Opening Limits

The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there.”1

The attempt to explore the idea of the various limits of human places, as begun with the previous issue of sITA – studies of History and Theory of Architecture, “Marginalia. Architectures of Uncertain Margins” — proved to be quite productive. As promised, the present volume (“Marginalia – Limits Within the Urban Realm”) continues this deliberation focusing on particular cases of marginality and limits in and around cities, thus filling the “ample margins” that we left for critical comments in this respect in the fourth volume.

The variety and density of the contributions to both volumes bring substantial evidence that the topic is as relevant as it is inexhaustible; there was no mistake in appealing once more to the enduring metaphorical strength of the equivocal idea of limits (be they boundaries or borders, real or imaginary, physical or social, clear or diffuse). Issue number 5 will shed more light on further aspects of the matter, ranging from physical urban limits to their anthropological significance concerning architecture. It is within this widest of frameworks that our endeavour can be concluded with the expectation of having assembled enough material for thought — not to come to the end of the question of limits, but to open new paths for speculation. Very much like with the earlier issues, the submitted articles brought different interpretations than those we had imagined when we floated the idea of the theme, thus giving a specific colour to the volume.

Whereas in the previous volume the authors discussed the limits from diverse disciplinary points of view, here the perspective is mainly architectural — all the authors are architects — and is overwhelmingly oriented towards practice, namely the project. Whether they present more general critical reflections, social and cultural connections, historical research or projects proper, all the contributions address more or less directly the question of the “making of the city”, the poiesis. They put emphasis on the utility of recovering the shaping sense of this concept in relation to architecture, thus enhancing the reflection started with the preceding issue.2

Even when the authors bring in question mental limits — as perceived by societies in general or by the profession in particular — the references acquire materiality and their reality becomes tangible. There is an “enactive consciousness”3all through the present volume, a certain emotional involvement of the authors with the city, a sensitive matter in our times that is going to remain so for some time.

This is surely a literary observation, an unusual recommendation for a scientific journal. Yet we do believe that it must be highlighted as an alternative critical attitude towards the self-sufficiency of the act of building as “autonomous act of creation or engineering” often claimed by architects, or towards the scientific pretence often paraded by urban planners. Consistent with this attitude, an obvious reaction to the predominantly commercial appraisal of the city or of many projects for the city (sometimes linked with political biases) is also present in all of the articles to various extents, in varied ways and with different specific targets. Not only this emotional tinge does not diminish the objectivity of the professional discourse, but it endows the architectural voice with a reinforced narrative strength.

This underlying philia that we recognized in the contributions to this volume brings us to Alberto Pérez-Gómez, the architect and author who unveiled the perennial relationship between architecture and love in search for social well-being and well-tempered environments — an audacity in our materialistic times.4

After a very intense visit to Romania, Alberto Pérez-Gómez sent us the article “Architecture and the City. The Space of Participation”.5 The complex and thorough line of its argument as well as the essential ties to the past and foreseeable margins of architectural and urban thinking — that we had the opportunity to discuss with him in the haste of his visit — make this essay the most suitable introduction to the idea of limits within the urban realm. Since it reaches to the core of our architectural knowledge and, at the same time, is close to many ideas captured in the other contributions to the volume, we shall stay longer under the horizon opened by this text.6

It is commonplace that the significance of public space as a place for human cooperation has been in sharp decline since the end of the 18th century. The process coincides with the industrial revolution, a cultural phenomenon concerning more than the techniques of building and named by Françoise Choay the “edge of the irremediable”.7 It represents indeed a frontier of no return towards our traditional ways of constructing and inhabiting the urban realm. “These changes eventually affected the whole of the Western world, and are now taken for granted in our technological world village”; European cities have been losing their civic functions ever since, progressively becoming “efficient functionalized systems of circulation and consumption”, says Pérez-Gómez.

According to him, the dilemma of the project has never been about ethical or aesthetic choices. Planning was always about meaning, in spite of the contemporary metropolis being “often polarized between the traditional aspirations of urbanity and the early modern dreams of suburbia”. The key of the dysfunction lies within the physical boundaries between private and public space — structures bearing the representational function of architecture. Thus, while having been the true object of pre-19th century design, the façade is constantly losing its semantic importance. This in turn leads to the diminishing of the public space altogether. Places architecturally defined that earlier had “provided space for encounter and participation” are no longer meaningful. We no longer construct places “where the Other is recognized and respected, spaces that enable human freedom, often — seemingly paradoxically — by revealing the limits. […] In recent times, however, the very possibility of such a public realm in the contemporary metropolis has been disputed”. It is therefore time to go beyond present conceptual or social limits and rediscover, reinvent an architectural and urban realm that is simultaneously boundary and place for social merger, where new meaning can emerge from newly experienced differences. Architecture still has the power of putting forward a “poetic proposition disclosing collective order: one that embraces fictions to open us to the abyss of human meaning”.

Contesting traditional functions of urban space has been for almost a century one of the pet causes of Modern Movement architecture, and the trend shows no signs of going out of fashion. Along this unchallenged effort to wipe out all established urban forms, the idea of the limit has lost most of its anthropological qualities. The semantic blur has become overwhelming to the point that, for instance, Bruce Mau’s research centre promoting participative design is called “Institute without Boundaries”.8 Although the purposes of the initiative are quite meaningful in themselves, the very name of the centre seems to refute the fact that there can be no planning without tracing limits.

Alberto Pérez-Gómez makes a point by stating that, as far as dwelling is a matter of living with others, the capability of places to shelter bodily participation is essential for spaces to be public, and semantic limits remain, no matter how uncertain, a defining feature of human habitat — unlike in the nightmarish extreme limitedness of the fictitious post-human stage imagined in the novel he uses in the article.9

The age of representation identified by Michel Foucault may be over for good, or irretrievably fragmented as pointed out by Veselý.10 Still, “the architect (like the poet or the artist) should try to implement alternative programmatic strategies in his urban interventions, revealing forgotten yet present meanings in the sheer visibility of the quotidian, empowering fictions and poetic images at a particular moment in time, even if the experience is ephemeral”. There is a dynamic of the transience of everyday existence intertwined with the lasting need for meaning that can provide a fertile ground for reinventing the necessary rituals of tomorrow.

Our machine-driven societies tend to leave natural boundaries unnoticed, no matter how powerful. A possible artificial milieu that could revive our interest for spatial events is — thinks Pérez-Gómez — the liminal realm of suburbia, where time recovers some of its forgotten magic. Often, places of improvised, non-canonical creativity, abandoned urban areas are expanded margins, appropriate reminders of the fact that building has usually meant the order of the human universe. The author makes one more recourse to Vitruvius in order to recall that according to him the emergence of architecture requires a clearing in the forest. Not a shelter, but a boundary is thus produced to allow language and culture to take place.

In order to remain within the recourse to ancient thinkers, the message of the author is comprising and generous when recommending phronesis — a practical philosophy inviting us to wise moderation of our pretensions and the recovery of the human condition in what we build and live in togetherness.11 We need to go on identifying problems and attempting to find partial solutions to them. Architecture is bound to represent human participation even when its makers and inhabitants are oblivious with respect to this fundamental quality of places, mediating shared experiences, conferring identity to the dwellers. One of the first tasks is already formulated by Alberto Pérez-Gómez: “is it possible to imagine that such experiences may indeed bring us back to introspection, allow us to ask important human questions, and even change our life?”

Many of these ideas, as synthesised by Alberto Pérez-Gómez in his paper, are present, intersect and annotate each other in the various contributions that compose the thematic dossier, and even in some of the book reviews, which thus become prolongations of the dossier proper. While examining or documenting various urban limits — inherited or foreseeable, clearly defined or diffuse, physical or mental —, all authors eventually address problems of the contemporary city, its society, and its builders; they ask meaningful questions in respect of the relationship of the city with its territory, the living experience of the city, the city administration and the professional knowledge (including the urban design). Although the contributions came from various parts of the world (from the two Americas to Europe, from Hong Kong to Romania), their reading conveys the comforting impression of a promising consensus of critical thinking.

This consensus is also subsumed under the reference to Richard Sennett, who is present in almost all articles, especially with his acknowledged concept of Open City.12 We dare say that it is precisely through this aim that the articles try to contradict the weakness of the critical imagination of the city that Sennett denounces; his accusations sound even graver as architects and planners have at their disposal “more resources than ever in the past, but they do not use them very creatively”.13

Against this background, the idea that urban limits can be valuable resources is all the more precious, as it depends only on their subtle understanding and use in designing a meaningful urban environment. Identifying such limits and valuing their human and physical potential are at issue in many articles.14

For Valeria Montanari (“Urban Walls: Reading and Possible Restoration. Two Study Cases”) such potential surrounds the old fortified walls of the Cascia and Norcia (Perugia, Italy), one entirely preserved, the other ruined, while for Sonja Vangjeli (“Reframing Urban Boundaries: Lima’s Urban Black Holes”) it is localized in Pachacamac, perceived as “a black hole” at the edges of Lima (Peru). In both cases these limits represent “new characteristic units” (in Montanari’s formulation) of a different substance, still insufficiently investigated. For both authors, this unit of another nature is able to reintegrate the city and its surroundings in a balanced whole, poetic, functional and sustainable at the same time, by means of a subtler yet more rewarding Land-Arch approach, beyond the limits of restoration orthodoxy or prejudiced administrative decisions.

Choosing Skopje and its Aerodrom housing area as example, Vlatko Korobar (“The Encounter at the Margins of City and Society”) explains how urban margins can become spillovers of current urban policies or, on the contrary, evolve into most vital parts of an urban territory, “where initiatives and alternative ways of development can take place”.

For Ştefan Ghenciulescu (“Porosity and Collisions. About Bucharest and its Limits”), the resourceful limit he investigates in the city of Bucharest (Romania) consists of the “virtual transparency” engendered by a particular form of visual communication between the street and the depth of the plot and the urban block, which endows the city with a specific character, generally misunderstood.

Eunice Seng (“The City in a Building. A Brief Social History of Urban Hong Kong”) finds a valuable resource to be wisely utilised in a possible development of the city of Hong Kong in the spectacular interplay of limits within the high density composite buildings of the 1960 and 1970s. Here, the manifold relationship between the public and the private realms has grown into an organic, dense and perfectly functional amalgam of people and activities, hence displaying an amazing complexity, the complexity of a city within a city.

Obviously related to Ghenciulescu’s and Seng’s approaches, Sorana Rădulescu (“Interior Public Spaces: A Strategy to Address the Inside-Outside Interface”) explores the urban potential of the limit between the public and the privately owned public spaces (POPS) in New-York, from the perspective of interior urbanism, which “is not about artificially replicating city functions in the interior of a building, but about extending the public realm beyond the façades”, thus diluting the conventional boundaries, trespassing them and enriching the experience of the city.

Irina Nemţeanu (“Constructed Jewish spaces in Europe. Exploring traces in 19th Century Moldavia”) investigates the latency of the physically-diffuse-mentally-defined limits of Jewish communities’ areas in the cities of 19th century Moldavia (historical province of Romania).

Hence, her study proposes a new reading of these cities from the resourceful perspective of the specific encounter-rejection relationship between the two religious communities (Jewish and Christian, immigrants and natives) for the historical research.

Although in more oblique ways, the productive character of limits is also at stake when Thomas Cole criticizes the ideological interferences in building the city; when Paco Mejias Villatoro & Tanzil Shafique base their argument on the formative role of various kind of borders and boundaries for the American cities, as well as when Vlad Thiery advises about the new boundaries we are building.

Yet, in these cases, the urban value of limits is rather implicit — though not less significant — and ensues from the criticism of misunderstandings, biases, misappropriations, deceits or abuses. From these perspectives, limits are explored as missed opportunities in various projects for the city or the urban society. In such stances, the cohesion of the city and of the society is merely at risk. Herein lays the symptom that Sennett labels as Brittle City, the result of “over-determination, both of the city’s visual forms and its social functions”.15 This critical direction in approaching limits was not taken solely by the four authors mentioned in the previous paragraph; is also present in other articles, no matter their specific focus.

A highly revealing example of over-determination ideologically decided is brought to the fore by Thomas Cole (“The Architecture of Margins; an Exploration of Civic Architecture and its representation of territorial limits in Sarajevo, Ljubljana, and Skopje”) who compares the architectural means that designers used for expressing the nationalist rhetoric of the political entities engendered by the convoluted geo-political modifications of frontiers within the former Yugoslavia — a “syncretic assemblage of iconography meant to reposition the city within new territorial relations”, all the more arguable in the context of a multicultural and multi-ethnic territory.

Remaining in the same geographical area, Vlatko Korobar’s critical analysis of the Aerodrom district of the new Skopje (mentioned above) also shows the unfortunate outcome of an urban planning biased by the misinterpretation of margins, when they are “perceived through the centre-periphery dichotomy”, or generally when the role they could play is not recognized by the planning authorities “pursuing the ‘heroic’ vision of the new city”.

Further to the North, in Bucharest, Ştefan Ghenciulescu’s paper (also mentioned above) refers to similar misunderstandings that menace the discreet specificity of the city, an atmosphere stemmed from the encounter between an Oriental urban fabric and series of unfinished modernizing projects of Western origins, all along a history of overlapping layers and collisions.

From the American continent, Paco Mejias Villatoro and Tanzil Shafique (“The Fiction of the Equal: Boundary Disappearance and Border Neutralization in the American City”) advance another critical argument. The authors let us understand how brittle the city becomes when the specifically foundational interplay between openness and closure could be politically prejudiced “as a way to superficially project an idea of social, economic and racial equality”, and end up in the disappearance of the urban social cohesion from the quotidian city life and its withdrawal in specific buildings — the mall and the church.

Interpreting the same theme, Vlad Thiery (“The Fences We Build”) extends the area of investigation to the anxieties of our globalized society of consumption. He addresses the problematic emergence of new mental limits, and tries to explain their genealogy and their economic and societal reasons. Required by people, supported by escapist narratives, financed by commercial interests and designed by architects, these mentally set limits become real boundaries (edges that clearly establish the end of some condition or a change of status, in Sennett’s terms), meant to be “refuges” from the real world, self-sufficient environments cutting themselves out from both urban and social context — “ego-systems”, as the author put it.

As if responding to Alberto Pérez-Gómez’s criticism with regard to the contemporary architectural ambitions, Vlad Thiery identifies two extremes: on the one hand, a “commercial practice”, uncritical by definition, cheaply populist, and conforming to financial profit and, on the other hand, what he calls “theoretical practice”, an elitist, sophisticated practice “whose manifestly critical attitude creates avant-gardes”, but is indifferent to ordinary people’s needs or expectations and “does not care for re-establishing the architecture-user connection lost in modernism”.

In very different ways, all the contributions understand the urban limits they called into question as interfaces (thus “referring to a common area of two realms, a place where independent systems meet and interact”, in Rădulescu’s terms). The limit is aimed to become a place in itself, a “porous” and fecund terrain for cultural, social and aesthetic communication, where the possibility of moving to a different stance needs to be nuanced — the limit is no longer a break and certainly not an enclosure. Whether they think in terms of possible projects (Vangjeli, Montanari, Seng, Ghenciulescu, Rădulescu), or of urban design criticism (Cole, Rădulescu, Korobar), or of attitudes underlying the project (in more general terms by Thiery, more specifically by Cole, Vangjeli, Montanari); whether they regard boundaries and borders in their historical constitution (Nemţeanu, Cole, Vangjeli), or in their larger and more problematic stances (Thiery, Mejias & Shafique), the limit is seen as a threshold — which always expresses openness. It is an assumed openness towards “the Other”, and also an openness towards a new “urban imagination formed by anticipation, friendly to surprise”.16

An annotation is needed here, which sends to two of the books reviewed in this volume,17 for the two authors, Dietmar Steiner and Vassilis Sgoutas, directly refer to this specific state of mind that has gradually made its way into the professional awareness, raising questions about the act of building and its effects upon people’s life. The critical outlooks they offer from the perspective of the particular position they occupied (as founder and director of the Arkitecktur Zentrum Wien and respectively, as president of the International Union of Architects) reinforce architects’ expectations towards trespassing the extant limits and prejudices which appear from the pages of the dossier.

In the end, no matter what sort of limits appear in the articles, according to the contributors to this issue, the limit cannot but dissolve into a hospitable porosity — physical, mental or both. Intervening on it becomes an opera aperta, a work in progress consisting of — in Eco’s wording — “unplanned or physically incomplete structural units” in which “the world intended by the author” offers “the interpreter, the performer, the addressee a work to be completed”.18 It is an oeuvre written by the architect and the urban planner, but not by them alone.

A recent title from The Guardian claims that “The World Wants More ‘Porous’ Cities – So Why Don’t We Build Them?”19The author, Richard Sennett again, writes: “If the public comes to demand it, urban planners can easily design a porous city…”. So why does it not happen that way? It remains to be seen what architects can do to help the public come forward to demand a porous city. This seems a predicament, but what we can discern from all contributions to this volume is — in Pérez-Gómez’s words — that:

“Openness is key, but this is precisely the character of works of imagination: open enough to invite participation, but engaging a critical view […] and revealing the ultimately mysterious horizon of our meaningful experiences.”

Ana Maria Zahariade

Kázmér Kovács

1 Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining (London: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 209.

2 Simina Anamaria Purcaru, “Marginal Theory. Restoring Poiesis in Architecture”, sITA – studies in History and Theory of Architecture 4 (2016): 13-24.

3 For enaction, defined as “the manner in which a subject of perception creatively matches its actions to the requirements of its situation”, see Francisco J Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1992), 9.

4 See Alberto Pérez-Gómez, Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2008).

5 He was president of East Centric Triennial, Bucharest, September 2016. On this occasion, Alberto Pérez-Gómez delivered the conference Attunement. He also accepted the translation of his book Attunement into Romanian, currently under printing.

6 This particular paper will be published for the second time, which is an exception to the rule of our journal to put together its thematic dossiers with unpublished texts. The article replaces the missed interview that Pérez-Gómez accepted to give us but, unfortunately, time did not allow it. The article is the edited version of the author’s presentation at an international conference and has already been published as “Architecture: The Space of Participation” in Suburbs, PUBLIC 43 edited by Steven Logan, Janine Marchessault and Michael Prokopow (Toronto: Public Access, 2011). In the following commentary of the text, when not marked differently, all the quotations from the present introduction are taken from it.

7 Françoise Choay, The Invention of the Historic Monument (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 89.

8 Founded in 2003, the IwB is run in collaboration with the School of Design at George Brown College, Toronto. accessed Nov. 22, 2017.

9 E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops, 1909.

10 Dalibor Veselý, Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2004).

11 For the idea of phronesis as “wisdom, articulating human, situated truths and enabling a good life”, see Pérez-Gómez, Attunement.

12 Richard Sennett, The Open City (LSE Cities, 2006) (accessed Nov. 22, 2017); Joan Clos, Richard Sennett with Ricky Burdett and Saskia Sassen, Towards An Open City. The Quito Papers and the New Urban Agenda (UN Habitat, Routledge, 2016).

13 The whole quotation is: ”I am propounding a paradox, for today’s planner has an arsenal of technological tools – from lighting to bridging and tunneling to materials for buildings – which urbanists even a hundred years ago could not begin to imagine: we have more resources to use than in the past, but resources we don’t use very creatively” (Sennett, The Open City).

14 In the following lines the quotations from the article under focus are not footnoted; only the quotations from another author will be annotates.

15 Sennett, The Open City.

16 Ibid.

17 Dietmar Steiner, Steiner’s Diary. About Architecture Since 1959 (Linz: Ed. Kunstuniversität, 2016) and Vassilis Sgoutas, A Journey with the Architects of the World (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2017).

18 Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 12, 18.

19 Richard Sennett, in (accessed Nov. 22, 2017).

studies in History and Theory of Architecture • vol. 5 / 2017
Limits within the Urban Realm
Published with the support of the
Chamber of Architects of Romania (OAR)