A 1968 earthquake destroyed the village of Gibellina. Instead of rebuilding high up on the hillside, the government decided – against the wishes of the inhabitants – to rebuild 18 km down the hill, close to the sea. They employed the latest in architectural ideas, and were led for a time by Oswald Matthias Ungers. This was to be a model town of the future, built not along the ideas of Le Corbusier, with big anonymous towers, or oriented to the car, but rather would follow older ideals of citybuilding but clad it in modern form. Jane Jacobs was echoing around the world.
This should all sound familiar. It is a precursor to The International Building Exhibition Berlin (IBA), the massive urban reconstruction effort of the 1980s which I have been engaged with for many years. Many of the ideas are so obviously visible, from the form of the urban townhouses to the postmodern public buildings.
But it largely fails. We saw few people walking around, using the new plazas that no doubt were presented with beautiful drawings wherein people were filling the streets, buying things, talking watching children play. My photographs re unintentionally filled with no one – not on the beautiful benches, or in the outdoor church seat. No one, nowhere.
And yet, I returned to Berlin recently, where the ideas of Ungers and the whole movement for reusing traditional ideas in town planning took hold on the largest scale , in the 1980s, just a few years after Gibellina. In Berlin, I keep thinking of the Venturi dictum: “Almost alright.” Most of the IBA architecture is not great, in the sense that individually, none of them rock the world (other than Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, which was not precisely an IBA project, and now look cliched after Libeskind's xerox copies in other cities around the word), but it is “alright.” It houses people, helps reknit the war-torn area, reestablishes the street, looks like it fits into a long tradition of Berlin apartment buildings. It has done its job.
Could the postmodern ideals of “critical reconstruction” of the urban environment simply not be workable in a small town?