USE - UNCERTAIN STATES OF EUROPE

Stefano Boeri


The history of European architecture is not the evolutionary history of one or more constant "styles," but rather a succession of colonizations and external reinterpretations of monuments and cultures of inhabitation within a tolerant and "open" system of rules. Fundamentally, European space is transformed by accumulation, addition, and superimposition, but rarely by outright replacement or elimination. The invention of new urban entities, new typologies of habitat, does not depend on tabula rasa, as it may in other cultures of inhabitation; rather it demands the reuse and reconversion of the existing urban materials.
European space has extended in the past toward Asia, it has colonized parts of America, and it has more recently contracted with the phenomena of globalization: because the European territory is not a system of national states, nor the perimeter in which a tradition is perpetuated. It is a highly particular mode of change and innovation of the space.But in the contemporary European city, the interaction between global energies and local structural conformations has radically altered the relation between the principles of variation and difference. Today the principle of difference no longer acts between contiguous and diachronic urban components (i.e. between the nineteenth century city and the Renaisssance city, between the modern suburb and the 19th century grid, etc.) but rather between the single molecules of the urban organism's vast territorial sprawl: between the family house and the contiguous shopping mall, between the shopping mall and the adjacent low rise building, between the car wash and the industrial shed with the built-in house, etc. In the same way, the principle of variation does not have effect within the boundaries of vast or compact urban parts, but rather operates with the declination of a few families of urban forces that regulate the composition of the emerging city. This variation is thus reduced to infinite adaptations, conformations these elementary components can take on through surprising leaps and improvised solutions in varying territorial contexts.
The exploration of the new European territories marks the end of the syntactical dispositif of territorial organization and innovation which seemed to allow for a deeper identification of the distinctive features of European cultural identity. The dynamics appear chaotic, unpredictable in their trajectory, and therefore all the more powerfully charged with uncertainty. Indeed, a gaze that observes the mutations in real time, that samples portions of time and circumstances of transformation, can encounter forms of autopoietic innovation of inhabited space. Places and territories that seem able to adapt in original terms to the great global energies; limits within which the local dispositif of innovation-and not simply change-begins to fully manifest its staying power and long duration. In the new territories of diffuse urbanization, all these forms of innovation in inhabited space encounter an initial friction that rearticulates them into a limited series of evolutionary assonances; a series of mechanisms that composes these individual acts within the major waves of change. These mechanisms can be described with the help of metaphors:
-Linear attractors (heterogeneous sequences of linear development, especially along major axes that establishes the orientation and constitutes the major reference point);
-Bowling pins (introduction of autonomous elements on the terrain);
-Islands (appearance of introverted "islands" within which similar objects and lifestyles are reproduced);
-Cloning zones (spontaneous repetition of the same urban elements within definite limits);
-Grafts ("insertions" by the replacement of elements);
-Zones of metamorphosis (molecular processes of "internal transformation" susceptible of radically altering the symbolic but also the spatial identity of an area).
These patterns reflect a limited number of dynamics of basic interaction at work in the construction of our territory through the self-organization of our society into subsystems, conducted by "minorities" which act as microcosms of autopoiesis (extended families, ethnic and professional clans, cultural communities, leisure or consumer associations) "Self-organization" in this context is not used to mean only spontaneity, informal or non institutional character of the processes of territorial change. Rather, self organization - which often creates spaces of innovation- means above all that settlement rules (that give order to a certain set of individual tremors) are produced and shared by subjects that participate in the system itself.
European space, which is a palimpsest of projects sedimented in time, is also today the field of action for an indeterminate and changing number of subjects, many of whom maintain a temporary relationship with the territory. A battle of codes and interpretations ceaselessly unfolds upon this field, which is continually being rewritten, where almost nothing is ever erased, where the long-term structures are often temporarily hidden by others which are less powerful and enduring, but currently more visible. I really think that the new themes for the architecture practice are all there: the capacity to intervene in mechanisms of individual variation, the care of new and temporary community spaces, the attempt to use the economic power of certain building processes to produce a symbolic added value that redeems them from their egotism. But a new paradigm for interpretation of the emerging city is needed, one that can take the place of the one we have inherited from the sixties.
Uncertain States of Europe (USE) is an ongoing collective research project that explores the relation between territorial mutation and self-organization. Whether born of need or opportunism, innovation and change derive from unplanned and barely regulated processes. Phenomena are created and shaped by the actors taking part in a particular system, rather than by external and imposing institutions. Thus they rely on individual or specialized, as opposed to centralized knowledge; they do not correspond to hierarchical or centralized regulation systems but are the result of a temporal thickening of local structures. To understand the relation between territorial and social transformation, the USE Project has created "eclectic atlases." We had to disperse our efforts, to spread out across a huge environment (more than 60 people in over 50 different countries), recognizing that the most interesting innovations are often not to be found in the center. More often they are located in the periphery, in the marginal hidden areas beyond the perimeter of our gaze. What we have seen is not simply change, not architecturally recognizable change; we are seeing processes of radical spontaneity really able to produce new effects in the physical environment, which at the same time provoke a high degree of uncertainty.
The documents are heterogeneous, but similar in their visual approach. They take the form of an "atlas" in so far as they seek new correlations between spatial elements, the words we use to name them, and the mental images we project upon them. And they are eclectic because the basic criteria of these correlations are often multidimensional, new and experimental These atlases most often observe the territory from several viewpoints at once: from above but also through the eyes of those who live in the space, or on the basis of new, impartial and experimental perspectives. By adroitly interlacing the viewpoints, the eclectic atlases propose a multiple visual thinking that abandons the utopia of a synoptic vision from an optimal angle of observation. This research paradigm offers a new "strategy" of vision, and suggests four major revisions of the techniques for the representation of the territory.
-First, the new paradigm seeks to account for the mutations in real time, introducing a temporal element which is generally absent from the disciplines that study inhabited space.
-Second, it proposes observations limited to certain samples of the territory, with an attitude of hunting for clues, testimony, and indicators that are often temporary and have been left behind in the space by new, as yet unstandardized behaviors.
-Third, this logic of sampling supplements the zenith view through a system of coordinates and criteria which are used for the choice of the punctual places of research, and for the comparison of the results.
-And fourth, the new paradigm inquires into the identity of those who inhabit the space and construct its representations. In other words, it seeks to enrich the notion of the "landscape" by research into the complex identity of its users, and into the forms of the dynamic perception and memorization of the inhabited territories.
The maps produced by interweaving these four "lateral" gazes are attempts to observe the territory while it changes. The USE project is born of a sampling of the places and processes of mutation, whereby European space and its intense, unlimited activity finally comes to light. And uncertainty transforms into innovation.

 

This is an excerpted, condensed version, edited by Joanne Richardson for subsol.

One of the USE case studies, Post-It City by Giovanni La Varra, can also be found in subsol.

 

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