In the 1970s, Bologna was the embodiment of Italian Communist-run local government, championing an anti-development stance that preserved its historic built environment. Owen Hatherley evaluates how well the city is faring 40 years on
The use of Italy as exemplar has a long history in British architecture: Inigo Jones’ importation of piazzas and colonnades; Ruskin’s elaborate and devout Venice; the post-war use of ‘Italian hill towns’ as models for the West Riding of Yorkshire; and most recently Richard Rogers and the Urban Task Forces of the New Labour era, for whom every depressed post-industrial town was a potential Siena, given a square and a coffee bar or two.
One of the lesser-known moments in this passionate, if rather one-way affair came a few decades ago, when a minor stir was caused by an anthology about the policies of a medium-sized, Communist-ruled Italian city. The book, Red Bologna, was read by every London leftist, from Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside to Ken Livingstone, a young radical about to seize control of the London Labour Party. It was published in 1977. The same year, Bologna erupted with student protests so relentless that they were eventually suppressed by the army – the height of a short-lived movement called Autonomia.
There’s little obvious trace of this movement on the streets of Bologna in 2015, aside from some graffiti around the university and some good radical bookshops, but there’s subtle evidence of the Communist-governed city that so enthused Red Ken. Autonomia lives on in the writing careers of 70s Autonomists such as Antonio Negri, ‘Bifo’ Berardi and the Wu Ming collective, but we never got the chance to see what its architecture might have looked like – at least not until the inevitable Negri for Architects volume gets published. But then the Communist reign in the city – unbroken until the party dissolved itself in 1990, although its various fractious successors still hold power here – was, according to Red Bologna, less about what it did build, and more of what it didn’t. The book’s 1970s programme contains almost every current received idea, albeit in a somewhat more strident form. The ‘Urban Renaissance’ begins with Italian Communism in the 70s.
Bologna Council slapped a preservation order on everything within the historic city walls
That’s partly political happenstance. Italy’s ‘Red Quadrilateral’ – Tuscany, Umbria and Emilia-Romagna, where Communists dominated local politics from the war until the 90s – just happened to contain many of the country’s most famous, and most compact Medieval and Renaissance cities. Accordingly, they were already considered an urban model for the rest of the world even before late-20th-century municipal Communism got hold of them.
Bologna was an early advocate of total historical preservation. In the 1970s, like the radical architects of the GLC spot-listing everything in Covent Garden to stop development, Bologna Council slapped a preservation order on everything within the historic city walls, giving it the biggest single heritage site in Italy, which is no mean feat. Conservation extended to preserving as much of the communities that lived in the old town as possible.
‘Buildings must be preserved in their original form, with their original tenants, and at the original rent,’ asserts one of the contributors to Red Bologna. ‘In Bologna, pensioners and workers – and not architects, artists and intellectuals – live in carefully restored old town flats’. Public housing was kept at 10 per cent of market rents. Property speculation was banned in the city as far as was legally possible. The city’s planner, Pier Luigi Cervellati, described these policies as a response to ‘the catastrophic results of growth-oriented planning’, exemplified by that New Left fixation, the ‘mistakes of the 60s’.
Surprisingly, perhaps, given that the city was ruled by an avowedly Leninist party, local democracy was considered key to the project. Neighbourhood assemblies were not just consulted, their decisions were legally binding – ‘without their approval, no street or school is built, no bus-line extended, no shop opened, no nursery set up and no house demolished.’
Meanwhile, the ‘compactness’ and manageability of Bologna was hugely important for its success. Free from the massive urbanisation of Milan in the north or Naples in the south, Bologna’s (and Emilia-Romagna’s) economy was – and to an extent, still is – based on small firms, co-ops and cottage industries, rather than mass production. So here we have, in the mid-1970s, such recent fixations as the ‘compact city’, walkable and coherent, the historic city, where all new developments must respect context, a co-operative, diversified economy, organic farming and neighbourhood committees. So how is this apparent model city – described by Newsweek in 1974 as ‘the best governed state in Europe’ – faring 40 years later?
You wouldn’t notice anything particularly ‘Communist’, let alone modern or futuristic, about most of Bologna, and that was the point. Unlike, say, Milan, Rome, Turin or Venice, it did not have a distinctive school of 20th-century architecture, either before or after the war. What it does have is one of the most distinctive and unusual urban structures of any historic city, one that has been scrupulously maintained since the late Middle Ages. That is the system of porticoes, which extend below almost every building in the historic centre, providing informal social spaces and shelter from the (this July, at any rate) furnace-like heat. They’re in every style and idiom, from early Medieval columns in wood to elaborate Baroque arcades, to the simple arches of every side street in the city centre. Though they began as a way for landlords to annex public space by extending their buildings out into the street, the effect is the opposite, an extension rather than a limiting of the pedestrian’s experience. Then there’s the colour – Bologna was ‘red’ long before it became the showcase of Italian Communism. The wonky Medieval ‘two towers’, the town halls and palaces of Piazza Maggiore and Piazza Nettuno, the maze of streets around the university, all are red as in red brick, a hot, bright southern form of brick; Gothic, castellated, square and harsh. Subtler, lighter reds are used in the Baroque gateways preserved after the city walls were removed in the 19th century; occasionally a bit of ochre or mild yellow comes into the palette. But overall, Bologna is a strange example of colour determining politics.
As an urban experience it is rich and exciting; both open, in the sense that all the porticoes are kept free for public access, and enclosed, in that you can stride in and out of them, making getting from A to B unusually dramatic. In Piazza Maggiore, a large open-air cinema is showing an Orson Welles film every night, and you wonder what he’d have done with a city so full of spaces both strongly defined and decidedly shady. Reading Red Bologna, you might assume that all the city really needed (or intended) to do was preserve this remarkable urban structure and block any attempts by developers to mess it up. That’s accurate insofar as little has happened here since the 1970s. However, the book does allude to two post-war projects of which it is exceptionally critical; examples of the inhumane bombast of the 60s, to be replaced with the historic, contextual, consulted community of the 70s. Both of these districts are a great deal more interesting than they let on.
The first is the immediately post-war Marconi district, noted for its ‘unattractive facades, grim office buildings and barrack-like blocks of flats. This district is a blemish on the Centro Storico.’ It extends down Via Marconi, a north-south route on the west side of the historic centre, and it is the sort of architecture that is now achingly fashionable in the big European cities. Six to eight storey blocks of flats and offices are vigorously modelled with clear concrete frames and detailed brickwork, and with rectilinear concrete colonnades to the ground floors. A few old neon signs still cling on to the facades. A couple of buildings are pre-war, such as the Palazzo de Gas, with its concave facade and sculptural reliefs, evidence of how little difference there could be between Fascist and post-war-era architecture here – although if you see a relief of a heroic worker here, most likely it’s pre-Communist.
In both eras, local architects favoured a Classicised, precisely proportioned modern architecture, but it isn’t ‘contextual’ – too big, too square, too aesthetically distinct from the rest of the city, even while continuing its typologies rather closely. In fact, with their mix of uses and ‘active frontages’, the buildings of the Marconi district anticipate current design guide rules rather closely. If you look at later buildings, those of the 1970s and 1980s such as the infill around Bologna University, you realise what the difference was – these are small-scale, Neo-Medieval, with design gestures explicitly mimicking their neighbours. Architects had not been literal enough.
The other large-scale plan in post-war Bologna is much more easily described in Red Bologna as an ‘embarrassing testimony to the megalomania of the 60s’. Kenzo Tange was commissioned at the turn of the 70s to produce a plan for ‘Bologna 1984’. It was rejected, but not before the Japanese architect got to build a huge chunk of the Bologna of the future – the Fiera or fair district. It does have porticoes, but in every other respect breaks totally with all Bologna’s traditions. It’s Tange in his Brutalist, rather than Metabolist, mood – heavy, monumental, its towers displaying a raw physical heft like skyscraper-sized grain elevators, forming an asymmetric composition around a wide, raised public square.
You reach Fiera north of the city centre, along Stalingrad street, past the junction with Labour street, past normal Bologna housing (straightforward, brightly painted tenements, with the odd, usually well-designed, tower thrown in). A grand arch in attenuated Pseudomodern style is the gateway to the area, and then at the entrance there is, puzzlingly, a reconstruction of Le Corbusier’s 1925 Esprit Nouveau pavilion, built in 1977 while the barricades were being erected at the university and the students revolted against the ‘planner state’, now seemingly disused, a puzzling bauble.
Tange’s clustered skyline is much more impressive than either. It’s hard to imagine there was much neighbourhood planning here, but there’s still a mix of uses – aside from the trade fairs in the main building, the towers house municipal and regional offices, flats, and have cafés in their ground floors, rather than the pejorative post-war dead space. Either way, this is still Brutalism at its most hardcore, a fearsome instant city, thrilling in its sculptural drama and placid in its scale and emptiness.
Having had its experiments with Modernism, Brutalism, radical Communist traditionalism and Autonomist occupations of disused buildings, and with a recent history marked by partisan warfare and urban insurrection, it is impressive how calm and coherent Bologna feels – like a well-managed northern European city, only with richer architecture and the useful knowledge of when to let go (nothing in Bologna is over-restored, there’s still just enough graffiti and grime). The contemporary city is showcased in the small Urban Center Bologna, which takes up the top floor of a very pleasant, relatively new (opened in 2001) library and médiathèque in the Palazzo d’Accursio, flanked by the rum Mannerism of the Neptune fountain and the moving Partisan memorial, made up of hundreds of photographs of local resistance members.
Reached at the top level of an elegant, arcaded, open hall, it contains much the same thing you would find in any building centre in any European city, right down to the obligatory big model of the city, with flashing lights showing you the new things on the way. The future city, it tells us, will be green, resilient, will involve lots of new housing projects on former industrial land, and will be embarked upon with close consultation with local residents. None of it looks terribly exciting – it is sensible modern architecture in green squares. Soon there’ll be a metro, some towers surrounded by car parking, and some cubic blocks of flats suggesting Ludwig Hilberseimer is still a big influence in Italian architecture schools.
It may have been radical, all of this, in the 1970s, as an alternative to ‘comprehensive redevelopment’, boondoggles and slum clearance. It has been the norm for so long, that we ought to hope that the ‘laboratory of Italy’ has some surprises in store sometime soon. When the next change comes, though, the last city whose architecture it will affect is probably Bologna itself.
Date entered EU 1958
Population 61 million
(UK: 64.1 million)
GDP $2.149 trillion
(UK: $2.678 trillion)
National debt (percentage of GDP) 133%
Unemployment rate 12.4%
Life expectancy 82.9 years
(UK: 81.5 years)
Political leader Italy: Matteo Renzi (Democratic Party)
Mayor Virginio Merola (Democratic Party)
Density: people per km2