What American Cities Can Learn From Italian Piazzas

Looking down on the Piazza Del Campo from the Torre del Mangia

Looking down on the Piazza Del Campo, Sienna from the Torre del Mangia

When the paradigm of American modernist architecture crumbled, urbanists began a quest for credible alternatives that often took them to the streets and squares of old Italian cities.

Deciphering the code of Italy’s thriving public life became a process of redemption from the sterilizing over-rationalization of the urban landscape that had been carried out by professionals of the previous generation. Italy is where many great American scholars conducted a considerable part of theirs, laying the foundation for people-centered urban design. Nevertheless, despite the seminal research of American scholars, too often the fascination with the architecture of the Italian peninsula inspired superficial or diluted reinterpretations of its stylistic canons.

In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, architectural pastiches in Italian sauce proliferated across Europe and the U.S., but the spatial values that informed the architecture those projects referred to were almost always lost in translation. Propelled by postmodernist architects like Charles Moore, designer of the infamous Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, these projects took on the finishings of the classic Italian piazzas with none of the substance. They were place-less places.

Converging upon design values that focus on people and not on style, it is time to go back to basics, and reexamine what Italian piazzas have yet to tell us about the public places we aspire to create. By way of example it is useful to compare and contrast Italian placemaking vs. American versions of same by examining, say, San Jose City Hall Plaza.

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Aerial view, San Jose City Hall Plaza

San Jose City Hall is less than 10 years old. Designed by California architect Richard Meier in the early 2000s and opened to the public in the fall of 2005, the vision for the $382 million complex included a public plaza that aspired to serve as a new Agora for the Silicon Valley. When confronted with the project’s task, Meier looked once again to Italy. This time the references did not regard decorative aspects but rather architectural typologies. The entire complex is defined by three gestures: a soaring tower hosting all municipal public offices in the tradition of the Italian Palazzo, the sweeping curve of the City Council building that embraces the public space and a rotunda at its very center, both of which strongly evoke archetypes of the Renaissance.

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Pedestrian’s view, San Jose City Hall Plaza

However not even this invocation of Italian models seems able to conjure the public life such models foster in their original location. A decade after opening, the plaza feels barren and often sits empty or nearly so. Far from realizing its aspirations as a center of urban life, the complex remains much like a shimmering cathedral in the desert. We are left asking ourselves if looking back to the architectural tradition of the Italian peninsula is of any use at all when we design new public spaces in our cities.

Contrast San Jose City Hall Plaza with just one Italian precedent, let’s say, Florence’s Piazza della Signoria.

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Pedestrian’s view, Piazza Del Campo, Sienna

The heart of a prosperous, dynamic metropolitan area, just like San Jose, Piazza della Signoria is an astonishing realization of everything we cherish about successful public space. It is the heart of the city’s daily life; a place of constant teeming yet composed activity that sleeps only when the city sleeps. The piazza is the primary destination for all people, regardless of their social strata or race in a now more multicultural Italian society. It is always the place to go, whether on an ordinary day or on those special occasions in which we congregate to celebrate, or to protest. Having served this role throughout the city’s history, the piazza is also the soul of its collective memory and the most potent symbol of the city itself.

So, why are these two spaces performing so differently while trying to do exactly the same thing? An easy answer could ascribe all responsibility to the context in which these two squares find themselves. One could argue that the reason why a place like Piazza della Signoria works so well is the thriving public life of the rest of the city and the Italian habits that make life revolve around public space. While this is certainly an important factor, there is clearly more at work here. Fundamentally, foremost of reasons that places like Piazza della Signoria thrive are to be found in the spatial characteristics that their design entails. Such spatial characteristics can be looked upon, understood, and replicated elsewhere, truly enhancing the quality of new public places, unlike the merely anecdotal reproduction of decorations or out-of-context typologies.

The design of the San Jose City Hall Plaza, as many newly designed public spaces across America, overlooks a series of spatial principles that are rarely missing in any one of the many thousands of Italian piazzas in which you might find yourself enjoying a gelato.

Keep Centers at the Center
Piazza della Signoria seems to have it clear: The best way to create a thriving center for the city’s public life is by positioning it at the center of the city’s public space. In fact, the location of Italian City Hall piazzas with respect to the surrounding urban fabric is anything but arbitrary. With a few exceptions, they are to be found at the heart of the city’s oldest core, persevering in their location and function throughout the tumultuous course of the city’s history. Functioning as nuclei of their city, while everything else around them might change, they remain the same, as if their role was to preserve the “genome of the city’s public life.”

As with many new city halls across America, San Jose City Hall seems to ignore this rule of thumb: now at its third location since the incorporation of the municipality only 150 years ago — a few blocks too far from the core of a re-flourishing downtown and at the edge of the city’s center — the plaza remains on the sidelines, watching the life of the city pass by from a distance.

Connect the Urban Paths
If Piazza della Signoria could talk, it would tell you that the life of the city shaped its form and not the other way around. Great piazzas became such by successfully serving as nodes of the pre-existing pedestrian patterns. They are places that offer you the opportunity to change your path and perhaps your mind on what you want to do. They present you with all of the routes you have not yet taken. And, most importantly, they allow you to encounter the people that have taken those different routes. This sense of possibility, as well as the actual direct or indirect interaction with the people that are set off to do things that are different from the ones you are doing, is what provides the place with some of its most relevant values.

Largely untouched by the urban paths that define the downtown, San Jose City Hall Plaza can be traversed in only one way, and while such passage is not a true thoroughfare, it is what saves the space from total inactivity after City Hall operating hours. More paths would mean more life.

You would think this would be clear to everyone by now: Active and permeable ground floors are a sine qua non for the functioning of an urban plaza. This is what really provides Italian piazzas in general with the fuel and spark of their vibrancy. The monumental scale of the churches and palazzi is broken down to the human scale with the insertion of fine-grained bustling commercial activities. Yet, unfortunately, it seems like not even this rule can be archived in the folder of “lessons learned.” Look at San Jose City Hall Plaza and you will find a trade show of ground floor life-suckers: a vacant lot, a multilevel parking garage, a gas station and the parking lot for a big box retail complex wrap around the space, rendering any intent of the design of the plaza irrelevant.

Set the Stage and the Arena
When these three primary conditions are present, the spectacle of public life is set to unfold, and in this the Italian Piazza is eloquent: there is nothing more irresistible than that. Even in the least exhibitionist of societies, the activity of a successful urban plaza becomes a theatrical play in which we spontaneously choose to take the role of the actor at times and the role of the spectator at others. Good plaza design subtly defines the space of the stage and the parterre for this ever-changing and always captivating play.

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