05/22: After Amnesia

Part one of a book review of Attilio Petruccioli’s book After Amnesia: Learning from the Islamic Mediterranean Urban Fabric.

After Amnesia: Learning from the Islamic Mediterranean Urban Fabric (2007) is the culmination of decades of research, interest and teaching of Islamic Mediterranean cities. The author, Attilio Petruccioli, serves as Dean at the School of Architecture of the Politecnico di Bari, where he teaches Landscape Architecture and has created a network of studios operating in North Africa and the Middle East. After Amnesia studies the typologies and transformations of urban conditions stretching from Morocco to Iraq, from Egypt to Albania. Petruccioli’s focus is on the vernacular, taking dedicated steps to analyze housing types, “building tissues” and urban fabric while avoiding analysis of landmarks and monuments.

The emphasis here will be on building rather than architecture, ordinary structures rather than masterpieces, the urban continuum rather than the outgrowths, and the continuity of enduring building processes which distinguish architecture of great civilizations rather than the single, extraordinary event.

This framework, with its focus on a ‘continuum’ helps explain and reinforce the title of the work. ‘After Amnesia’ refers to the current struggle to reconnect with a past that has been forgotten and ignored by the Modern and International movements. This ‘amnesia’ is seen as the cause of the many failed projects or ‘experiments’ of the Urban Renewal projects of the Modern and International movements. “Mechanical assemblages, Lego style, or abstract formal schemas that can be recycled in any context” (all hallmarks of Modern and International architecture) are “generated by the separation of typology and history.” The effort, with this body of research, is to rejoin typology with history.

Professor Petruccioli establishes his displeasure with theorists from the enlightenment period in part to explain where he thinks the field of study went wrong. Thinkers of the enlightenment “conceived the city in terms of mechanical problems like transportation and sanitation, refusing to understand the existing city beyond the superficial image of the medieval crowded narrow winding streets.” Ildefonso Cerda, whose 1867 work Teoria is considered the first modern treatise on urban planning, falls under this criticism. This is not to say Cerda was without reason. He accurately documented the problems of his native Barcelona (problems that were in no way exclusive to Barcelona) such as the “unhealthy slums, and the streets … which are unhealthy because of their narrowness and the excessive height of the buildings which line them, and finally, to the fragmented city blocks, overcrowded due to speculation, and deprived of sunlight.” These problems were very serious, and he had intervened in Barcelona a decade earlier with the design and implementation of the Eixample. A clarification of Petruccioli’s position can be found in Stefano Bianca’s Urban Form in the Arab World. Bianca writes “although well-intentioned in its concern for health, safety and welfare, the alleged ‘humanism’ of the Modern Movement … neglected both spiritual and social realities and therefore proved an excellent breeding ground for utopian thinking.” Petruccioli is working to analysis the built environment within the context of the social realities of the Islamic Mediterranean basin, and does so with his analysis of building typologies.

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