mercoledì 16 aprile 2014

Interview with Professor Camilla Perrone: a brilliant urban planner at the University of Florence

Prof. Camilla Perrone
interview by Fabrizio Ulivieri
English version by Monika Mikucionyte

Professor Perrone, in comparison with the way of thinking of so many Italians, you criticize an international image in approaching technical issues in the field of architecture. How was this international disposition of yours born?

The discussion and the exchange of knowledge have always been one of my priorities.
I believe that the matter of spreading knowledge should go back to being a central theme in academic training, at second and third cycle, of architecture and urban studies in general.

Internationalization is an issue that is often overlooked or interpreted in terms of the mobility of teachers and students. Naturally, I think that to ensure this type of exchange is a priority for any university. International agreements, Erasmus, Teaching mobility programs, etc... are an objective to be pursued and a sector that academic governance must support and implement. However, I believe that internationalization should be expressed and pursued through effective exchanges of knowledge through the sharing and diffusion of cultures and disciplinary traditions in a balance that does not crush the entire training towards main stream cultural models.

For several years I have tried to contribute to the achievement of this goal in many ways, personally building opportunities for a cross-cultural, dynamic and open interdisciplinary confrontation, and providing practical learning opportunities to doctoral students from other countries that. I am sure, that this will enrich our educational training and research.

Following this international vision of yours, how are you structuring the Department of Architecture?

On the technical/organizational side, I agreed to carry out the task of delegate LLP Erasmus for the School of Architecture, working on the construction of agreements with European universities (in order to facilitate the mobility of students) and tracking funds for the integration of scholarships, often unfortunately too scarce.

At scientific level, I structured a strong partnership with the Aesop (Association of European Schools of Planning) that allows our students (of the second and third cycle, students of master and PHD) to confront with an international context, both in terms of the topics of the mode of communication and exchange of knowledge.

I am a representative for the National Association and last July I won an international award by this association - Aesop Excellence in Teaching Award, for a PhD course organized on a national scale, in a manner and on issues considered to be of international interest.

I also carried out periods of training and teaching at foreign universities, including York University in Toronto and the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, where I have built international relations for research and training.

My commitment will be oriented towards the future construction of curricula in collaboration with other emerging universities, in a worldly perspective.

How much more of an international strategy would the Italian university need? 

I believe that this moment of global crisis has exacerbated some very difficult situations in the academic machine of Italian universities.

Like any important activity, even internationalization has always needed, and at the same time has always felt the lack of, governmental investments.

There are many programs that can be undertaken, particularly at European level, but as always, they alone are not sufficient for the construction of a structured program of internationalization that is able to offer opportunities and contexts for competitive researches and studies. At least in the field of urban studies, there are very few programs of such excellence.

Some of the Italian research centers and polytechnics have certainly made progress.

I would say that over time, despite the current global push towards flows and exchanges of all kinds, the academic world is paradoxically less internationalized than 40 years ago.

The students have few opportunities, know few languages. Today you can also find some teachers who have hardly participated in any international conference, and that it is difficult to compare with scientific contexts in large diversified. There are too many localisms in the academic world, scientific and educational localism paradoxically emerge with more force this season than in the previous academic years.

I do not think it is possible to overcome this crisis that we are going through now, even epistemological, without imagining a different organization of the training and selection of teachers, based also on their ability to intercept cultural domains external to their own context.

Florence and globalization. Florence represents the global idea of Renaissance and probably it has been persisted without evolving for too long throughout the centuries. How to revive Florence back to a level of a global, international and a competitive city again, at least from the modern urban planning point of view, today?

Florence is a city full of contradictions. Its story proves it: open and vibrant throughout alternate of times in the history of the world.

Narrow minded and reactionary, unable to grasp the value of personality in scientific and academic majors, to such point of forcing outstanding personalities to leave this town (I am thinking of some of the teachers of our faculty, such as professor Benevolo). But at the same time an extraordinary city in terms of teaching a new cultural and artistic sensibility to the world, needed to Italian culture itself.

Today it's an artistic, urban and territorial heritage representing a challenge for every architect and scholar of urban planning in the world. How to preserve it and what to do in order to renew it? 

Difficult to answer. We might say that Florence certainly represents a challenge as well as a historical heritage to protect and preserve, a challenge that is common to the entire world, and for this very reason forces/impels everyone to hand regeneration and renewal on future generations.

Florence is a city of the past, a capital of civic sense and urbanity recognized throughout the world. Nothing would make sense without imagining this town as a city addressed to the future.

It is an international city by excellence in terms of attractiveness and as a museum of the world; on the other hand, it is one of the most conservative and narrow minded cities I have ever lived in or have known from willingness to parallel and debate in academic world point of view.

My opinion is that a comparative approach in developing program of studies, training and research is mandatory (and urgent).

The skyline of Florence, that we all know, is a source of inspiration and beauty. People who come to Florence breathe beauty, are inspired by beauty. How would you summarize the themes, capacities and shapes that are the ground of this beauty? The architectural principles that have inspired the buildings of Florence that we all know?

Perhaps we could define Florence as a work of art made with commitment, sometimes boldness of challenging patrons and artists, and especially with collective intelligence capable of transforming the space into places meant to last and form the cultural and urban heritage which we all enjoy today.

It is intertwined in a melting pot of surprises embedded into one another according to rules either designed or self-determined to represent examples of social, civil, religious, private: expressions of civil power and religious power. However, Florence was also a city of hospitality, in the network of its monasteries (e.g. the dissemination of churches and convents in the Oltrarno that have historically hosted young women rejected by society, the poor, the homeless, travelers and recently many immigrants and refugees), and care facilities (in this case think of the hospital of the Innocents). And nevertheless, it was the mirror of the alternation of cultures and artistic codes .

The architectural principles that all of us are now able to recognize as the great lesson of the Renaissance would not be enough to explain the "beauty" of Florence. Great social mobilizations and public made Florence as it is. Think of the great collective effort in the reconstruction of Florence and its rebirth after the 1966 flood.

Florence lacks green areas, how can you fix this?

In fact, Florence does not lack green areas. There are many of those, even in the center. They are really nice, interesting, and often are the completion of the buildings that make up the foundation of the historic center. But they are locked up in the courts of the palaces and convents. They are private and hidden properties that can only be enjoyed from the above.

In my opinion Florence is a city that should learn to open up, to indulge itself, to navigate throughout its thickness.

Also, just imagine a system with free and intersecting all the private gardens of the great palaces of the center, presenting the city as very livable, urban, regular but at the same time international. Florence would once again be a city for its inhabitants and not just for tourists. Florence, at least the Florence recognized as a cultural heritage, refuses to recognize the right of people to their city and more often treats itself as the global tourism market.

Florence is a city overwhelmed with tourists. How should the developer take this matter into account in order to design any urban intervention within this city?

Definitely a different management of public spaces, a different design of its streets and the construction of new networks of the tramway would free the center from the bondage of buses and cars to give new regenerated space for its inhabitants.

What does it mean to innovate and create in architecture today?

I would not speak only of architecture. The city is a complex system in which dynamics and different needs are intertwined. I guess that a correct answers is that architecture should perhaps seize to create spaces that can intercept the needs and requirements of the variety of lifestyles and cultures that today are intermingled within the city. This can potentially be used by multiple recipients. DiverCity is the play of words that I love to use in order to define an imaginary horizon towards which all efforts, joint ventures, architecture, urban design and regional designs are united to.

Rethinking the steps of the architecture is a priority of this historic moment, "today we need an "enabling architecture," an architecture that is able to provide opportunities, the widest possible range of opportunities for its users.

Perhaps it won’t be a creative sign of a Master, the innovative response that we would expect, but quite a productive insight of a community, that will show the direction for a different architecture. The creativity and innovation in architecture today are perhaps not only, or are no longer, found solely in the artistic genius of one man (a Master), but in the generating capacity of those who build and produce their own living space.

Is the Urban Planning Department of the Faculty of Architecture of Florence planning national and international events?

Actually there are many international activities undertaken by the department of architecture and many countries around the world are involved. They include cultural agreements, students mobility programs, conferences and seminars, coordinate tutoring of doctoral theses, etc...

I point out particularly an initiative organized within a ministerial project called Prin, that I am co-coordinating with other colleagues, and which deals with the new challenges of contemporary cities (defined as post-metropolitan territories). It is an international conference (to be held on March 14 in Via Micheli 2), in which we will evaluate possible strategies to undertake in order to make cities sustainable, livable (and maybe even more beautiful), with experts in dynamics of urbanization and suburbanization and the world in general.

A word of advice to the young ones who are about to become architects.

I suggest to imagine architecture as the result of an interactive process that includes many stakeholders, values, cultures and different histories, and to keep in mind how reflective professionals may be able to grasp ideas and creativity into the dynamics of co-production of the act of creating living spaces under the stimulus of a variety of contemporary inhabitants.

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