by Salvatore PelusoMay 19, 2022
G124 Renzo Piano: mending the suburbs. A journey through Italian cities is an exhibition that puts spotlight on young people, inclusion, nature, suburbs and creativity, carried out as part of the Building, Dwelling, Thinking programme at the now concluded Cersaie 2021. Under the supervision of Italian architect Renzo Piano, the architectural and design exhibition also included a conference with Edoardo Tresoldi and Stefano Mancuso to discuss its myriad themes of inclusivity in urban and sustainable design.
Piano was appointed senator for life by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in 2013, and the celebrated architect wished to give back to his country, by fashioning an endeavour that would involve the young, to improve Italian city suburbs. Consisting solely of young architects under 35 years of age, who would be paid directly from the salary he received as a senator, he set up a working group for his vision in 2014, called G124. The project’s moniker indicates the number of the room allocated to Piano in Palazzo Giustiniani in the Italian Senate.
These young architects were tasked to develop year-long ventures to “mend a suburb”, aided by the direction and coordination by scientific directors consisting of professors at Italian universities and a range of other professionals including sociologists, anthropologists, economists, critics, urban planners, and more. This group of architects has since then been working on projects in cities all over Italy.
“This project is dedicated to my friend, senator for life Claudio Abbado, who had a project of his own for the Italian Senate but did not have time to complete it,” shares Piano. “He had a dream, almost an obsession, that music would be taught in Italian schools. He felt that music is a kind of extraordinary garden, but one that must be used by children. His sense of civic engagement was always closely bound up with music: music as a means of redemption for prisoners, music to empower young people, music as a way to get children off the streets. Driven by this aspiration, he collaborated with José Antonio Abreu and would occasionally disappear off to Venezuela. He has always been convinced of one thing, and so am I: beauty will save the world. One person at a time, but it will do it,” he continues.
The architectural exhibition at Cersaie encompassed thirteen G124 projects realised in the last seven years, with the young architects and their works as protagonists, imagining inclusive cities of the future, specifically, the G124-Modena group composed of Alessia Copelli, Martina Corradini, Stefano Davolio and Leo Piraccini and led by Matteo Agnoletto, professor of architectural composition at the University of Bologna. STIR speaks with two young members of the team, Davolio and Piraccini, who gave voice to the exhibition design and the quiet yet explosive power of the featured projects, with special emphasis on those currently in progress in the cities of Modena, Padua, and Palermo. Excerpts below:
Jincy Iype (JI): What constitutes the underlying themes of the projects that “mend a suburb” by young architects, displayed at the now concluded G124 exhibition at Cersaie 2021?
Leo Piraccini (LP): The mending of the suburbs thought by Renzo Piano, is based on six points that guide all the projects developed by the G124 working group. These six fundamental themes for the mending are: creating a generational, ethnic, economic and functional mix; fertilising the suburbs by disseminating them with public buildings, services, schools, universities, libraries, civic centres, cultural, social and service activities; increasing public transport and stopping large car parks; “greens” as connective tissue and an aggregating element, a filter between the city and countryside, a limit to land consumption; participatory processes that involve the inhabitants of the suburbs, institutions, fellows, implementing small construction sites that have the aim of reconnecting the urban tissue; and the use of scientific diagnostics, mild construction site technologies and functional and energy improvement.
These points are the basis of all the projects exhibited at Cersaie 2021 and serve as guidelines for interventions in the suburbs covered by the work of the G124 group. Each project is then oriented according to the needs of the site, which emerge from confrontations with citizens and institutions, generated with the same principles and intentions, to meet specific needs according to changing neighborhoods.
JI: How did the G124 project come about, and how has it focused on inclusivity, nature, and creativity over its journey? Why was highlighting and nurturing young talents the core of the same?
Stefano Davolio (SD): As a member of the Italian Senate, Piano wondered what could be useful to do with his new political role. Thus, as an architect, he simply decided to keep doing his job, making his experience available and accessible for the larger community. Afterall, the word ‘politics’ derives form the Greek word ‘polis’, meaning city. Therefore, it becomes natural, the association of this, to oath of the Athenians administrators: “We will transmit this city not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us”. For these reasons, the G124 project focuses on the transformation of the city, especially on its most fragile part: the suburbs. These places are rich in humanity, and here is where you find energy and young people full of hope and desire to change and improve their situations.
Based on these ideals, an important challenge opens: will the suburbs become part of the city? Will we be able to make them urban? They represent the beauty that does not yet exist, and it is fundamental to change the way we conceive it by promoting the values of inclusivity and sustainability. This can also happen via small symbolic projects that lead to small symbolic changes. And who else, if not young talents, to imagine and create the city of the future? They are, essentially, the builders of tomorrow.
I like to talk about young people because they, not me, are the great engine of this great mending work. So, they are my project, they are the ones who will save the world. – Renzo Piano
Rather than chosing the suburbs based on applications, it is the G124 group itself that examines the opportunities and potential offered by different Italian cities and decides where to concentrate its efforts for the year. In 2020 and - owing to the pandemic - part of 2021, the cities involved were Padua (with a project in Parco dei Salici that was completed a few months ago), Modena (a project in Parco XXII Aprile, currently in progress) and Palermo (a project in the ZEN neighbourhood, also currently in progress).
JI: “Beauty will save the world. One person at a time, but it will do it.” Please elaborate on this in the context of G124.
LP: Upon being anointed Senator, Piano, together with other figures related to research and culture were appointed, including the conductor Claudio Abbado, a friend of his. He also had his own project for the Senate that involved young people and music in the schools, but he did not have time to implement it due to his passing. His quote and belief have greatly inspired Piano, and has become an added position to the aforementioned six points of mending.
Pursuing beauty, imagining bringing it, little by little, within and with these projects in the suburbs can trigger a positive change that can lead to much greater changes than the projects themselves carried out by the G124 working group. This precious concept also inspired the title of the lecture led by Prof. Matteo Agnoletto, which involved the international artist Edoardo Tresoldi and the plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso at Cersaie this year. It turned out to be a pleasant moment of debate about the future of our cities and how beauty and nature can help make our world a better, more inclusive place.
JI: What are some of your favourites from the displayed lineup?
SD: In their own way, all thirteen G124 projects have been able to contribute towards changing Italian suburbs. Some of them were outstanding in their ability of greatly involving the community, others for the excellent response received following their completion and engagement.
However, since our collaboration with universities began, something changed. There is an astonishing reserve of energy in these institutes, which is clearly and directly transmitted to these projects. In Milan, a dismissed school became a neighborhood centre full of people. In Rome, it has been given to some young inmate mothers the opportunity to spend time with their children inside the Rebibbia Prison. They can do it in a small new house inside the institute’s boundary, and to build it, the architects involved other inmates and several economic partners, making this project replicable for other locations and situations.
Maybe, the ambition related to this last proposal changed the way G124 projects were originally conceived, so much so, that three very important interventions have just been completed in Modena, Padua, and Palermo. These represent the chance to modify unused public areas through an extensive use of greenery and trees. It is a step towards a sustainable design transformation of suburbs, and they are unique, as they directly express the will of making hinterlands a better place. According to Piano’s motto: “these projects might be small in size, but they are big in ambition.”
JI: How do you think the worldwide pandemic impacted the design and architecture industry, and what have the past months taught you?
LP: The pandemic affected the work of our working group during 2020. We, as the University of Bologna, together with the Universities of Padua and Palermo, started working on the projects in February 2020 under the expert guidance of Agnoletto and Piano themselves. The work immediately encountered great difficulties, as our projects required public interventions and their active participation. This made the early design stages difficult and, like everyone else, we had to figure out other methods of confrontation based on technology. This gave us the opportunity to reflect on how much our work is linked to a component of listening, meeting and discussion, that cannot be completely replaced by technology.
The great project of our country are the suburbs: the city that will be, the city that we will leave to our children. – Renzo Piano
The pandemic has also given us a way to pause and think about the primal needs of the suburbs. The tragedy brought forth by the Covid-19 pandemic has, as often happens with disasters or major upheavals, accelerated destructive phenomena already present, suddenly revealing the potential fragility of our systems.
With lockdowns and reduced movement, it was possible to see that the areas of the cities that suffered the most from confinement were precisely the peripheral neighbourhoods, places where inequality is more evident, not only socially but spatially. This goes on to demonstrate once again how suburbs need “proximity public spaces” in which establishing a pole, that is not closed in itself, is an alternative to the congested city-centre, where its inhabitants are able to recognise themselves and their quality of living.
Furthermore, a need has emerged, to rediscover the value of the “local dimension”, to create proximity services for the community and therefore the need to intervene in the public space in a different and more profitable way, based on a human-scale. These reflections have led us to believe that the six points of the mending, mentioned before, are still valid today, as an essential guide and objective to pursue and create with, to stimulate the local economy through design.