Issue 13 / May 2018
Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani regards seemingly trivial matters such as street signs, park benches, manhole covers and urinals as important indices in our reading of European urban space
Irene Dische: Tell me about your present project – what exactly is it that you are doing?
Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani:: My project at the Wissenschaftskolleg is one that usually provokes amusement in everybody who hears of it for the first time. Actually I wanted to do something entirely different. When I received the invitation to come to Berlin, I had in mind a somewhat more serious project, namely a history of discussions pertaining to the sustainable city.
ID: What do you mean by “sustainable”?
VML: I mean a city that is economically viable, that doesn’t utilize a great deal of energy, that generates little garbage, and which has a pleasant climate and good air. I’m preoccupied with those ecological questions which we in the contemporary world pretend to have discovered for the very first time but which have actually always been with us. The city has forever created environmental problems while at the same time serving as a means by which one can solve these very problems or at least delimit them – I wanted to trace this old, and in part age-old discussion. And I still think that it’s a good and important subject. But then I had another idea. It was through the urban-planning analyses – but above all through the urban-planning projects – on which I have worked in recent years that I developed an interest in and grew curious about very banal things in the city that nobody really wants to acknowledge let alone design but which we simply must have, things like sewers, manhole covers, ground grids, markings and lettering on the pavement as well as ancillary architecture such as subway entrances, bus stops, kiosks, public toilets, telephone booths, and the entrances to underground parking garages. Then of course there are those fixtures of generally smaller scale: monuments, fountains, streetlights, clocks, benches, street signs, house-number plates, traffic lights, mailboxes, garbage cans, hydrants, doorbell systems, bollards, advertisements, traffic signs, commemorative plaques, bicycle racks, fire alarms, call boxes, notice boards.
ID: I see.
VML: I have realized or at least conjectured that these seemingly trivial things are important for the atmosphere, general vibe and ultimate beauty of urban spaces. You can ruin any town square through three ugly and badly positioned benches, and you can destroy any street by overdesigning the house-number plates. These are not only technical but cultural tasks. And there are quite a few of them. It is by way of these small and apparently trite objects that you can gauge the complexity of a city and register its influences and pretensions. And that’s what I find so fascinating – also because the histories of these things can be extraordinarily interesting – and these are precisely the stories that I wish to tell: stories about those small things in the urban space of various European cities. For instance sewers. As a rule, all these stories have their beginnings in antiquity. The Bocca della Verità in Rome was a sewer where the rainwater flowed through the eyes and mouth of the stone mask into the Cloaca Maxima. And how did sewers evolve? There is not one but two stories concerning that, though I only realized this after taking a closer look at the matter. Drainage grates and manhole covers – a wonderful word manhole, because the hole and its cover are just large enough for a man to enter the shaft – are completely different things. The one brings water into the sewer system, the other is simply to cover an opening, generally over an inspection hatch, which prevents people from falling in.
ID: Bank robbers occasionally use them – very important to urban history.
VML: Very important. In the movie The Third Man, Harry Lime tries to escape through the Viennese sewers. But then in trying to resurface he can’t lift the street grating and this eventually spells his doom.
ID: And where are the most beautiful ones? In Rome of course, right?
VML: No, I wouldn’t say that. And that’s not at all my concern – to crown the beauty queen of sewers and manhole covers.
ID: In any event they vary a lot.
VML: They are extremely diverse – just take a look at Berlin! And Paris and Vienna are something else again. Even Milan and Rome are very unalike. Naturally they are also different because some are older and some are of more recent vintage. Their materials alone say much about the period of their emergence as well as the technical and aesthetic aspirations that informed their construction – from stone to cast iron and molten steel to cement and plastics. Then the inscriptions to be found on them – they range from abbreviations for the model numbers and technical norms to the names and logos of the firms that manufactured them. Sometimes they will delineate the function of the shafts that they are covering: water, gas, electricity, coal or even pneumatic post – reminding us of functions that have been long defunct. And they often refer to the city for which they were created, bearing its name or crest. In Chandigarh, Le Corbusier even managed to emboss his sketch of the city’s layout on every one of its manhole covers. Sometimes the manhole covers are not only linked to a city but to a very special place – for example the manhole covers which were manufactured for the Esposizione Universale Roma that was to take place before the gates of Rome in 1942 as a glorification of Mussolini’s regime; but the Second World War intervened and the Fascists were deposed. The manhole covers remain, though, as reminders of a dubious chapter in the city’s urban and political history.
ID: And there are similar stories pertaining to all these various elements?
VML: Yes. Sidewalks, streetlights, advertising columns and manholes have stories of their own that they too recount. All you have to do is take a closer look. The street surfaces in Roman cities bear witness to the development of new and elaborate engineering techniques that were employed to not only maximize military and economic efficiency but to promote the comfort of the Roman citizenry – the grooves in the large and carefully worked stone slabs remind us of the heavy traffic in carts and wagons. But stories can be read into more recent street surfaces as well. The stony street paving from the nineteenth century reflect a desire to both solidify the streets and revive a certain atmosphere and certain qualities of the historical city, whereas their paving over with asphalt betokens a belief in the ascendancy of (primarily motorized) vehicular traffic as well as smooth easy comfort and an optimization of the cost-benefit ratio. We can read this fairly easily in those places where the pavement surfacing nudges up against house entrances and the bases of buildings.
ID: And then in Berlin there are now these gold-colored paving stones with the names of murdered Jews.
VML: Yes, these are objects which don’t fall into any conventional category. I am particularly interested in pavement, in sidewalks and in monuments – and these “tripping stones” to commemorate the Jewish dead of the Holocaust are actually little monuments in their own right – monuments that partake of pavement which in turn partakes of the sidewalk.
ID: Lampposts as well, namely street lighting, would also be included?
VML: Yes, the streetlights are particularly good historical witnesses, they are very vivid storytellers. Their posts and lampheads reveal whether we are dealing with historical or contemporary specimens or possibly reissues of an older model. Often the coats of paint have peeled off a bit and you can see the kind of maintenance that has been undertaken over the years and the changes entailed. The lighting systems demonstrate incredible technical developments since the beginning of the nineteenth century when it comes to urban illumination – from the oil lamp to gas to electricity for a wide range of uses and with an equally wide range of light sources. And placement of the lamps in the urban space can tell us much about the practices, norms and purposes of city lighting. There has been a great deal written on this theme, but there is almost nothing about street signs. The phenomenon of street names has been well researched and there is abundant work addressing it, but the signs themselves on which the street names are written have long been a blind spot in urbanism research. For months I have been investigating and still not yet discovered when exactly those marble panels with street names engraved on them – and which I personally find to be very handsome – first made an appearance in Italian cities.
ID: You mean those panels that one finds on buildings at every street corner?
VML: Exactly. It is a piece of marble small enough that it can easily be carried by two individuals and is standardized throughout Italy – from Piedmont to Sicily. I surmise that the slabs emerged after Italian unification – that is to say, after 1861 – but I have no reliable evidence to support this conjecture. In Berlin the street signs are also very uniform – but they are oblong, enameled metal plates, very generously distributed throughout the city and to be found on practically every street corner. This is not the case in every city. The first street signs were mostly fastened to lampposts, which made perfect sense because you had a ready-made post as well as illumination enabling you to see the sign easily at night. These signs were adorned with a variety of scripts and colors which have remained largely unaltered over the years. The National Socialists changed not only the names of many streets but also changed the lettering to Gothic script, whose use had been discontinued since it was difficult to read. After the Second World War and the end of National Socialism these street signs were eliminated. East Germany was economizing, so instead of the enameled metal plates they used synthetic material with the writing protected by a layer of transparent plastic. West Germany regarded the GDR with disdain – Those poor devils! – but West Germans were also economizing. They discarded the enamel and used silkscreen printing on the metal plates because it was cheaper. But silkscreen printing fades with the effects of sunlight and weather, the result being that the newfangled signs soon had to be replaced.
ID: I always wondered whether the quality of street signs is an indicator of the degree to which strangers are welcome in a city.
VML: No, the street signs were not originally erected for strangers. In the Middle Ages and during antiquity there were no street signs. There were street names and the locals knew them without needing any signs. When a stranger entered town he was then shown the way and told that a certain place might be close to the large church or next to the tavern. Street signs first emerged in the eighteenth century and there were two reasons for their appearance. One factor was to aid in the collection of taxes – it was easier to keep tabs on taxpayers when the street names were clearly indicated. The second reason was the mustering of non-volunteers in time of war; for instance the government would know that in such-and-such a street there were plenty of young men who could be conscripted.
ID: So not at all intended for out-of-towners . . .
VML: That came later, in the nineteenth century, when the notion was indeed to assist in orienting people. But before that, no.
ID: But a tourist city needs a lot of street signs. For example, Vienna has splendid signs.
VML: The oldest signs that can still be seen today go all the way back to 1860. This was when the Viennese municipal authorities decided to give visible indicators of the city’s streets along with their respective districts. Two years later the signs themselves assumed a standardized form. They had to be made of white lacquered cast zinc, and for the major thoroughfares they had to have a rectangular shape and for cross streets an oblong one. The script was Gothic lettering, black for the streets and red for the town squares; the words Gasse (alley), Straße (street) and Platz (square) were not attached to the certain name, as often done in German, but separated from it and without benefit of a hyphen. The new sign’s border was red for the squares but for streets it depended on the district where that street was located: red, purple, green, pink, black, yellow, blue, gray or brown. A provision of 1907 relaxed the stipulations a bit in tolerating the simpler and cheaper zinc plate in those “more or less remote districts” as it was so quaintly put. In 1923 the street signs were exchanged and uniformly standardized. All of them now were rectangular with white Latin script against a background of blue enamel and the entire sign edged in white. Three years later there was a harking back to the original signs and a small distinction was introduced, the corners of the cross street signs being rounded off. After Nazi Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria there was discussion about returning to Gothic script, but this measure was never implemented. And since the 1980s there have been signs based on the template of 1862 but now manufactured from plastic. It was then in the 1990s that explanatory plaques were mounted so as to give some historical background to the street names. That is certainly what you mean.
ID: Exactly. Do you think that this is important?
VML: In Theodor Fontanes last novel Der Stechlin (The Stechlin, 1898) the parvenu Schickedanz, on his deathbed, tells his wife: “Building names, street names, those are the best. Street names last longer than a monument.” Something of great significance does indeed merit suitable advertisement through appropriate display. What are the most attractive street signs? It’s a matter of taste. What are the best street signs? In my view, those that are easy to read, which render only the most necessary information but then a tiny bit more – but primarily those that are not being constantly revamped and reinvented but have a solid and unspectacular form which contributes to the city’s uniqueness – namely to its identity.
ID: And how do you select those particular items that you want to investigate? Anything that attracts your attention or strikes you as interesting?
VML: The subject of small urban elements might seem a narrow one, but once you start involving yourself it proves to be a boundless terrain. Even when you lump together related types of elements, their sheer quantity remains astonishingly large, and one could compose a lengthy treatise on each and every one of them – which has indeed in part been the case. It is from this vast and unwieldy quantity that I have endeavored to find those elements which appear to me typical of their kind – that is to say, an appropriate number of fixed elements relating to streets and town squares, such as pavements and sidewalks; of smaller structures like subway stations, public toilets and telephone booths; and of those urban fixtures such as street lamps, fountains, bollards and manhole covers. My selection of objects is of course a subjective one and to a degree even arbitrary. I operate on the supposition that my chosen objects are typical, that they have a certain significance, and that they will yield interesting research findings; but also – this is perhaps of primary importance – my curiosity must be stimulated. And relatedly, there must be a certain enthusiasm I bring to writing a micro-history of these elements.
ID: And how exactly do you write such a history?
VML: All of the micro-stories are more or less constructed along lines of the same template. I commence by excavating the etymological origins of the most important terms in my analysis. Then I attempt to very concisely sketch the story of the element from its beginning to the present day. Europe constitutes the geographic terrain of my investigation and within Europe the same cities keep popping up – Rome, Paris, London, Vienna, Berlin; not only because these are important urban centers – for instance Rome was one of the great governmental centers of antiquity, Berlin was a belated capital and industrial city – but for the simple reason that I have a personal acquaintance with each of these towns and can resort to some of my own illustrative material. It is by means of my micro-histories that I attempt to place the development of the various elements in a plausible context. I inquire as to the concrete functional needs involved, the technical conditions entailed, the climatic and hygienic requirements as well as who owns the land and the structures, who pays for these certain elements and why, how their upkeep is maintained, and what organizational and legal and normative prerequisites have been fulfilled. Last but not least, I examine the political and ideological conditions under which these certain elements emerge and how they are socially emblematic and what they actually effectuate. To conclude, I make a current assessment in which I withhold neither my personal opinion nor my thoughts as to future prospects.
ID: So you are doing research on these urban accessories and are open to those small components that actually distinguish a city and in fact characterize it?
VML: The objects of my study are almost exclusively things that functionally enhance the public space, making the city more usable and livable. They are also design features that beautify or disfigure the urban space and make a decisive contribution to its overall character. A street becomes a different kind of street when a sidewalk with the same dimensions in the same street is at one point assembled from granite slabs and poured asphalt at another point. And a street and its character can again be profoundly impacted by whether its asphalt sidewalk has a uniform surface or is a hotchpotch of badly coordinated repairs and other such corrections to it. I believe that the small elements in an urban space often belie their physical dimensions. They are exemplary details wherein one can read the city’s development as a whole. Even the mere fact that the public space of a city is configured in whatever way does say much about that town. The cities of antiquity had numerous fountains, benches and public facilities because their streets and squares were places, downright reflections of societal life and were politically based on the public sphere. In the Middle Ages and in the modern era this is much less the case. It was with the advent of industrialization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the urban space gained a new significance. A person’s dwelling place and where he or she worked were increasingly two distinct entities, so people were spending longer periods of time in the city, which thus had to be newly conceived. That which Walter Benjamin would call the “residence of the collective” was now to be “furnished.” It was a matter of sheer practical concern – people had to eat, rest, have access to information, purchase commodities, and answer nature’s call. But above all there was a political imperative at work here. This burgeoning big-city life had to be guided along the proper channels, the residents disciplined and their behavior governed so that order and decency would be preserved. It is no accident that throughout the twentieth century and to the present day the furnishing and configuration of the urban sphere has grown apace. It has emerged as a stage crammed with props that constitute a framework for the mise-en-scène of globalized consumerism. But it is primarily the smaller elements of urban space, as individual items, that are indices for development of the city’s architecture as a whole. They can be questioned along the same lines as those which are important to the city’s configuration – the usage requirements, the technology, the climate, the ownership structures, the economic mechanisms, the legal instruments and not least the political, ideological and religious motives involved. These are the matters which one must examine so as to comprehend just why a city has assumed a particular form and no other. And one can do it based on a sidewalk, a streetlight or a drainage grate – just as the art historian Ivan Lermolieff alias Giovanni Morelli did in the late nineteenth century. Do you know who he was? A kind of detective of art history, a Sherlock Holmes at identifying pictures. He closely examined such details as hands, ears, the folds in a fabric, and drew inferences regarding the painting as a whole. The smaller elements of urban space are just such indicators and form the key to understanding this urban space – and the city where they coalesce.
ID: So you’re the city detective who uses street accessories as his clues – is the word “accessories” a good expression?
VML: Yes, as a rule we say “city furnishings,” which is not the best term.
ID: Because they aren’t movable?
VML: Firstly because they aren’t movable. My elements aren’t furniture – they don’t move and are not themselves moved – they are fixed entities. Secondly the term suggests that the city and its streets and squares are furnished like some cozy living room, which is entirely false. A city is a city and must not be some cozy place.
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Images: © Maurice Weiss