Academic journal article Change Over Time

Historic Cities and Their Survival in a Globalized World

Academic journal article Change Over Time

Historic Cities and Their Survival in a Globalized World

Article excerpt

An Interview with Francesco Siravo

by COT Editor in Chief Frank Matero

In September 2009 you delivered one of the keynote addresses to the Tenth World Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities in Quito, Ecuador, a group dedicated to defining strategies for the identification and preservation of the world's historic cities. Let me begin by asking you to define the historic city and why it is important to us today?

Strictly speaking, the concept of historic city or "center" is a fairly recent construct. It never existed in the past. And this for the simple reason that there were no peripheral areas recognizable as separate parts of the city. The city was the city and that was the end of it. Often surrounded by high walls, it represented the limit of urban living, as opposed to life in the countryside. The existence of a separate historic center begins to be perceived only after the Industrial Revolution, when demographics explode, productive functions diversify and eventually new transportation systems come into the picture. More and more countryside is absorbed by the expanding periphery and the center grows smaller and smaller. The result is the disappearance of the long-established synergy between city and countryside. And the "city" of our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and forefathers of many generations, ceases to exist, replaced by the shapeless metropolis and sprawl of modern times.

The paradox in all of this is that, while we proclaim the obsolescence of the past and the need for change, we continue to recognize the ever- shrinking and increasingly besieged old centers as the only truly presentable parts of our cities. They are the only places fit to represent our culture, our identity, and collective memory. And no wonder: who wants to identify with the desolate peripheries and call them "my city"? For most urban dwellers, home is the amorphous and run-down periphery of our metropolises. Peripheries that look alike: ugly, marginal, profoundly undemocratic, and devoid of significance and mem- ory. And without memory we are lost, as anybody who has a relative affected by dementia knows.

Without memory, and the sense of identity that comes with it, we spiral into violence, as recent riots in the French banlieues have shown. And without memory there is no art, as the ancients knew all too well when they made Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, the mother of all the arts. Indeed memory lies at the core of the urban construct, undoubt- edly the most complex human artifact, produced by the cumulative efforts of countless individuals across many generations. A "total mnemonic symbol" made up of monuments and memorials, public buildings and communal spaces, but also of immaterial events and rituals, such as processions, festivals and sacrifices, in which our ancestors identified themselves with their town, "with its past and its founders." An underlying mnemonic thread that, judging by the many parallels and recurring patterns, seems to link all preindustrial cultures and societies, and that exists at the very center of the universal urban experience.

Zaira, the imaginary city of memory described by Italo Calvino, can be seen as the universal paradigm of what we recognize as historic cities. Cities that show in their fabric the endearing signs of the wear and tear that comes with the passage of time. But mostly cities in which we recognize a sustained will to preserve across time and generations the memory of the past. This underlying will to build for continuity and in continuity is what distinguishes the cities of the past from their pale contemporary counterparts.

It is sufficient to look at the row of extraordinary private houses in Genoa's Strada Nuova. So powerful is the want for beauty and continuity that the entire street was conceived as a state initiative in 1550 to house the merchant aristocracy of the city. Intended as a civic monument and supervised by the city's administration continuously over a period of 166 years. …

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