TECHNE 20 (2020): Time and architecture

The times of construction

Lorenzo Bellicini
Centro ricerche economiche e sociali del mercato dell’edilizia, CRESME, Roma, Italia

Published 2020-09-18

How to Cite

Bellicini, L. (2020). The times of construction . TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (20), 51–55.


«From the urban science’s standpoint this meaning can be attributed to permanent works; they are parts of the past we still experience» (Rossi, 1966).

In these notes I would like to deal through some hints with the issue of time associated to architecture from three different points of view: time as life of construction works; time as relation between technical thinking and social change; time as length of authorization procedures.

The time as lenght of building

The opening of these short notes, Aldo Rossi’s quotation, helps me introduce the first of three-time dimensions I would like to imagine. Rossi elaborates on the permanence of the architectural work in the essay “L’architettura della città”, published in 1966 and written at the height of the Italian economic and housing boom. Also, for this reason it seems to be a forward-looking essay which can influence architectural thinking, not only in Italy. Rossy says «Parlando di architettura non intendo riferirmi solo all’immagine visibile della città e all’insieme delle sue architetture; ma piuttosto all’architettura come costruzione. Mi riferisco alla costruzione della città nel tempo» (Rossi, 1966).

The book introduces also the idea of locus as identity resulting from historical stratification with a precocious multidisciplinary approach underlying its reflections on the importance of architecture as well as economics and policy-making in the construction of the city. The core of Rossi’s reflection is the city over time as construction and permanence of what, having been conceived and realized in the past, still lives and experiences the crystallization of its own construction through changes. This consideration stems from the fact that the durability of building design products is longer than other types of products. A longer lifetime spanning more generations. The product of building design is something characterized by long durability which is tested and tested again after its conception. This is a fundamental precondition for the project designer: considering the past, designing the new, and integrating the past with the present. Yet, I wonder if all designers actually opt for this approach. Considering the Italian production since the Sixties in the light of its facts and figures, on one hand the conservation of the building environment and on the other hand suburban production can be observed. Undoubtedly, nowadays market conditions are different from the housing boom Rossi had to take into account in the Sixties: nowadays 74% of the value of building production consists in ordinary and extraordinary maintenance works on private buildings. We could say that over the last decade our country has seen only building micro interventions within residential boundaries envisaging the renovation of existing works realized in the past. On the contrary our true challenge is urban regeneration, that is the transformation of parts of the city, whether completely or partially built, that foresees both the integration of past with present and a new design for the ways the city functions.

Therefore, if it is true that the issue of long durability is key to the construction of buildings and infrustructural works, then of the city, it is undisputable that, as it is closely related with the concept of structure, it can be interpreted in a broader sense. Eight years before the publication of Rossi’s essay, Braudel was rethinking the Western storiographic approach and the issues of structure and time of society.

«Par structure les observateurs du social entendent une organisation, une cohérence, des rapports assez fixes entre réalités et masses sociales. Pour nous, historiens une structure est sans doute assemblage, architecture, mais plus encore une réalité que le temps use mal et véhicule très longuement. Certaines structures, à vivre longtemps, deviennent des éléments stables d’une infinité de générations: elles encombrent l’histoire, en gênent, donc en commandent l’écoulement. D’autres sont plus promptes à s’effriter. Mais toutes sont à la fois soutiens et obstacles. Obstacles, elles se marquent comme des limites (des enveloppes, au sens mathématique) dont l’homme et ses expériences ne peuvent guère s’affranchir. Songez à la difficulté de briser certains cadres géographiques, certaines réalités biologiques, certaines limites de la productivité, voire telles ou telles contraintes spirituelles: les cadres mentaux, aussi, sont prisons de longue durée» (Braudel, 1958).

«Les cadres mentaux, aussi, sont prisons de longue durée»: in the great French historian’s view, in the end the analysis of history shows that mindsets with long durability are strong constraints hindering development processes. Hence, in those years the European culture experiencing a new awareness of both physical and mental crystallization struck two different attitudes: on one hand it started giving importance to place identity, locus for Rossi, genius loci for Norberg-Schulz, which would profoundly affect a major part of architectural culture and many Italian urban conservation policies; on the other hand, it fostered de-structuration in tune with French historiography.

Therefore, there is still much debate on the major issues of permanence and innovation. 

Anyway, if we had to state what the most important urban policy has been in Italy, after all we could only mention the one that in order of importance has envisaged the conservation of monuments and historic architectural works, of city centres and historic urban fabric, of the building product determined by its age, of the landscape (yet its results have not been as good as the ones achieved as far as the built-up environment is concerned) and finally minor refurbishment benefiting from tax incentives (with some energy-efficient retrofitting). Conservation and renovation work on buildings have been the most important interventions characterizing Italian urban policies together with the juxtaposition of new suburbs to the built-up environment and the creation of the dispersed city. Up to fifteen years ago when a new history began: demographic changes entailed by the fall in the birth rate, prolonged housing crisis, property crisis, slump in the expansion of new housing, crisis of the technical quality of management and lack of resources, total lack of attention to the issue of urban regeneration. Meanwhile, as I remarked above, the renovation activities consisted in minor home refurbishment interventions benefiting from tax incentives.

The time as relation between technical thinking and social change

«The time elapsing from non-construction to definitive construction over time and in space is very short. A barren site sees the creation of a nine-storey slab block or an industrial chimney with unnatural sudden speed-up. Lately, after the building momentum, the urban patch remains finite, unchanged, untouchable, protected by the law and taboo. And if the “way” cities generally develop seems to be weird enough, the “shaping” of suburban buildings definitely provides accidental and unfinished appearance. The city centre is usually considered the most representative area in terms of urban identity. This overestimation has even led to neglect suburbs and outskirts which have become mere bilges housing all kinds of mediocrity» (Bellicini and Ingersoll, 2001).

The time of urban growth, according to Giuseppe Pagano, is so rapid, arrhythmic, and unforeseeable that it makes it impossible for public decision-makers, especially in the field of urban planning (as far as urban layout is concerned) to completely supervise projects: «There has been much imaginative debate – he writes – on this hindrance but all the means identified to regulate, control, and coordinate the enormous amount of buildings prove ineffective in the face of private property and its relevant rights» (Pagano, 1976). 

The plan suffers the rapidity of individual property rights exertion constitutionally characterizing the contemporary society. Therefore, «if the city centre and the rural landscape still seem to be meaningful because they have been shaped by what is most durable and stable over time within the realm of social relations», outskirts become clearly, inevitably, and immediately representative of the contemporary society. «This moral and social discomfort of our contemporary society which fails to be consistent» (Pagano, 1976).

The outskirts are shapeless places where design and planning are abortive over time. Urban planning as a discipline exists only within the boundaries of paradox: the need for rethinking transformation more slowly (urban planning is definitely a remedy for the unsoundness of modern urban development) when the essence of transformation is determined by its own rapidity generating different single self-referential shapes that crystallize. All these shapes, in spite of being designed in compliance with one plan, are however single entities (each of which is realized under its designer’s responsibility). Due to this intimate paradox, urban planning has been naturally unsuccessful since its origin: the outskirts, or, we can say, the contemporary city (70% of Italian families live on the outskirts), were created when urban planning as a discipline was born. Yet, in most cases they embody its congenital failures. 

These failures have been more visible in the outskirts developments implemented and managed by public bodies: the public city, expression of a recent past and of the effort to tackle unchecked urban growth by reducing the city to big monofunctional architectural blocks, whose project was officially drawn up for one single building, which today are the most degraded urban areas.

Urban planning decision-making should always draw on the analysis of the urban reality followed by the identification of priorities and the project laying down the way the space will be used. The project design is accompanied and lately integrated, preliminarily and definitively, by the decision on the adoption of the urban planning tool. The different stages of the urban planning decision-making include both political and technical steps. Drawing up the plan (for example the General City Plan) in Italy takes around two to three years as regards major cities; the time scale of political decisions first on the preliminary plan evaluation and after on the adoption of the relevant technical tools extends in an unpredictable way: three, four, five, ten years. After five or ten years the world changes. In order to manage city transformation processes (characterized by complexity, fast change, and competitiveness) ever since the Eighties new strategies more aimed at solving specific urban design problems and making urban planning decisions (both technical and political) not so much through the General City Plan but rather by means of major projects to be implemented in a much shorter time-frame have been opted for. In the 2000s, though, given the scenario of the great change (industrial revolution, computability, sustainability, reckless competition), holistic City plans and visions were created projecting the urban scenario into the future (over twenty or thirty years) along important routes of urban redefinition thanks to the opportunity to implement some of their parts according to a precise elongated schedule (Cresme, 2019).

However, we can say that urban planning practices are profoundly influenced at the same time by the slowness of planning and thinking, and by the rapidity of social and economic transformations: this complexity is still unsolved today while the scenario is changing increasingly fast. More than a set of photographs, planning should become a product of time-oriented analytical information systems systematically and constantly updated. From the photography to the movie.

The time as length of authorization procedures

The last point I would like to briefly deal with is the building process meant as synthesis of idea, project, bureaucracy, building site issues, completion and management of the work. What is the significance of a building work? Not so much an economic one. Its value lies in its functionality over time. A house, an office building, a post office, a station, a street, a highway, a harbour, a bridge, etc. are all products whose value is fully expressed as long as they are used and operated. Yet, the building production is subject to bureaucratic and technical constraints. Then, it is worth underlining two aspects of building which today are closely associated with time: on one hand illegal building in our country; on the other hand, the production of public works.

Illegal building affecting large areas of our Country typically calls for rapidity and secrecy. A time of robbery, as we should say. Moreover, illegal building timing is exclusively under the promoter’s control: when it is possible; yet it is affected by the rapidity of the builder and the slowness of bureaucratic control. Without projects, without authorization some parts of the Country are being built very fast compared to the control over them that is lagging behind. 

More surprisingly, the realization of public works, more precisely of the big /medium-sized public works and the relevant authorization procedures take a long time. In one of my papers some time ago I mentioned the “procedure benefit” to describe the complicated and cumbersome set of rules and regulations underlying the decision-making processes in our country and the bureaucracy regardless of time (Bellicini, 2013).

Due to the lack of time awareness in the people concerned with the authorization procedures and the complexity of the law, the realization of public works is slow, and the cost of the works varies compared to the value laid down in procurement contracts. The magic words of public works are “subject to”: more precisely “subject to long time” in many cases.