TECHNE 22 (2021): Circular Transition and Design


Elena Mussinelli
Dipartimento di Architettura, Ingegneria delle Costruzioni e Ambiente Costruito, Politecnico di Milano, Italia
Published July 29, 2021
How to Cite
Mussinelli, E. (2021). Editorial. TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (22), 10-15.


Every crisis at the same time reveals, forewarns and implies changes with cyclical trends that can be analyzed from different disciplinary perspectives, building scenarios to anticipate the future, despite uncertainties and risks. And the current crisis certainly appears as one of the most problematic of the modern era: recently, Luigi Ferrara, Director of the School of Design at the George Brown College in Toronto and of the connected Institute without Boundaries, highlighted how the pandemic has simply accelerated undergoing dynamics, exacerbating other crises – climatic, environmental, social, economic – which had already been going on for a long time both locally and globally. In the most economically developed contexts, from North America to Europe, the Covid emergency has led, for example, to the closure of almost 30% of the retail trade, as well as to the disposal and sale of many churches. Places of care and assistance, such as hospitals and elderly houses, have become places of death and isolation for over a year, or have been closed. At the same time, the pandemic has imposed the revolution of the remote working and education, which was heralded – without much success – more than twenty years ago. In these even contradictory dynamics, Ferrara sees many possibilities: new roles for stronger and more capable public institutions as well as the opportunity to rethink and redesign the built environment and the landscape. Last but not least, against a future that could be configured as dystopian, a unique chance to enable forms of citizenship and communities capable of inhabiting more sustainable, intelligent and ethical cities and territories; and architects capable of designing them.

This multifactorial and pervasive crisis seems therefore to impose a deep review of the current unequal development models, in the perspective of that “creative destruction” that Schumpeter placed at the basis of the dynamic entrepreneurial push: «To produce means to combine materials and forces within our reach. To produce other things, or the same things by a different method, means to combine these materials and forces differently» (Schumpeter, 1912). A concept well suiting to the design practice as a response to social needs and improving the living conditions.

This is the perspective of Architectural Technology, in its various forms, which has always placed the experimental method at the center of its action. As Eduardo Vittoria already pointed out: «The specific contribution of the technological project to the development of an industrial culture is aimed at balancing the emotional-aesthetic data of the design with the technical-productive data of the industry. Design becomes a place of convergence of ideas and skills related to factuality, based on a multidisciplinary intelligence» (Vittoria, 1999). A lucid and appropriate critique of the many formalistic emphases that have invested contemporary architecture.

In the most acute phases of the pandemic, the radical nature of this polycrisis has been repeatedly invoked as a lever for an equally radical modification of the development models, for the definitive defeat of conjunctural and emergency modes of action.

With particular reference to the Italian context, however, it seems improper to talk about a “change of models” – whether economic, social, productive or programming, rather than technological innovation – since in the national reality the models and reference systems prove to not to be actually structured. The current socio-economic and productive framework, and the political and planning actions themselves, are rather a variegated and disordered set of consolidated practices, habits often distorted when not deleterious, that correspond to stratified regulatory apparatuses, which are inconsistent and often ineffective. It is even more difficult to talk about programmatic rationality models in the specific sector of construction and built environment transformation, where the enunciation of objectives and the prospection of planning actions rarely achieve adequate projects and certain implementation processes, verified for the consistency of the results obtained and monitored for the ability in maintaining the required performance over time.

Rather than “changing the model”, in the Italian case, we should therefore talk about giving shape and implementation to an organic and rational system of multilevel and inter-sectorial governance models, which assumes the principles of subsidiarity, administrative decentralization, inter-institutional and public-private cooperation.

But, even in the current situation, with the pandemic not yet over, we are already experiencing a sort of “return to order”: after having envisaged radical changes – new urban models environmentally and climatically more sustainable, residential systems and public spaces more responsive to the pressing needs of social demand, priority actions to redevelop the suburbs and to strength infrastructures and ecosystem services, new advanced forms of decision-making decentralization for the co-planning of urban and territorial transformations, and so on – everything seems to has been reset to zero. This is evident from the list of actions and projects proposed by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP), where no clear national strategy for green transition emerges, even though it is repeatedly mentioned. As highlighted by the Coordination of Technical-Scientific Associations for the Environment and Landscape1, and as required by EU guidelines2, this transition requires a paradigm shift that assumes eco-sustainability as a transversal guideline for all actions. With the primary objective of protecting ecosystem balances, improving and enhancing the natural and landscape capital, as well as protecting citizen health and well-being from environmental risks and from those generated by improper anthropization phenomena.

The contents of the Plan explicitly emphases the need to «repair the economic and social damage of the pandemic crisis» and to «contribute to addressing the structural weaknesses of the Italian economy», two certainly relevant objectives, the pursuit of which, however, could paradoxically contrast precisely with the transition to a more sustainable development. In the Plan, the green revolution and the ecological transition are resolved in a dedicated axis (waste management, hydrogen, energy efficiency of buildings, without however specific reform guidelines of the broader “energy” sector), while «only one of the projects of the Plan regards directly the theme Biodiversity / Ecosystem / Landscape, and in a completely marginal way» (CATAP, 2021). Actions are also limited for assessing the environmental sustainability of the interventions, except the provision of an ad hoc Commission for the streamlining of some procedural steps and a generic indication of compliance with the DNSH-Do not significant Harm criterion (do not cause any significant damage), without specific guidelines on the evaluation methods.

Moreover, little or nothing in the Plan refers on actions and investments in urban renewal, abandoned heritage recovery3, of in protecting and enhancing areas characterized by environmental sensitivity/fragility; situations widely present on the national territory, which are instead the first resource for a structural environmental transition.

Finally yet importantly, the well-known inability to manage expenditure and the public administration inefficiencies must be considered: a limit not only to the effective implementation of projects, but also to the control of the relationship between time, costs and quality (also environmental) of the interventions.

In many places, the Plan has been talked about as an opportunity for a real “reconstruction”, similar to that of post-war Italy; forgetting that the socio-economic renaissance was driven by the INA-Casa Plan4, but also by a considerable robustness of the cultural approach in the research and experimentation of new housing models (Schiaffonati, 2014)5. A possible “model”, which – appropriately updated in socio-technical and environmental terms – could be a reference for an incisive governmental action aiming at answering to a question – the one of the housing – far from being resolved and still a priority, if not an emergency.

The crisis also implies the deployment of new skills, with a review of outdated disciplinary approaches, abandoning all corporate resistances and subcultures that have long prevented the change. A particularly deep fracture in our country, which has implications in research, education and professions, dramatically evident in the disciplines of architectural and urban design.

Coherently with the EU Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 and the European Pillar of Social Rights, the action plan presented by the Commission in March 2021, with the commitment of the Declaration of Porto on May 7, sets three main objectives for 2030: an employment rate higher than 78%, the participation of more than 60% of adults in training courses every year and at least 15 million fewer people at risk of social exclusion or poverty6.

Education, training and retraining, lifelong learning and employment-oriented skills, placed at the center of EU policy action, now require large investments, to stimulate employment transitions towards the emerging sectors of green, circular and digital economies (environmental design and assessment, risk assessment & management, safety, durability and maintainability, design and management of the life cycle of plans, projects, building systems and components: contents that are completely marginal or absent in the current training offer of Architecture).

Departments and PhDs in the Technological Area have actively worked with considerable effectiveness in this field. In these regards, we have to recall the role played by Romano Del Nord «protagonist for commitment and clarity in identifying fundamental strategic lines for the cultural and professional training of architects, in the face of unprecedented changes of the environmental and production context» (Schiaffonati, 2021).

Today, on the other hand, the axis of permanent and technical training is almost forgotten by ministerial and university policies for the reorganization of teaching systems, with a lack of strategic visions for bridging the deficit of skills that characterizes the area of architecture on the facing environmental and socio-economic challenges. Also and precisely in the dual perspective of greater interaction with the research systems and with the world of companies and institutions, and of that trans- and multi-disciplinary dimension of knowledge, methods and techniques necessary for the ecological transition of settlement systems and construction sector.

Due to the high awareness of the Technological Area about the multifactorial and multi-scale dimension of the crises that recurrently affect our territories, SITdA has been configured since its foundation as a place for scientific and cultural debate on the research and training themes. With a critical approach to the consoling academic attitude looking for a “specific disciplinary” external and extraneous to the social production of goods and services. Finalizing the action of our community to «activate relationships between universities, professions, institutions through the promotion of the technological culture of architecture [...], to offer scientific-cultural resources for the training and qualification of young researchers [...], in collaboration with the national education system in order to advance training in the areas of technology and innovation in architecture» (SITdA Statute, 2007). Goals and topics which seem to be current, which Techne intends to resume and develop in the next issues, and already widely present in this n. 22 dedicated to the Circular Economy. A theme that, as emerges from the contributions, permeates the entire field of action of the project: housing, services, public space, suburbs, infrastructures, production, buildings. All contexts in which technological innovation invests both processes and products: artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, internet of things, 3D printing, sensors, nano and biotechnology, biomaterials, biogenetics and neuroscience feed advanced experiments that cross-fertilize different contributions towards common objectives of circularity and sustainability. In this context, the issue of waste, the superfluous, abandonment and waste, emerge, raising the question of re-purpose: an action that crosses a large panel of cases, due to the presence of a vast heritage of resources – materials, artefacts, spaces and entire territories – to be recovered and re-functionalized, transforming, adapting, reusing, reconverting, reactivating the existing for new purposes and uses, or adapting it to new and changing needs. Therefore, by adopting strategies and techniques of reconversion and reuse, of re-manufacturing and recycling of construction and demolition waste, of design for disassembly that operate along even unprecedented supply chains and which are accompanied by actions to extend the useful life cycle of materials , components and building systems, as well as product service logic also extended to durable goods such as the housing.

These are complex perspectives but considerably interesting, feasible through the activation of adequate and updated skills systems, for a necessary and possible future, precisely starting from the ability – as designers, researchers and teachers in the area of Architectural Technology – to read the space and conceive a project within a system of rationalities, albeit limited, but substantially founded, which qualify the interventions through approaches validated in research and experimental verification. Contrarily to any ineffective academicism, which corresponds in fact to a condition of subordination caused by the hegemonic dynamics at the base of the crisis itself, but also by a loss of authority that derives from the inadequate preparation of the architects. An expropriation that legitimizes the worst ignorance in the government of the territories, cities and artifacts.

Education in Architecture, strictly connected to the research from which contents and methods derive, has its central pivot in the project didactic: activity by its nature of a practical and experimental type, applied to specific places and contexts, concrete and material, and characterized by considerable complexity, due to the multiplicity of factors involved. This is what differentiates the construction sector, delegated to territorial and urban transformations, from any other sector. A sector that borrows its knowledge from other production processes, importing technologies and materials. With a complex integration of which the project is charged, for the realization of the buildings, along a succession of phases for corresponding to multiple regulatory and procedural constraints. The knowledge and rationalization of these processes are the basis of the evolution of the design and construction production approaches, as well as merely intuitive logics.

These aspects were the subject of in-depth study at the SITdA National Conference on “Producing Project” (Reggio Calabria, 2018), and relaunched in a new perspective by the International Conference “The project in the digital age. Technology, Nature, Culture” scheduled in Naples on the 1st-2nd of July 2021. A reflection that Techne intends to further develop through the sharing of knowledge and scientific debate, selecting topics of great importance, to give voice to a new phase and recalling the practice of design research, in connection with the production context, institutions and social demand.

“Inside the Polycrisis. The possible necessary” is the theme of the call we launched for n. 23, to plan the future despite the uncertainties and risks, foreshadowing strategies that support a unavoidable change, also by operating within the dynamics that, for better or for worse, will be triggered by the significant resources committed to the implementation of the Recovery Plan. To envisage systematic actions based on the centrality of a rational programming, of environmentally appropriate design at the architectural, urban and territorial scales, and of a continuous monitoring of the implementation processes.

With the commitment also to promote, after each release, a public moment of reflection and critical assessment on the research progresses.


1 “Osservazioni del Coordinamento delle Associazioni Tecnico-scientifiche per l’Ambiente e il Paesaggio al PNRR”, 2021.

2 EU Guidelines, SWD-2021-12 final, 21.1.2021.

3 For instance, we can consider the 7,000 km of dismissed railways, with related buildings and areas.

4 The two seven-year activities of the Plan (1949-1963) promoted by Amintore Fanfani, Minister of Labor and Social Security at the time, represented both an employment and a social maneuver, which left us the important legacy of neighborhoods that still today they have their own precise identity, testimony of the architectural culture of the Italian twentieth century. But also a «grandiose machine for the housing» (Samonà, 1949), based on a clear institutional and organizational reorganization, with the establishment of a single body (articulated in the plan implementation committee, led by Filiberto Guala, with regulatory functions of disbursement of funds, assignment of tasks and supervision, and in the INA-Casa Management directed by the architect Arnaldo Foschini, then dean of the Faculty of Architecture), which led to the construction of two million rooms for over 350,000 families. See Di Biagi F. (2013), Il Contributo italiano alla storia del Pensiero – Tecnica, Enciclopedia Treccani.

5 From Quaderni of the Centro Studi INA-Casa, to Gescal and in the Eighties to the activity of CER. Complex theme investigated by Fabrizio Schiaffonati in Il progetto della residenza sociale, edited by Raffaella Riva.

6 Ferruccio De Bortoli underlines in Corriere della Sera of 15 May 2021: «The revolution of lifelong learning (which) is no less important for Brussels than the digital or green one. By 2030, at least 60 per cent of the active population will have to participate in training courses every year. It will be said: but 2030 is far away. There’s time. No, because most people have escaped that to achieve this goal, by 2025 – that is, in less than four years – 120 million Europeans will ideally return to school. A kind of great educational vaccination campaign. Day after tomorrow».


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