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FALL 2004

What New Towns Learn from Old Towns

By far the most important aspect of Italian cities and towns is the prevalence of contained gathering spaces called piazze. Often consisting of a complex matrix of public, private, sacred and secular buildings and functions, the piazza is the most cogent expression of the outdoor urban room. In most Italian cities and towns, the piazza remains the single most important public gathering space -- affirming the local identity of the community and commemorating its cultural memory through monuments and other symbolic structures. While many piazze are grand and monumental, most are built at a scale responsive to their immediate context, that is to say they are in harmony with the buildings and blocks that surround them. In fact, most Italian piazze are no larger than your average suburban neighborhood intersection. It is one of the great ironies of American urbanism that we have a great number of conventional crossroads but very few urban rooms that achieve the spatial distinction and cultural significance of the Italian piazza.

The idea of the urban room, however, extends beyond the public gathering space and includes variations on the piazza, such as the piazzetta (small piazza), piazzale (large piazza), largo (widening of a road) and campo (reclaimed open field). These spaces are often linked by an intricate network of streets and pedestrian ways creating an extraordinary sequence of urban rooms. Moreover, when one considers the regional differences throughout Italy, and the availability of local materials and methods of construction, the matrix of piazze becomes infinitely variable.

In addition to the piazza and its variants, semi-public spaces such as the atrium or cloister mediate between the urban fabric and the building interior. In America, atriums are the vestibules of public and commercial office buildings, but seldom are they considered outdoor rooms. In Italy, however, the atrium is a fully contained space that precedes a church or monastic complex. Its nature is semi-public as it is a place of both gathering and transition. Atriums can also serve secular purposes as can be seen in the case of the American Academy in Rome. Cloisters are also considered semi-public outdoor rooms although they are typically found within blocks and buildings and not always linked directly with the public spaces preceding them. Often cloisters contain commemorative monuments, as in the case of what is perhaps the most well-known example in Rome, S. Pietro in Montorio, whose Tempietto marks the presumed site of the martyrdom of St. Peter.

The famous Italian humanist and architect, Leon Battista Alberti, wrote that a city is like a large house and, conversely, a house is like a small city, implying that the various parts of a building could be considered miniature urban components. If one takes the analogy further, it can be said that piazze, atriums and cloisters are not only linked reciprocally, but also serve as the symbolic core -- the heart and soul -- of the greatest Italian cities and towns.

Undoubtedly, the urban rooms of Italy could very well be the most important examples available today to help raise the standard of new urbanism.

The North American equivalent to a piazza -- the green or square -- is derived mainly from northern European examples and is never surrounded by buildings to the degree of a typical Italian piazza. Similarly, the American plaza is inherited from Spanish models. However, these plazas are not enclosed like those of Central or South America and are often no different from squares or greens. In fact, the distinction tends to be nominal rather than physical. The Charter of the New Urbanism notes:

... "squares should be safe, comfortable and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities ... public gathering places require important sites to reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy. They deserve distinctive form, because their role is different from that of other buildings and places that constitute the fabric of the city."

The Lexicon of the New Urbanism is similarly vague, specifying that greens, squares and plazas should all be "circumscribed spatially by building facades (or frontages)," and that their primary differences are in subtle distinctions of use and materials (grass, paving etc.). Only the campus quadrangle is "entirely surrounded by multiple buildings," in the manner of Italian piazze.