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Trains, planes and Lord Rogers

Once economically and culturally the most powerful city in the world (where banking was invented), Florence is now largely dependent on forms of tourism sustaining a shopkeeper economy. For generations the city's architects and planners have been struggling to get out of this cul-de-sac by inventing new urban visions. Originally it was the Futurists who invented modernity out of a sense of disgust with the ever-present history that surrounds you wherever you go in Italy. In the 1960s the legendary 'Radical Architecture' groups - Superstudio or Archizoom - exploited Florence's peripheral situation to dream up fantastic imaginary cities, and established a habit of thinking on the large scale about infrastructure and masterplanning. Only a country with this background - now fifth richest in the world - could be so audacious about projecting her future. Forget spaghetti and mandolins; today Italy is a world leader.

Italian State Railways has invested billions in a nationwide network of tilting trains designed by Giugiaro and built by Fiat. These beautiful machines glide up and down the peninsula, partly on existing track, and partly on a new elevated railway that shoots confidently across the winegrowing Umbrian valleys with truly modern verve and elegance. It is now faster to travel by train between Rome and Milan than by air, but new problems have arisen. The power absorbed by the new trains overheats the overhead catenaries and tears them down.

Every time one passes through Santa Maria Novella railway station, the 1935 masterpiece by Michelucci et al, it is like re-entering the heroic period of Rationalism at its highest point of achievement, a dramatic environment in which light, space and structure are handled in ways to which we still aspire today.

Santa Maria Novella is a head station: the train arrives in one direction and leaves in the other with a traction unit at each end. The time required to reverse is minimal, but the planners still believe it is necessary to build a whole new station underneath so that trains can run through without reversing, saving a negligible few minutes. On this basis, a project has been drawn up by the famous historian and (somewhat less famous) architect Bruno Zevi, leading a local team. He has designed an enormous underground cavern that will cost unthinkable amounts of money to build, and will surely have far too few passenger movements that would justify the outlay. To make it economically more viable, Zevi has therefore grabbed some other important city functions, such as the Exhibition Centre, and relocated them in the new station complex - ending up redesigning the whole city.

Out on the western edge of Florence near the airport is the Fondiaria site, a huge tract of unused terrain for which many architects have made proposals (including your correspondent, with James Stirling, 20 years ago). The terrain has remained undeveloped, and now it's Richard Rogers' turn.

The airport was supposed to be relocated elsewhere, but as one plan after another failed to be implemented it has developed by default. After only ten years of operation it is now the third busiest in Italy, with two passenger terminals, maintenance facilities, and the main runway extended twice already. Its further success will require a serviced hinterland for courier services, high-tech industry, import/export companies, and so on. Yet with quite remarkable stubbornness the city planners want a park - miles from any residential area. Over the years, the site has been encroached on by high-tension pylons, a half-finished orbital motorway, methane pumping stations etc, as well as a funky African nightspot, the Sahara Desert, run by my friend Andy Ndukuba. As published in the local paper, the Rogers plan appears radical all right: the half-built motorway seems to have disappeared and a number of other fairly formidable bits of infrastructure deleted; but a Carabinieri training centre designed by someone else still eats up half the available land.

The odds are the Rogers plan, like those before it, will never be implemented and the airport will continue to grow by default. Andy is concerned about what may happen to the Sahara Desert. I advise him not to worry.

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