In many people’s opinion, the suburbs across the globe are often seen as colorless. Broad swaths of bland, cookie-cutter housing with no cultural center other than shopping malls edge nearly every major city in the world.
However, Italian Senator Renzo Piano is leading a working group to reinvigorate the heart and soul of the Italian suburb. The idea may catch on this side of the pond, as well.
Piano’s team of 6 young architects, known as G124, has spent the last few years reimaging Italian suburbs—known as Periferies. The team was named after Piano’s office in Piaza Giustiniani near the Pantheon in Rome. They have taken over more and more of the building, and “turned it into a laboratory to plan the regeneration of the outskirts of the Italian cities”—an ambitious goal.
The Senator, you see, also moonlights as an architect. According to their website, Senator Piano is dedicated to taking care of the suburbs that represent the city of the future or—as the website posits—the future of the city. The line suggests that they’re building both a city for a new age and the environment that will foster urban development even in the Periferies.
Piano is a Senator for life. (Yes, Italy actually does bequeath such titles). So I suppose he can spend all that time most politicians dedicate to campaigning on something worthwhile in life—in his case, architecture and modern urban development.
The team is actually an annual cycle of 6 recent architecture graduates. Piano filters his whole parliamentary salary to fund their salaries and the operating budget for G124. In addition, the team is supported by volunteer “tutors.” Professional architects, engineers, sociologists and psychologists chosen by Piano to guide the cohort through the implementation of a project.
Piano’s G124 gained notoriety in Italy by upcycling shipping containers for a project named “Under the Viaduct.” They repurposed both the containers and an under-utilized viaduct/walkway (Viadotto dei Presidenti) running down the middle of a highway in the Montesacro suburb of Rome. This viaduct is one of 600 unfinished structures around the country, so the team has plenty of canvasses to work on.
The 2016 project is destined for Giambellino, a 6,000-person suburb of Milan. According to the Wall Street Journal article that featured Piano, they team “mended walkways, tore down walls and created a new courtyard where the citizens gather for film screenings, community gardening and multi-ethnic, family-style dinners. For immigrants and their children, a woman teaches Italian at 4 o’clock every day. When you have people coming together, the problems of diversity disappear and instead diversity becomes a great opportunity of exchange.”
This movement highlights the potential for every strip mall and homogenous suburb across the world. Fifty years ago, the rise of the automobile drew millions of urbanites out of cities and into the ‘burbs.
Today, they’re collapsing from the weight of their design—distance from “run-down” urban centers. As housing cost becomes more highly correlated to public transportation and “walkability” than to square footage and acreage, suburbs across the world are now the receipt point for those flushed out of increasingly gentrified cities.
Piano seems to be pointing towards the saving grace for these far-flung locales. Many suburbs are now what the run-down urban centers were in decades past—large populated regions with a complex tapestry of culture and history that present great potential for regeneration.
Other groups, such as the Dutch MVRDV, are also espousing the “save suburbia” slogan. Their plan for the U.S. Army barracks in Mannheim, Germany proposes a colorful revisit to the original suburban design. It’s replete with “mixed use areas” and all the other great buzzwords of modern urban development.
While Piano’s G124 and the like seem idealistic, it exemplifies the strong civic duties that politicians should be known for—as opposed to the scandals and corruption most are actually famous for. It makes me think that maybe we should consider the idea of “Senator for Life.” Then again…