni Balestrini, Giovanni Tufano, Giuliano Mauri, Michelangelo Jr) and designers (Franco Bucci). The main image was a work by Claudio Parmiggiani, “Alchimia”, a bronze cast of a young man’s face in the tradition of classical Greek sculpture, with a tree branch on his head. A way of saying: the nature of mankind is at the centre of all other natures. Or even better, there is only one nature: the one of thought. From here we can start again to rethink all design activities: an ecology of the mind is necessary, as Gregory Bateson wrote in his essay “Steps to an ecology of mind” in 1972.
The Compasso d’Oro, an important international award established by ADI in 1954 and dedicated to industrial design, references the existing relationship between nature and architecture. The Parthenon in Athens and the sculpture of Phidias were born out of this proportion, that is, the ratio of the smaller part to the larger part is equal to the ratio of the larger part to the whole. The golden section, as it is called, is present in the plant world, in the animal world and obviously
in the human body. Of course we don’t have to design everything according to this compositional model; however, it teaches and warns us that thinking about nature means respecting rules that belong to its ‘essence’. Our approach must be capable of reading the differences between nature and artifice; our cities must start afresh from here.
Aldo Colonetti, philosopher, historian and theorist of art, design and architecture. From 1985 to 2013 he was scientific director of the IED (European Design Institute); from 1991 to 2014, editor of the magazine Ottagono. He was a member of the Triennial Scientific Committee of Milan, of the ADI Presidency Committee, of the National Design Council. Author of essays, he has curated exhibitions in Italy and abroad.
Mario Cucinella, founder of MCA - Mario Cucinella Architects, an architecture and design studio based in Bologna and Milan, and of SOS - School of Sustainability, a school for young professionals for providing the tools needed to address environmental issues with an open, holistic and research-driven approach. The importance of his work and the continuous commitment, as an architect and educator, on environmental and social issues, have been recognized with the International Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects (2016) and with the Honorary Fellowship of the American Institute of Architects (2017). In 2018 he was curator of the Italian Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. He has taught at the universities of Ferrara, Naples, Munich, Nottingham. He is the author of many publications, among the most recent: Building Green Futures (2020, published by Forma), Architettura dell’educazione (2021, published by Maggioli), The future is a journey into the past. Ten stories of architecture (2021, published by Quodlibet).