Fortified, idealistic urbanism: Does size mater?


Picture 3

Procession into the center:





Spent a day exploring the historical, military new town of Palmanova, Italy.  It was only appropriate to meet up with fellow world-traveler, Nick Sowers (and bunker enthusiast, Rachael Koffman), for a discussion of how our threads of inquiry about this place might intersect.  He is interested in the ways military and civilian space collide and the re-appropriations or reuse of these spaces in everyday life.  I am interested in a historic example of the new town/utopia and an investigation of the performance of public space then vs. now.  The fascinating evolution of this town has produced new housing development within its prescribed growth boundaries and a diverse population of citizens/workers.  This is not a museum (although we did visit the Palmanova military museum located in one of the monumental fortress gates).  It is an inhabited and functional place to live.   We planed to meet at the nucleus of this iconic, almost panopticonic city….instead we found ourselves on the same very delayed train out of Venice.

120 minuti later….

We spent our time observing the two very different public spaces of Palmanova – the central, paved expanse, or open space, of this star-formed city and the jogging, lush/green glacis embankments that form the plan’s perimeter.  In less abstract terms, the town square and the surrounding greenbelt.  We arrived at the denouement of what we expected to be a busting farmer’s market at the center of town.  Instead dozens of Chinese clothing and accessory stalls were being dismantled and an amusement park was beginning to mobilize.  Eerie and bleak was the atmosphere….with the weather (gloomy and still) right on cue.  “Welcome to a new city feel,” I tell Nick.  I wonder if the dimensions of new city building (which are actually centuries old here) have influenced the types of activities that occur.  Are there less intimate exchanges that take place in the center of this massive space?  Nick is busy thinking about the concept of amusement as a product of regimented, militarized space/activities.




In Palmanova, the star-formed Renaissance city built by Scamozzi in 1593 north of Venice, all the streets have the same width – 14 meters (46 ft.) – regardless of purpose and placement in the city plan. In contrast with the medieval town, these dimensions are not determined primarily by use but by other, mostly formal considerations. This is also true of the city square, Piazza Grande, which, because of the geometry, is 30,000 square meters (325,000 sq.ft.) or more than twice as large as the Campo in Siena. For this reason it is quite unusable as a town square in this little town. On the other hand, the city plan is an interesting graphic work that, like so many other Renaissance-inspired plans, bears witness to being created on the drawing board.
-Life Between Buildings and the Resource for Urban Design Information (

I challenge the theory that Palmanova’s center is unusable as a town square in this small town.  Instead, the center functions as a new breed of town square, a new type of public space. Residents hold a public market in the piazza every monday morning and seasonal festivals/other city-wide events (like this amusement park we are witnessing) occur in this space large enough to accommodate the immediate population as well as their visiting friends.  This is the only space within the city’s radial plan that can accommodate these large programs.  The buildings on the edges of the piazza enclose and define this space and contain a ribbon of cafes, bars, and restaurants (sporadically occupied).  People engaging in public activities like those mentioned have adapted the space to suit individual needs.  In that sense, the space of the public is flexible, to expand or contract, depending on the scale of activities and times of day.  Users partition off bits of this square to reflect the true scales of human activity.



17:00 hours…

The energy was incredible; Nick was hiking the perimeter, probably recording the sound of blades of grass, and I was photographing the new housing types at the outermost ring of development.  When we met up, we fed each other info about the separate sides of this curtain of fortification.




Next branner meet-up: Berkeley, CA, January 2010, Thesis semester


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