Even before the world knew of architectural greatness, Italy already had the arch of Constantine — constructed of brick-faced concrete riveted in marble in AD 312 — representing power and prestige, and aptly so. Italy has always been ahead of the times, with architecture designs that combined flawless craftsmanship, cultural relevance and incomparable ingenuity.
As the land progressed and civilizations expanded, the Italian Renaissance began. The early 14th to 16th centuries saw the artistic, political, architectural and social movement give way to the “rebirth” of classical culture and the emergence of architectural masterpieces that challenged the ideals of construction and engineering. One look at the St. Peter’s Basilica (by Michelangelo) and Ospedale degli Innocenti (by Flippo Brunelleschi) and you’d see the seamless harmony of art and mathematics. At the turn of the century, architects from outside Italy modeled their works on Renaissance ideas, and the movement spread to France, Spain, Germany and the US.
Today, Italy continues to innovate ideas that take architecture to a whole new context, merging design with strategic urban planning that allows Italians to thrive. The concept of urban regeneration — the process of improving buildings and land to reverse structural decline — is now in the limelight, taking a significant place in urban planning discussions and projects.
Milan’s Porta Nuova and CityLife
As Italy’s creative capital and economic heart, Milan has gone through relentless changes, and has transformed into the home of major fashion brands and world-renowned art pieces. Over the past years, the world’s most talented architects worked for Milan’s extraordinary architectural development, changing the image of the “grey city” to green, answering the call to fight against global warming. The rise of Porta Nuova and CityLife, some of the largest urban regeneration projects in all of Europe, turned industrial sites into sustainably-built creative spaces for fashion design and important projects for arts and culture. Both schemes concentrate density in a few high-rise buildings, freeing the space on the ground level to develop a new urban nature park, a unicum green field that breathes life to the city, making it more pleasant and habitable.
Venice’s MOSE system
Called the “City of Canals' ' and “The Floating City”, Venice is one of the world’s most splendid cities. But Venice’s unique origins and natural dependence on water is also the source of its major challenge: finding the balance between the need for conservation and the need for innovation to drive its future growth. The MOSE, which is intended to protect Venice and the Venetian Lagoon from flooding, is an integrated system of mobile gates installed at the Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia inlets to isolate the lagoon temporarily from the Adriatic Sea during high tides. The construction of the infrastructure began in 2003, with a full test completed successfully in July 2020. When the MOSE was activated for the first time during the October 2020 high tide event, low-lying parts of the city were spared from flooding. The groundbreaking project, along with coastal reinforcement works, guarantee the protection of the city and its people.
A model for Vietnam: Rethinking development
Italy’s success in urban regeneration and how it has transformed previously abandoned structures to sustainable spaces that foster social and economic growth is now being replicated by developing nations, including Vietnam. Italy propelled awareness of the necessity to reshape urban centers to meet the challenges of globalization.
Vietnam, considered as one of the fastest growing countries in Asia, has gone through tremendous growth through the years. From the introduction of Doi Moi in 1986 to the various free trade agreements signed, the Southeast Asian country is a force to be reckoned with in terms of economic development. The seemingly endless construction of high-rise commercial and residential edifices dominate city skylines. New communities are being created continuously — complete with offices, housing units, public amenities and green spaces that maintain civic pride.
However, beyond these glittering developments is the fact that most of the daily action actually happens in alleyways, the ancient neighborhoods that frame the major cities of Hanoi and Saigon. These spatial apparatus constitute the basic unit of the urban matrix, the backbone of the social and commercial dynamics of the city. But they are packed, and undeniably polluted, with sewage systems and water drainage barely functioning. Poor forms of housing are prevalent in these alleyways; and because they’re overpopulated, safety (fire, for instance) is a huge matter of concern.
Then there’s the diminishing utilization and preservation of French heritage architecture that used to be Vietnam’s unique charm. As demand for housing expands and lands are developed, heritage buildings are at risk of getting torn down. Many of the old villas and shophouses now lie decrepit and empty, while a good number have already been replaced or modified into modern commercial spaces. Between the late 1980s and 2008, the number of French and European-style villas in Hanoi dropped by almost half, to under 1,000, according to research by Thi Nhu Dao at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris.
So, how can Vietnam ride on growth and modernity without sacrificing its cultural identity?
Italian Design Day: Drawing inspiration from il esperto
The Italians have done (and eventually mastered) the answer: finding the balance between history and modernity, between preservation and development.
To further raise public awareness of Italy's unique take on architectural design and development, an annual Italian Design Day is celebrated in more than 100 cities around the world. This year, the momentous affair is centered on the importance and urgent need for urban regeneration.
"We aim at reaching out to students, teachers, architects, companies in the real estate and design sector. Our objective is to give young Vietnamese architects and the interested public an overview of the trends and solutions for urban regeneration projects in Italy, in Vietnam and worldwide," said Italian Ambassador to Vietnam Antonio Alessandor.
Italian Design Day 2021 in Vietnam will kick off on July 8 with a special online conference on urban regeneration, explaining the current trend aimed at rethinking and transforming urban spaces in Vietnamese cities in sustainable and equitable ways. On July 9, a webinar with the theme “Technology applied to the preservation of cultural heritage” will be held.
Architect Massimo Roj, who serves as this year’s Italian Design Ambassador in Vietnam, will also deliver an online presentation on architecture and sustainability — two concepts he has actively championed for more than three decades now. As ambassador of sustainable design, Massimo integrates sustainable strategies with the objective of creating a flexible and efficient architecture, using a holistic approach based on the “Less ego More Eco” motto, less personal interest and more collective benefits.