Trieste Contemporanea november 2000 n.6/7


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by Alessandra Knowles

Werner Desimpeleare is President of Groep Planning, founded in 1966, which is one of the earliest and most successful interdisciplinary urban architecture groups in Belgium. Since 1971 he has been involved, with his group, in the urban development of Bruges and has operated extensively in Brussels, Tallinn and Budapest. Over the past few years he has been working for the Council of Europe as project leader for the rehabilitation and restoration of the cities of former Yugoslavia and since September 1999 he has been involved in a bilateral planning project for the urban development of the city of Cracow in collaboration with the International Cultural Centre and the Municipality of Cracow. With him I discussed issues of management and development of historical cities.

In your presentation you laid great importance on the notion of memory; why?

When Groep Planning was asked in 1971 to make a construction plan for Bruges, the so-called Venice of the North, it was a real shock for me, as a young architect, to observe the potentiality of this historical city to continue to live in a universally modern way. I believe that in the second half of the 20th century society is trying to achieve a sort of “memorycide” and we seem to be going towards an a-traditional society, thinking of tradition in its etymological meaning “tradere” or “trans-dare”, giving over or passing down. Tradition, in this sense, is not a conservative word, it implies not only conservation but also integration and projection. So when I talk about memory as the binding agent of our identity at both personal and collective levels, what I am trying to say is that we have to know what we received from our ancestors, why and how they did it, so that we can give it new continuity through change. It is not a question of deep-freezing or crystallising things but interpreting them and remodelling them in order to give them over to future generations.

Cultural mass tourism has been one of the central issues raised during this conference in relation to historical cities and to the need for careful management of its potential risks; what is your position?

It is again a question of fundamental memory as well as of education. Cultural tourism should have to do with finding yourself in other cultures: the theory of “reconoisser en autrui”. Yet, in many of the places I have visited tourism seems to have led to organised standardisation and vulgarisation of cultural identity inducing very rapid changes in the social tissue of the towns. I remember Cracow ten years ago and I cannot believe that now in the historic centre of Cracow there are seven hundred and fifty bars; can you imagine what it could become tomorrow? I am not an economist but as a kind of cultural worker I am convinced that we have to make mental, physical and even maybe financial barriers against people making a profit. Every place has its own sustainability, it can only tolerate a certain amount of physical pressure depending on its size, on the facilities and so on. For example, in Bruges tourism is concentrated in a small section of the town where you have the so called “architectura maior”; thus only this district is partly damaged, so to speak. We have been trying to limit mass tourism to this circuit in order to protect the other districts of the town and to confine parking places out of town so that the distance from the object of tourist interest may create a sort of mental and physical barrier, though of course there are facilities for disabled and elderly people.

This approach cannot be very popular in that it aims at limiting the economic exploitation of mass tourism.

Talking about economics you have to be very careful because it is the eternal alibi. We carried out a study, in collaboration with a business office, on the revenues from tourism in Bruges. Taking into consideration hotels, restaurants, bars and so on the figure makes up about 7% of the gross financial product. I am convinced that the city of tomorrow will or will not exist depending on whether we can find a balance between economy and ecology: economy being oikos nomos, from the Greek oikos the house, and nomos the way of managing the house. Therefore returning to the fundamental meaning of oikos nomos, not as an absolute objective but as a way of being, we have to try and rebalance this very fundamental issue creating a society which is in a kind of mental and physical equilibrium. Cities must be thought about in the long term as a place of habitat and a sustainable environment.

In the light of past experience, how can your involvement in the development of the city of Cracow bring into being these ideas and why is Cracow a particularly good experimental field in this sense?

This is a very complex question. First of all Cracow, like many other historic towns including Bruges, has this strange paradox that it still exists as an historic city because of poverty. Brussels, for example, was demolished within two generations and rebuilt in the name of progress and commerce according to the awful American rationalistic and functional criteria of separating living, working and recreational spaces. In Central and Eastern Europe there is an unbelievable potential for the future because of the universal ability of these towns to continue to give an answer to the fundamental needs of the man of today and, at the same time, offer the possibility of giving over a traditional town to future generations. In Cracow, the first ten years after the so called “opening” were rather slow but the city is now growing at an exponential rate. New fundamental living contingencies such as mobility networks have arisen which are changing the urban landscape entirely. It is thus necessary to be very careful and this is not possible without courageous politicians who implement sustainable development against the interests of economic-oriented people. What we are trying to do here in Cracow is to foresee, through a multidisciplinary analysis of the structural, social, economic and political information gathered by local expert witnesses, new places to develop for the future without destroying the magnificent existing habitat which will continue to be the core of the city, offering not only tourist facilities but also, and primarily, facilities for its inhabitants. We are now exploring the possibility of revitalising the banks of the Vistula with the aim of integrating the river valley into the urban fabric. A second potentiality is offered by the railway station area and Kazimierz, the old Jewish district, although I am not very optimistic for the future of Kazimierz because it is going towards total gentrification and within the next ten years most of the original inhabitants will have been pushed out. This goes to show that, as professionals, we can only operate in the background of politics, trying to do our very best to prepare, as decision makers, sustainable strategies. It is then up to the politicians, who are the final decision takers, to apply these strategies.


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