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Weak Work :

Andrea Branzi's "Weak Metropolis"


and the Projective Potential
of an "Ecological Urbanism "
Charles Waldheim

In his introduction to the Ecological Urbanism conference,


Mohsen Mostafavi described ecological urbanism as both a
critique of and a continuation by other terms of the discourse
of landscape urbanism. Ecological urbanism proposes Uust
as landscape urbanism proposed over a decade ago) to multi-
ply the available lines of thought on the contemporary city to
include environmental and ecological concepts, while expand-
ing traditional disciplinary and professional frameworks for
describing those urban conditions. As a critique of the land-
scape urbanist agenda, ecological urbanism promises to ren-
der that dated discourse more specific to ecological, economi c,
and social conditions of the contemporary city.
Mostafavi's introduction suggested that ecological urban-
ism implied the projective potential of the design disciplines
to render alternative future scenarios . He further indicate d
that those alternative futures may place us across various
"spaces of disagreement."These spaces of disagreement span
the range of disciplinary and professional borders compri s-
ing the study of the city. Any contemporary examination of
those disciplinary frameworks would acknowledge that the
challenges of the contemporary city rarely respect tradition-
al disciplinary boundaries. This realization recalls Rolan d
Barthes' formulation on the various roles of language an d
fashion in the production of interdisciplinary knowledge :
Interdisciplinarity is not the calm of an easy security; it begins effec-
tively when the solidarity of old disciplines breaks down - perhaps
even violently, through the jolts offashion-in the interests ofa new
object and a new Janguage. 1

In reading the new language proposed by the ecological ur-


banism initiative, the subtitle of the recent Harvard confe r-
ence on the subject, "Alternative and Sustainable Cities of
the Future," is equally telling. This construction indicate s
the linguistic cul -de-sac that confronts much of contem po -
rary urbanism, constructed around a false choice between
critical cultural relevance and environmental survival . The
conference title and subtitle further signify disciplinary fault
lines between the well-established discourse on sustainab il-
ity and the long tradition of using urban projections as de-
scriptions of the contemporary conditions for urban culture.

ANTICIPATE 114
This reading suggests that ecological urbanism might re -
animate discussions of sustainability with the political, so-
cial, cultural, and critical potentials that have been drained
from them. This shift would be particularly apt as the design
fields presently experience a profound disjunction of realms
in which environmental health and design culture are op -
posed. This historical opposition has produced a contempo-
rary condition in which ecological function, socialjustice, and
cultural literacy are perceived by many as mutually exclusive.
This disjunction of concerns has led to a situation in which
design culture has been depoliticized, distanced from the
empirical and objective conditions of urban life. At the same
moment, increased calls for environmental remediation, eco-
logical health, and biodiversity suggest the potential for rei -
magining urban futures. Among the results of this disjunction
of intellectual and practical commitments has been that we
are collectively coerced into choosing between alternate ur-
ban paradigms, each espousing exclusive access to environ -
mental health, social justice , or cultural relevance.
Homi Bhabha used his keynote address at the conference
to frame the ecological urbanism project in temporal terms,
Andrea Branzi, et al., "Masterplan
Strijp Philips, Eindhoven," model arguing that "it is always too early, or too late, to talk about
view {1999-2 000) cities of the future ." In so doing, Bhabha locates the ecological

115

-
urbanism project in a complex intertwined dialectic between
the ecologies of the informal and the relentless reach of mod-
ernization. Bhabha maintains that one is in effect always
working with the problems of the past, but these problems
appear differently in new emergent contemporary conditions.
Thus the project of ecological urbanism, Bhabha insists, is
a "work of projective imagination." 2
It is in those terms, as work of projective imagination, that
the urban projects of Andrea Branzi might be found relevant
to the emergent discourse on ecological urbanism. Branzi's
work reanimates a long tradition of using urban projects as
social and cultural critique. This form of urban projection
deploys a project not simply as an illustration or "vision•
but rather as a demystified distillation and description of
our present urban predicaments. In this sense, one might
read Branzi's urban projects as less a utopian future possible
world than a critically engaged and politically literate delin-
eation of the power structures, forces, and flows shaping the
contemporary urban condition. Over the past four decades,
Branzi's work has articulated a remarkably consistent cri-
tique of the social, cultural, and intellectual poverty of much
laissez-faire urban dev~lopment and the realpolitik assump-
tions of much urban design and planning . As an alternative,
Branzi's projects propose urbanism in the form of an envi-
ronmental, economic, and aesthetic critique of the failings of
the contemporary city .
Born and educated in Florence, Branzi studied architecture
in a cultural milieu of the Operaists and a scholarly tradi-
tion of Marxist critique, as evidenced through speculative ur-
Archiz oom Associati, "No-Stop ban proposals as a form of cultural criticism . Branzi first
City" (1968-71) came to international visibility as a member of the collective

ANTICIPATE 116
Archizoom (mid -1960s), based in Milan but associated with
the Florentine Architettura Radicale movement . Archizoom's
project and texts for "No-Stop City" (1968-71) illustrate an
urbanism of continuous mobility, fluidity, and flux. While ·----
"No-Stop City" was received on one level as a satire of the Brit-
ish technophilia of Archigram, it was also viewed as an illus-
tration of an urbanism without qualities, a representation of
the "degree-zero" conditions for urbanization .3
Archizoom's use of typewriter keystrokes on A4 paper to
represent a nonfigural planning study for "No-Stop City" an-
ticipated contemporary interest in indexical and parametric
representations of the city. Their work prefigured current at -
tention to describing the relentlessly horizontal field condi -
tions of the modern metropolis as a surface shaped by the
strong forces of economic and ecological flows. Equally, these
drawings and their texts pointed toward today's investiga-
tions of infrastructure and ecology as nonfigurative drivers
of urban form. As such, a generation of contemporary urban- .__
ists have drawn from Branzi's intellectual commitments. This
diverse list of influence ranges from Stan Allen and James
Corner's interest in field conditions to Alex Wall and Alejandro
Zaera Polo's concern with logistics. 4 More recently, Pier Vit- '·
P.V.Aureli and M. Tatt ara/D ogma,
torio Aureli and Martino Tattara's project "Stop-City" directly
"Stop City," aerial view (2008)
references Branzi's use of nonfigurative urban projection as
Typical plan, forest canopy (2008) a form of social and political critique. 5 Branzi's urban proj -
ects are equally available to inform contemporary intere ; ts
within architectural culture and urbanism on an array of ,,.
topics as diverse as animalia, indeterminacy, and genericity,
among others.
As a deliberately "nonfigurative" urbanism, "No-Stop City" ·
renewed and disrupted a longstanding traditional nonfigu -'"·:::::--.

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Weak Work 117

,. =,J
rative urban projection as socialist critique . In this regard,
Branzi's "No-Stop City" draws on the urban planning projects
and theories of Ludwig Hilbersei.mer , particularly Hilber-
sei.mer's "New Regional Pattern" and that project's illustration
of a proto -ecological urbanism. 6
Not coincidentally, both Branzi and Hilbersei.mer chose to
illustrate the city as a continuous system of relational forces
and flows, as opposed to a collection of objects. In this sense,
the ongoing recuperation of Hilbersei.mer, and Branzi's re-
newed relevance for discussions of contemporary urbanism,
renders their work particularly meaningful to discussions
of ecological urbanism. Andrea Branzi occupies a singular
historical position as a hinge figure between the social and
environmental aspirations of modernist planning of the post-
war era and the politics of 1968in which his work first emerged
for English-language audiences . As such, his work is particu-
larly well suited to shed light on the emergent discussion
around ecological urbanism.
Branzi's 1993/94 project Agronica returns to his interest
in the relentlessly horizontal spread of capital across thin
tissues of territory, and the resultant "weak urbanization" that
the neoliberal economic paradigm affords. Agronica repre-
sents the potential parallelism between agricultural and
energy production, new modalities of post-Fordist industrial
economy, and the cultures of consumption that they con-
struct.7 More recently in 2000/01, Branzi (with the Domus
Academy, a postgraduate research institute founded in 1980s)
executed a project for Philips in Eindhoven. These projects
returned to the recurring themes in Branzi's oeuvre with
Ludwig Hilberseimer (with Alfred
typical wit and pith, illustrating a "Territory for the New
Caldwell) , bird's-eye view of Economy ." 8
commercial area and settlement Andrea Branzi's intervention in the ecological urbanism
unit (c. 1943)
conference was timely in that it followed a presentation by
Ludwig Hilberseimer, "The City in Andres Duany. That the ecological urbanism agenda could be
the Landscape " (1949) found relevant to a cultural and professional breadth of urban

ANTICIPATE 118
thought spanning from Andrea to Andres is accomplishment
enough, considering the relatively narrow confines within
which debates in contemporary urbanism are often described.
Branzi 's primary contribution to the proceedings consisted
of a keynote lecture featuring a surreal video anthology of
his greatest hits of "weak urbanism," accompanied by a Patti
Smith soundtrack. This montage of four decades of urban pro -
jection offered a visual manifesto of sorts, proclaiming "weak
urbanization" as a medium of environmental and cultural rel-
evance . Branzi prefaced his prepackaged multimedia mashup
with a brief introductory text prepared for the event (read in
Italian with simultaneous translation by Nicoletta Marozzi)
proposing seven suggestions toward a "post -environmental -
ism." 9 These points succinctly framed Branzi 's longstanding
call for a conception of contemporary urbanism as a field
of potentials, shaped by weak forces and spontaneous pro-
grammatic eruptions. Branzi's seven "suggestions" (reprinted
in this volume as a "New Athens Charter") offer a surreal and
nonlinear set of propositions simultaneously accounting for
and celebrating the failings of the contemporary city.
Branzi's "weak work " maintains its relevance for genera-
tions of urbanists. His longstanding call for the development
of weak urban forms and nonfigural fields has already influ -
enced the thinking of those who articulated landscape ur-
banism over a decade ago . Equally, Branzi 's projective and
polemical urban propositions promise to shed light on the
evolving understanding of ecological urbanism and its poten -
tial for reconfiguring the disciplines and professions respon -
sible for describing the contemporary city .

Andrea Branzi, et al., "Agronica,"


model view {1993-94)

119
> Archizoom Associati , "No-Stop 1 Roland Barthes , "From Work to Text," Revival, edited by Hashim Sarkis (Munich:
City " (1968-71) Image Music Text, translated by Stephen Prestel, 2001 ), 118- 126. On logist ics
Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), and contempo rary urbanism, see Susan
155. Nigra Snyder and Alex Wall, " Emerging
2 Homi Bhabha, " Keynote (Footnote) ,'' Landscape of Movement and Logistics ,"
with Rem Koolhaas and Sanford Kwinter, Architectural Design Profile , no. 134 (1998):
Ecological Urbanism Conference , Harvard 16-21 ; and Alejandro Zaera Polo, "Order
Graduate School of Design , April 3, 2009 . Out of Chaos: The Material Organization
3 Arch izoom Assoc iates, " No-Stop City. of Advanced Cap italism," Archite ctural
Residential Parkings . Climat ic Universal Design Profile, no. 108 ( 1994): 24-29.
Sistem ," Domus 496 (March 1971): 49- 55. 5 See Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino
For Branzi's reflections on the project , Tattara, "Architecture as Framework:
see Andrea Branzi, "Notes on No-Stop The Project of the City and the Crisis of
City: Archizoom Associates 1969-1972 ," Neoliberalism," New Geographies , vol. 1
Exit Utopia: Architectural Provocations (2009) : 38-51.
1956-1976 , edited by Mart in van Schaik 6 Ludw ig Hilberseimer , The New Regional
and Otakar Macel (Munich : Prestel, 2005), Pattern : Industr ies and Gardens , Work-
177-182 . For more recent scholarship shops and Farms (Chicago : Paul Theobald,
on the project and its relation to contem- 1949).
porary architectural culture and urban 7 Andrea Branzi, D. Donegani , A. Petrillo,
theory, see Kazys Varnelis, " Programming and C. Raimondo , "Symbiotic Metropolis:
after Program : Arch izoom 's No-Stop City," Agronica ," The Solid Side, edited by Ezio
Praxis, no. 8 (May 2006): 82-91. Manzini and Marco Susani (Netherlands:
4 On field cond itions and contemporary V+K Publishing/ Philips, 1995), 101-120.
urbanism , see James Corner , "The Agency 8 Andrea Branzi , "Preliminary Notes for
of Mapping : Speculat ion , Critique and a Master Plan," and " Master Plan Strijp
Invention," Mappings , edited by Denis Philips, Eindhoven 1999," Lotus , no. 107
Cosgrove (London: Reaktion Books , 1999), {2000) : 110-123.
213-300 ; and Stan Allen, "Mat Urbanism : 9 Andrea Branzi, "The Weak Metropol is,"
The Thick 2-D ," CASE: Le Corbusier's Ecological Urbanism Conference , Harvard
Andrea Branzi, et al., "Masterplan Venice Hospital and the Mat Building Graduate School of Design , April 4, 2009.
Strijp Philips, Eindhoven," model
view {1999-2000)

ANTICIPATE 120
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