recivilization: a little primer in urban design

045 a public room

I won't use a picture to illustrate this; I would like you to imagine it. You're in Mazara del Vallo, a town of about 30,000 in the southwestern corner of Sicily. This is the biggest fishing port in Italy, so there are plenty of colourful, old-style fishing boats in the harbor, and fishermen drawing out and mending their nets in the morning air. Big industrial trawlers sleep in another part of the port, and beyond these there's room for bigger boats still, the ones that carry cement and grain and the other bulk goods. Behind the harbor is a little square with palm trees, surrounded by restaurants. It's quiet now, but in the evening when Mazara comes to life the tables will appear all around the square; not many places in the Mediterranean can show you a better fish dinner.

Before dinner, you might like to take a walk around. Mazara is a fascinating place, full of surprises, with touches of its Norman and Arab heritage materializing on a streetcorner where you least expect it. Mostly, the ambience is confectionary Baroque. Mazara's twisting alleys will eventually lead you to a small, irregular piazza with a tall and striking Baroque church. A dozen piazze, a dozen churches, and each of them different and each of them somehow memorable.

Few outsiders know Mazara well, but the architecture of its Baroque churches deserve as much attention as those of the more celebrated Noto, or even Palermo, or any other town in Italy's south. And its streets and piazze offer some striking examples of informal urban design.

But that's not why we're here. Let's walk back to the center. There's a cathedral, and the public palaces, all built of the delightfully warm, tan sandstone that is so common in this part of the Mediterranean. I found another little piazza, tucked between the city buildings. City offices on two sides, in sandstone palazzi of the 1600's I think. Forgive my lack of precision; I can't even recall whether this little square had a name; I remember it as about 120ft by 40. Between the two buildings, high walls closed off the short ends of the piazza, with two small archways as the only entrances. The same golden stone made the paving and the walls.

Inside this sandstone box, there was nothing to see but a blue sky above, the simple Baroque fenestration of the few windows on the long sides, three benches, and three palm trees in a row, tucked into one corner of the square. They stand there as an austere decoration, like a rose in a clear vase in the middle of a table (only, as we have learned from Camillo Sitte, for very good reasons the decorations in public squares do not go in the center, as on a dinner table, but near a corner).

A university-educated architect might have put a statue in the middle (there was nothing in the middle). He would have torn down the walls on the short sides, to 'open the space to the life of the city'. More likely, he would have knocked down the whole thing and put up a glass and steel block. To people educated in modern systems, this piazza and its charms are practically invisible.

But I have looked around a few hundred towns in my life , and I haven't often found a more peaceful, more meditative space yet than this unnamed square of Mazara del Vallo. If I had the good fortune to live in that town I would take a walk through it most days, and on most of these I would find my way to this square and sit a few minutes. I can still picture the three palm trees in my mind, their minimalist and delicate shade, and the gnarled brown stumps in spiralling sequence around the trunks where fronds once extended. How many trees can you recall, of the tens of thousands you have noticed in your life?

The lesson is: good urban design can be made out of next to nothing.

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