A grammar for the city – project for the ‘New Multifunctional Administrative City’, South Korea / Dogma 2005

Sulcus Primigenius

An interview with Martino Tattara on the limits of the city by Vlado Danailov

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An interview with Martino Tattara

An interview by Vlado Danailov

Martino Tattara is a practicing architect, founder of DOGMA and the head of research and teaching at ETH Studio Basel: Contemporary City Institute. After graduating at the Università Iuav di Venezia, he obtained a postgraduate Master degree at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam and a PhD at the Università Iuav di Venezia with a dissertation centered on Lucio Costa's project for Brasilia. His theoretical work focuses on the relationship between architecture and large-scale urban design and he has widely published and lectured on topics related to the project of the city.

The interview is focused on a specific approach to architecture and the city, which I find very significant and influential for the future development. The principle of setting limits in a way is forgotten today as our cities are growing more and more, seemingly without any control. Exploring the proposal for new administrative city in Korea, organized as a sequence of rooms that are formed by city walls and comparing it to Brasilia, the role of the architect today in the creation of the city is reconsidered.
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Sulcus Primigenius, literally the original furrow, refers to the furrow ploughed by priests leading two oxen in the Etruscan ceremony that established a sacred area during the foundation of a new city.

After a careful study of your projects, one can clearly understand how you impose strict limits to the city using extreme architectural forms. Why do you consider limits important today? Are cities limitless?

The project of the city is impossibility in its own terms and architects can only put forward clear and intelligible spatial and organizational principles

The space of the limit has been at the centre of our work for a very long time. I would even say that all our work dealing with the city and the problems of the large-​scale is focused on defining the limit of the city. I believe that, especially today, given the constraints of a modern democracy on the one hand and the requirement to safeguard freedom of the individual for choosing his/​her own way of living on the other, the limit is the only place in which architects can attempt to redefine an otherwise seamless urbanisation that is covering large parts of our territories.

Yet, this understanding of the limit as central for the project of the city is not new. The definition of limits is at the origin of each process of civilisation, as you put it very well in your short introduction. Carl Schmitt, in his Nomos of the Earth, writes that the process of land appropriation, and therefore the demarcation of a limit through fences, edges, walls, is the primary legal status that underlies any subsequent law. In our work the limit, the physical space of delimitation and separation between two different conditions, is seen as the very place most able to inform the experience of architecture. Our hypothesis is that it is exactly the space of the limit that will be able to reintroduce today an idea of place within otherwise undifferentiated and generic urban conditions.

Stop City / Dogma 2007

Stop City /​Dogma 2007

Following your work, in 2005 you made a project for the new administrative city of Korea “A Grammar for the City” – a flawless example of the principle of limits. Is it the new Brasilia?

Unfortunately not! Brasilia was built in three years and was the result of a clear political agenda and of a fully supported competition’s winning proposal. In the case of our entry for the new administrative city of Korea, the organisers of the competition did not assign the task to develop the scheme of the new city to any of the winning teams (the competition had five ex-​aequo first prize winners). Unlike with Brasilia, in Korea they used architects to produce images of what the city could potentially have been like, and once these images were in their hands, they simply got rid of the architects and started building the city without any of us on board.

This somehow shows how marginal the role of the architect has become, especially in regards to urbanism and the production of the city. This was not the case with Brasilia. Lucio Costa, although he never moved to Brasilia, has remained the indisputable father of the city and the engineering team that literally built the city strictly adhered to the clear indications contained in his proposal.

The architect should go back to the city and be in charge of its project, rather than being simply a form giver or a decorator of urban mass

On a different level, I can say that both our and Costa’s projects are a clear representation that the project of the city is an impossibility in its own terms and that architects, once faced with the task of designing a new city, can only try to put forward clear spatial and organisational principles that need to be as clear and intelligible as possible in order to become the examples to be followed by all those that in the course of the years will participate in the construction of the city. This has clearly been the case in Brasilia and especially in the proposal for the Superquadra. Similarly to Costa’s way in which he proposed a solution to the residential problem in the Brazilian capital, we took a very similar approach in our project in Korea, in which we suggested a clear principle in the form of the cruciform wall while relinquishing control on all the rest of the programme of the city, which could be accommodated without difficulty in the space provided and defined by the cruciform wall.

Plano piloto of Brasilia / Lucio Costa 1957

Plano piloto of Brasilia /​Lucio Costa 1957

If the principle of limits is the future of urban development, how can it be implemented in Moscow’s case?

Unfortunately I do not know Moscow well enough to be able to answer this question. Based on the little information I have, it is clear that working on both the conceptual and physical definition of what the limit of the city is would have great relevance in Moscow, a city that has grown enormously in the last few decades following a rather generic pattern of development.

In practice, people from other disciplines are also involved in the process of reinventing the city, apart from architects. How can architecture be designed by a committee?

I do not think a committee should design architecture, nor the city. I think the architect should go back to the city and be in charge of its project, rather than being simply a form giver or a decorator of urban mass. This does not mean that I support a return to the autonomy of the discipline, rather the opposite. The architect should regain the role of one who is able to develop a synthetic approach, one in which the different contributions towards the project of the city are synthesised within a clear formal principle. This can only be achieved through exchange and a real collaborative effort, but the architects need to regain its central role in reinventing the city.

In an interview not so long ago, Elia Zenghelis said: “Hopefully with the new generations that are coming, there will be a new consciousness. There is certainly the group Dogma (Martino Tattara and Pier Vittorio Aureli) that have always been very good at imagining the future and I think that they are going to be a very significant architectural group that will influence future development”. What kinds of scenarios for future urban development are possible? Is the future something that belongs to the past?

The future of the city is based on what could look like old ideas

We certainly believe that the past is the best source for thinking about our future. But this understanding of the past, especially when we talk about architecture and the urban form, has neither a nostalgic tone nor is it based on a stylistic preference. The future of the city is based on what might seem old ideas: a denser and limited city, the regaining of importance of public transport and mass mobility, the transformation of existing urban typologies into new spaces able to accommodate the demographic, economic and social transformation of our society. Such a project is based on the understanding of the past and present and on its transformation, rather than in developing something anew. The future of the city is a project of consolidation and definition.

Stop City / Dogma 2007

Stop City /​Dogma 2007

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During one lecture at Edinburgh University you made a point: The city goes beyond any attempts to design it. Yet through its projects DOGMA has built up a recognisably original visual language. How can one avoid the risk of misunderstanding the complexity of the city while designing a ‘purified’ image?

I do not think that a ‘purified’ image is necessarily a simplification of the complexity and contradictions of the city. To me, designing the city does not mean being able to control the city in all its aspects; it means tackling this complexity with a clear position, with a point of view without which it would be impossible to develop any spatial or formal configuration that is able to question the status quo of the city. In this sense, purified images can be deceiving, being just the result of a certain aesthetic preference, but in other cases it is the only way through which a certain clear position and intention can today be expressed without compromise.