Can a Small Italian Village Point the Way to More Livable Modern Cities?

Marlo Safi

Artena, Italy is approximately 25 miles from Rome. Despite their proximity to each other, Artena is a much sleepier, old-world village, not encumbered by Rome’s foot traffic or consumerism. The beauty of Artena is in its organic simplicity, and its rebellion against the capricious whims of technology that have influenced city planning and development everywhere else. Its streets are narrow, walkable, and not perfectly paved with cement or painted with traffic signs. And, similarly to Rome, it’s inspiring.

Artena is “human-centered,” Stefano Serafini says. Serafini is a director of the International Society of Biourbanism, a group headquartered in Artena that focuses on our urban environments as an organism, and, through research, aims to realize optimal environmental enhancements for cities based on human needs. What that looks like in practice is at the heart of the Biourbanism Summer School, a week-long event I will attend and report on next month. I won’t be the only foreigner in attendance — the school is attracting a diverse group of writers, architects, artists, politicians, economists, and citizens from across the world. Serafini describes the variety of attendees each year as a “unique and different symphony.”

The teachers and participants at the school will bring their expertise to Artena, the small town that serves as both a forum for discussion about building cities that satiate the human spirit and an example of how such cities are developed. Serafini tells me that hosting the event in Artena is fundamental to the school, because the town has retained a character that we can’t find in many other places in the world:

It is a real “common space,” and one can feel it by passing through it, not to mention by inhabiting it. This experience is a fundamental part of the school and that’s why all participants will live here for the whole week. . . . Its beauty is not decorative or “aesthetic.” Its beauty has a meaning. Contemporary built places very often lack meaning and thus real beauty, because our modern lives often lack purpose. And yet we all long for something we often do not even have words for. So Artena can help us uttering or building words we cannot find anywhere else in our world.

While communication at the school will primarily be in Italian and English, perhaps the most important language is the unspoken one of the built environment — the one Artena will use to speak with attendees. This theme of language is central to the school, and more generally, architecture, Serafini insists. Post-modernity, with its severe geometry, unnatural dimensions, and alienating scale has stripped us of local vernacular and rootedness:

Post-modernity tends to corrode such a meaning-bearing entity, it tends to hollow it, and to substitute it with mere signs, to substitute semantics with syntax. Instead of communicating (i.e. instead of sharing our being), we rather transmit inputs, we command to each other, in other words, we fight for power. Look at what happens in social media. Look at what happens in conflict zones. It is the same logic of transmission/control vs communication/listening. Design as well can be conflictual and imperialistic or listening and communicative.

While I’ll be attending in a professional capacity as a journalist, I’ll also be attending as an American in search of a solution to the problems many of our cities face today. The addition of bike lanes is a sign that many cities across the country are realizing the harmful effects of urban planning that only accommodates vehicles. Our health, mentally and physically, is a casualty of the urban-design crisis. So is our sense of local belonging in urban environments that often alienate us from our own neighbors, stripped as they are of public squares and walkable streets.

These concerns about identity and interaction cross nationalities, as many of the teachers at the school demonstrate.

Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni is one such teacher. Coming from a conflict zone, al-Sabouni will describe the extent to which architecture can influence culture and social fabric — her book, The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria, details the unraveling of Syrian cities in the war that ravaged the country. The core of the school will surround Sabouni, Italian architect Sergio Los, Finnish architect Marco Casagrande. Other participants include Fabio Rampelli, the vice president of the Italian parliament, Zana Kibar, a Kurdish movie director and journalist, and Melek Aksoy, a Turkish fashion expert and historian. The kaleidoscope of attendees is, much like the location, intended to emphasize the holistic approach necessary for humane architectural change.

I expect this summer school to be one that reminds me, as someone who has grown resigned to American cities designed with seemingly little thought to the human desire for identity and attachment, that solutions exist. They exist in places such as Artena, rebuilt in the 15th century, which rebels against the hegemony of the car and its demands on our cities, encouraging those who walk through the streets to unburden themselves of the modern world’s baggage.

“The school wants to open our eyes on what really matters,” Serafini says. “Which in architecture means knowing what is right and what is wrong when designing a place for ourselves, our human fellows, and other creatures, and the common environment.”

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