Horizontal Metropolis, the prodigal territories

28.06.2018 | Elodie Degavre Interview
Boston, Megapolis in de Verenigde Staten: "The metamorphosis of the middle ground".

Boston, Megapolis aux Etats-Unis: “The metamorphosis of the middle ground”. © Gsd Option Studio “Territorialism”, fall 2013, visiting professor Paola Vganò with Chiara Cavalieri


Elodie Degavre : Paola Viganò, you took an interest early on in territories that were neglected by the professionals of space. In order to better understand your approach, we need to take a step back. You are an architect-urbanist. What lies behind the association of these two words?

Paola Viganò: There is a tradition – in my opinion, an Italian tradition, but probably broader than that – of continuity between architecture and urbanism. In the Italian architectural and urbanistic culture, the architect has also always been an urbanist. Giuseppe Samonà was among the first to theorize the unity that exists between architect and urbanist, a unity that does not necessarily mean that they are identical or that they use the same tools. In the first place, it is a matter of working on different scales. All the great Italian architects were capable of reflecting on a large scale: just think of Vittorio Gregotti, who worked on ‘the territotial form’, or of Aldo Rossi, who wrote a lot on the subject of urban construction. For someone coming from architecture and who is therefore curious about space and its different scales, the best point of departure to tackle urbanism is the space itself, with its tangible objects that are the deposit of practices and imaginations, and not the mechanisms and rules of a ‘discipline’ or existing procedures. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to say that one evolves from architect to urbanist and that urbanism is the slow elaboration of an understanding of space, not a hat that we can put on directly. The project belongs neither to one field nor to the other. When we start introducing this type of distinction, we move towards highly specialized worlds. In the West, starting from the 1970s, teaching and research were structured by separating the two disciplines: founded on the fragmentation of knowledge, this idea is archaic, and I see around me a lot of signs that indicate that today, architecture and urbanism are forging ties again.

And yet urban planning still comes across as highly specialized, and not very close to “architects”?

Oh yes, I know … For my colleagues who call themselves planners, the urbanist is a rather peculiar character. They have a lot of certainties as to what the discipline should be. Moreover, a whole series of professionals who take care of the city and of the territory keep a low profile on the question of the transformation of these territories. Yet territorial transformation is inevitable, and we cannot limit ourselves to simply being commentators! This raises the question of the role of the project, which was long a source of anxiety. In the 1970s, the planner, or the researcher in social and urban sciences, was afraid of the project because it was the expression of an authority. The project was the serf of capitalism, deprived of any critical capacity. Drawing was therefore to be avoided at all costs. This negative vision of the project was extremely powerful. Today I believe that we have recovered a certain confidence in the project, not because the project has demonstrated an capacity to solve all problems, but because we don’t have many other alternatives, do we? It has been demonstrated that other instruments – the political ones, for example – which we thought were powerful, but not very concrete in terms of spatial transformation, failed. So perhaps the good old ‘project’, an instrument that takes charge of the transformation, the improvement of physical space conditions, etc., today proves to be more efficient than others. Especially when it’s a project that proposes a reflection, qui explore le future : this is more convincing today than 20 years ago. 

© Delphine Mathy

Horizontal Metropolis: a radical project, BOZAR, Brussels. © Delphine Mathy

This interest in the reflexive power of the project led you to put forward, first at the Venice Biennale in 2016 and now in Brussels, the ‘horizontal metropolis’, a vision that opposes the habitual valorization of the compact city. It ties up with a number of studies and prospective visions that for several years have been looking into sprawling, undefined, suburban, even rural territories. When did these concerns come to the surface?

A long time ago! It is in the late nineteenth century that we started to look more closely at this new object that was starting to develop. Since then we haven’t stopped trying, especially since the 1960s, to interpret, to define, to say: look, there is a city that is different from the traditional city and it questions its categorization. And we would give it a name. In Italy we talked of the ‘city-territory’, and of the ‘sprawling city’ in the Veneto, combining two terms that form an oxymoron. We demonstrated that services, infrastructures, production were there, in that sprawling yet urban and metropolitan space. It therefore had all the characteristics of urbanity, but a different form. With Marcel Smets in Belgium we talked of la banlieue radieuse (the radiant suburbs), a political project that situated the radiant future not in the traditional cities, but elsewhere. We talked of Zwischenstadt for the space between the towns, as Thomas Sieverts did. Each definition was born in a specific context, and is not something abstract that was applied to a place.


From left to right: Valais, Switzerland : ‘Rethinking the Alpine city-territory’, Hangzhou, China: ‘A City in the fields: reinterpreting Chinese Desakota en Lausanne, Switzeland : ‘reframing the periphery’. © Gsd Option Studio “Territorialism”, fall 2013, visiting professor Paola Vganò with Chiara Cavalieri

You identify Belgium as a territory of dispersal, propitious to some of these definitions. What is Belgian dispersal made of?

Belgium and Italy may have played a particular role in the establishment of these definitions. In France people we were a lot slower, in the sense that we didn’t want to admit that it was a phenomenon worthy of interest. We were told, ‘That’s a purely Italian question’. Later we understood of course that it was much broader phenomenon. Belgian dispersal is a long-term dispersal, like the Italian one. These are countries with a very high density: Belgium because it is small and without any important relief, Italy because it comprises a lot of mountains. The available territories are substantially reduced. And they have been worked to the utmost over the course of the centuries to be made inhabitable. The importance of infrastructure on a local scale is something these territories share, territories in which, as in Belgium, we have the impression that there is not a single centimetre that has not been drawn, transformed, made inhabitable, made useful.

How does the ‘horizontal metropolis’ use these particularities? Why is it pertinent to use the word ‘metropolis’ today?

The word is not new. The metropolis became an essential concern from the late nineteenth century onwards already. The metropolis was where wealth, power and opportunities were concentrated. It was also a social lever. From another point of view, the metropolis consumed the resources supplied by the surrounding territories, and concentrated the wealth and the culture at their expense. That was the metropolis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today we must ask ourselves, ‘What type of metropolis do we want?’ That is when the hypothesis of a ‘horizontal metropolis’ comes to the surface, as opposed to a metropolis that expresses a hierarchical verticality in its spatial, social and political organization. The ‘horizontal metropolis’, by contrast, lets the benefits of metropolization – an ongoing process in many contexts – filter through to all its parts. It does not accept that there are centres and peripheries, margins. Its isotropic character is important. It rests on the spatial capital that is already there, and on the possibility of reusing it, of integrating it in a vision capable of inducing the transition towards sustainable spaces. By estimating that from the point of view of the economy, of cultural production, of lifestyles, what happens there is as important as what happens in the compact, well-served, museum-rich city … Because in the sprawling city too there are museums, film-makers, photographers, and there is literature. It has generated its own aesthetic, which is now recognized. I can no longer accept the idea of a metropolis that is a mechanism of exclusion.

Going against the economic and political efforts of the day, you believe that the future, in terms of sustainability, lies not in the compact city, the fruit of ‘vertical’ metropolization, but in the horizontal metropolis.

Some people say that the sprawling territories were poorly conceived and designed and that they can never be the start of a sustainable city. But these territories are home to infrastructures connected to the construction of a productive landscape, that could be the base for an ecological transition! If, following an absurd scenario, we sacrificed the work of centuriation carried out by the Romans in the swamps of the plain of Veneto, we would renounce their habitability definitively. Yet today we would not have the means, the resources, the thousands of workers necessary to build all that. If we think of Belgium as a horizontal metropolis, we can see that there are territories that are far more marginal than others. Nevertheless, they are well infrastructured, well equipped, with a dense cultural and environmental history. That spatial, environmental and human capital is somewhat latent and should be stimulated by working on the qualities of their space, on the diversity they bring, on their connections to the other, stronger territories of the metropolis. We must think about the distribution of infrastructures, of services. The ‘horizontal metropolis’ comes back on decentralization, on the problems of excessive concentration, on the horizontality and complementarity of relations. For me, sustainability means taking advantage of what is already there, of the vast territorial rationalities linked to water, to the soil and agriculture. It means making the most of the existing cities in their varied forms of habitat, also the dense ones. This town which no longer has an exterior is the space in which to solve today’s problems, in which best to adapt to climate change, recover biodiversity, have an interesting living environment, rethink the forms and spaces of work. Mainstream thought, which claims that the sole future of cities is to make even denser the already dense parts, is of no interest. Today strategies of densification are all going in the same direction: fill in the holes! This means that we haven’t understood that these holes play a very important role, from an ecosystemic point of vue for example We are starting to realize this, for instance in the north of Milan, where there is a very high level of density and sprawl. Free spaces have now become quite rare. It only takes a little rain to understand that it may be a good idea not to densify these remaining empty spaces. If we take a broader perspective, thinking about the ‘horizontal metropolis’ means rethinking the power relations, looking at the urban territory that we have built, and considering, on that basis, the issues that we have to deal with.

Van links naar rechts: Brussel-West, Gent,  Oost-Vlaams  kerngebied, Sambervallei.

Van links naar rechts: Brussel-West, Gent, Oost-Vlaams kerngebied, Sambervallei.

For the exhibition in Brussels, you applied this territorial reading to Belgium. Three new case studies – tied to Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels – will be looked into during a summer school, under your direction, and will gradually be added to five case studies already dealt with in Switzerland, Italy, the US and China. What territories did you choose and why?

The first case we propose is the Val de Sambre, a valley that has been left with hundreds of hectares of polluted wasteland. For a few decades of wealth production prior to the 1960s, several centuries will be necessary to restore the territory from the point of view of the ecosystems. Although we cannot depollute it immediately we can produce riches in it through recycling and through the experimental production of plantations that contain molecules useful to the pharmaceutical industry – a project led by Gembloux Agro-Bio-Tech – able to generate useful incomes that will make it possible to depollute it afterwards. It is a space in the margins, where the Belgian national railway is closing stations, where there is poverty, with a population that has suffered a lot these past few years. For the latter, the ‘horizontal metropolis’ is a vision that emerges from the great figure of the ‘industrial furrow’ and connects it to the rest of the territory.

We also deal with Brussels, a territory in which the notion of horizontal metropolis emerged during our ‘Brussels 2040’ study, because Brussels already seemed to us to be close to a horizontal metropolis, like the big cities that so far have not been very attractive. But if Brussels continues to become more attractive, more geared towards certain populations, it will be a lot less horizontal. It is time to raise once more the question of its horizontality, which we had interpreted as a quality, this time on the basis of the great figure of the gardens of the West.

And the third territory is that of Ghent, which is in full growth, much more than the Val de Sambre, but only seemingly. In those territories where agriculture is intensive, industrial, the soils have been exhausted. The population of the sprawling city is getting older and so is the spatial capital: the houses, the gardens, the roadways … We have to return there with a future. These three cases, quite different from one another, are going to be interesting because they really are the kind of territories in which the questions revealed by the horizontal metropolis can be raised, and because they can support spatial projects that depart from received ideas and take on different dimensions.

Bruxelles 2040: la Métropole Horizontale : Grid; Valleys and RER; Urban figures, public space and RER © Studio 010-011 Bernardo Secchi, Paola Viganò with CREAT, Egis Mobilité, TU Munchen, and Ingenieurburo Hausladen GMBH, Karbon’, IDEA Consult.

Bruxelles 2040: la Métropole Horizontale : Grid; Valleys and RER; Urban figures, public space and RER © Studio 010-011 Bernardo Secchi, Paola Viganò with CREAT, Egis Mobilité, TU Munchen, and Ingenieurburo Hausladen GMBH, Karbon’, IDEA Consult.

This reflection lies in the continuity of a methodology that you established over the long term in your practice and that rests on the description of the territories. You talk about it in The Territories of Urbanism, where you explain the similarities and ambiguities that exist between describing and projecting. Is an ability to observe and to describe the main quality of architects-urbanists?

We are not the only observers in the world: sociologists, ethnographers, etc. would not agree that architects and urbanists have a monopoly on description. But that our perspective is absolutely specific is a certainty. I believe that we have techniques and capacities to explore space that are interesting and original with regard to other disciplines. The difficulty that other disciplinary fields have in representing space is significant, and we are in a sense privileged. Many researchers in the field of geography or sociology are concerned and talk about space. But few are capable of rendering it visible and legible. Our perspective, as architect and urbanist, is legitimate if it elaborates the description on the basis of the physical properties of the space, things we can really touch, which we can experience through our senses, as mentioned earlier. Then we must go beyond this point of departure, to arrive at other layers that are not immediately visible to us. Our specificity is therefore an ability to read the materiality and the way in which it is constituted as an inhabited and practised space. Behind this materiality, we are able to read the techniques that produced it, the evolution of these techniques, we can question its infra-structuration, its relation to natural forms. Our gaze can linger on the materials that are there, on what I call the ‘stock’, a notion which I find fundamental. In the face of the current emphasis on flows and on the urban metabolism, we tend to forget and to marginalize the stock, or spatial capital, which is crossed by these flows of people, energy and matter. Our specific perspective must enable us to remain attentive to it.

How does description function and how can it connect to the project methodology of urbanists and architects?

Description is a theme that continues to fascinate, mainly because it is inexhaustible: we can spend an entire lifetime describing. Its process no longer needs to be defended and is well known. Description begins with a selection: when I describe, I say that some things are more visible, others less so. So I am already busy constructing a structure on which the project can take root and which renders the project visible and comprehensible. The particularity of description is that it sets its own rules, invents its own methods, its techniques, its representations … Description is sometimes looked down on, and it is insinuated that it is the lowest degree of conceptualization: I believe that quite the opposite is true. The description of a territory is a powerful act of the imagination. It is an act that structures the thought that underlies a project and gives it a direction. During the description, thoughts take shape and touch one another, lead to ideas, and so we find ourselves in the heart of the project. We can therefore say, on the one hand, that the description can become the project, and that link between describing and projecting has already been explored many times. But on the other hand I would like to insist on another possible relation between description and project. It is a question of taking an interest, not in the description that would already contain elements of the project, but in the project as a tool of description, and that is what I tried to explain in The Territories of Urbanism.

You therefore propose to go beyond this assertion that you mention as commonly accepted: ‘to describe is already to make a project’, to define the project itself as a description of the territory.

Let’s approach this view of things by imagining a line drawn on a territory. This line encounters a series of accidents. Each time I insist on this line, the territory tells me a story. This is only the case if I look carefully at what I am doing, of course, if I know that I am founding myself on a topography, a type of soil, a place that is more or less inhabited. I could just as well draw a line without being aware of it, as if there were just a white page there, like the tabula rasa of modern urbanism. But if I do so with a certain self-awareness, I will understand that the project, which emerges from the territory, is a type of description. To understand a territory, I could look at a description of that territory, but I could also look at certain projects that have been capable of describing it. Because when we conceive a project, we are always in the process of describing. A project that reads almost nothing, that manages to describe nothing, will probably give us the impression that the territory where it finds itself is identical to any other. Yet the project must be an instrument capable of revealing differences rather than levelling them. Becoming aware of this would make it possible to conceive projects that are a lot less trivialized, a lot less generic and far more subtle. Projects that are far more capable of revealing diversity.

The exhibition Horizontal Metropolis is currently taking place in BOZAR until August 26 2018.  


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