Designing Social Relationships

January 23, 2013  |  News

Symbola, Foundation for Italian Qualities, published this essay by Romina Surace on Cibicworkshop as part of the latest research on innovation in Italy:


Cibicworkshop, a research centre founded by Aldo Cibic in Milan, also has a branch in Vicenza. The original incubator for the first workshop was the architecture and design practice of Cibic&Partners in Milan in the late 1980s. Today the two research workshops are nerve centres sharing the presupposition that a space is defined by the interactions which take place in it and, to be made visible, a place must first and foremost generate relations. This is the underlying assumption for the interdisciplinary projects devised by an international group of young designers coordinated by Aldo Cibic, Chuck Felton, Aria Behbehani and Tommaso Corà. The Cibicworkshop activities range from local development projects to the design of new services and activities and even product development.

The starting point for each project is to consider alternative modalities for cities, peripheries and rural areas. Aware that the places we live in are lacking in connections and shared meanings, Aldo Cibic believes that “designing” primarily means producing social dynamics linked to the idea of sustainability, a shared value on which to base integrative processes between individuals and between people and the environment. Aldo Cibic is firmly convinced that in the current age of transition any idea of the future depends on two issues: on one hand, the reduction of material consumption to meet the demands of environmental sustainability; and on the other, the creation of social equality based on the values of co-participation, joint responsibility and caring. This is the necessary response to the dichotomy inherited from industrial society which, in the name of efficiency, divided working time from leisure time, production from consumption, housing from workplaces and so on, until communities were broken up and individuals isolated. Spaces became non-places, i.e. they were stripped of social bonds. Today architectural and urban research is called on to develop design ideas that are in line with the notion of a green economy and, in the specific case of Italy, should be seen as the possibility of stimulating processes to make the most of our heritage (especially in the field of tourism, culture and the natural world). This will bring into play a previously underused capital to generate new economies and at the same time improve quality from the social and environmental points of view.

In the urban space inherited from previous generations what is truly missing is public space, free and accessible for everyone. For reasons of management and security, in daily life we are surrounded by gates, barriers, CCTV and security guards. In conceiving and realising design solutions able to create social bonds, without overlooking the attractiveness and emotional appeal of shops and restaurants, Cibic has reflected longer than other professional figure in Italy on strategies to combine those facilities with services, places and activities that are part of a different way of conceiving notions like public, free and open. The model of the piazza or street does not simply involved adopting a given form or a building type. It is seen as the way to study the complexity and plurality of uses and relations that may take place in the piazza or street. All the Cibicworkshop projects should thus be seen as strategies aimed at solving two main phenomena characterising modern city life: disintegrative monofunctionality and the consequent desire to escape from spaces with no social or environmental bonds. Today monofunctionality not only affects specific urban areas but entire cities, which increasingly seem only to be made up of offices that empty in the evenings or are open-air museums for tourists only. At the same time, the desire to escape, even though increasingly unaffordable, reflects a growing indispensable need for people. In this context, it becomes important to create hybrid places, both real and virtual, whose functions are reintegrated to create the conditions in which to interweave historical and new forms of community.

Microrealities is one of the projects that has best expressed the theoretical approach just described. “Microrealities” are circumscribed situations which, when combined, can generate larger and more significant narratives. They are places without qualities, capable of containing a myriad of individual stories in a vortex of daily movements – full-blown melting ports in different contexts of urban density, suburban development and extra-urban areas. By studying the potential for interactions that can occur in these places, Cibicworkshop has developed four distinct programs. The first, called the Gates of the City, is an attempt to make the desolate area of the Cascina Gobba metro and ring road junction in Milan a real place with exchanges of various kinds: a lounge where you can work looking out at the traffic, a babysitting service for mothers with meetings in town, a place to find a ride to any destination or where to leave your own car and so travel on more sustainable means in the urban fabric. The aim is to ensure that this city nerve centre is no longer only a place of transit but a place of permanence. Metro lines also play a key role in the project for the city of Shanghai. Constructing 100 New Metro Stations was a response to the phenomenon of bewilderment and loss of identity that affects a growing multitude of people, forced to move from the old quarters of the city centre to tower blocks in the outskirts. The metro stations, seen as open places providing breathing spaces for the very dense fabric of skyscrapers, can be transformed into opportunities to create new areas with which recently founded communities can identify. Urban peripheries are also at the centre of another Microrealities project: Shopping Centre +. In this case the architects reconsidered the average shopping mall so that it would no longer be a classic windowless concrete bunker surrounded only by car parks but an open space with shops facing outwards and with public and private spaces inviting people to engage in various types of activities. Lastly, based on multifunctionality and the desire to escape from the chaotic non-places of the city, the fourth “microreality” is called the Vegetable Garden City. This is an eco-village that integrates various recreational aspects with gardening, ecological design, green building and the production of alternative energy. The aim is not to create an ecological theme park but to encourage sustainable behaviour at economic, urban and social level. This involves the creation of an easily reached suburban belt that cuts down on the need for second houses, reduces the use of cars and combats the effects of the dominant tourist model.

Cibicworkshop collaborates with leading educational institutes, research centres, international universities and business incubators. The studio thus dialogues constantly with these extremely lively institutions in developing contemporary design methods. Aldo Cibic is also deeply committed to implementing educational projects in which to convey his acquired knowledge, expertise, working methods and new approaches. His basic conviction is that new methods must be introduced to create the professional skills required for development today. There must be a greater awareness of the scientific and humanistic knowledge demanded by the markets and the need for more deeply interdisciplinary approaches, a key concept in solving the complex situations of modern life. Today we must leave behind the single-discipline approach and abandon the dogma whereby the architect/designer is the only problem-solver. Designing increasingly resembles a complex system of dynamics, like that required for filmmaking, rather than the traditional professional approach in the world of architecture, town planning and design. Architects/designers must abandon the idea of providing a specific service to customers and consider themselves as part of a group made up of economists, sociologists, urban planners, landscapers, agronomists and ordinary citizens willing to propose specific projects.

In Rethinking Happiness Aldo Cibic tried to apply this new design approach on various scales: from a microreality to the redevelopment of large urban areas and the urban plan for a fast-growing city. In the first case, the objective was to help a “foreign” community integrate as a resource for the local area. When an international company relocated its headquarters to the industrial estate of a town at the foot of the Alps, the small town was given the opportunity to grow much larger. But this would only happen if the creatives, newly arrived from all over the world, could find activities and social services useful in forging bonds with the new community, as well experiencing work positively in the new environment. Of the redevelopment ideas for larger urban areas, a project for the Venice lagoon is particularly interesting. In this case a group of 250 young people were involved in innovative start-up businesses based on new technologies in a large farmland area surrounded by water. The biodiversity typical of this area led to the concept of an “agri-techno valley”, a new model of “campus” with carefully combined agriculture, tourism and technology in a situation of energetic and food self-sufficiency. Lastly, “rural urbanism” was the solution conceived for the constantly expanding city of Shanghai. In this case the idea was to create a rural park of 4 km² inhabited by 8,000 people in low-density housing in an area with a long-standing farming tradition around an hour from the city. The agriculture activities were retained thanks to a group of buildings on pilotis that create a perpendicular grid raised above the countryside.

Built up over the years, Cibicworkshop’s reputation for reliability and success is based on the awareness that today’s world will not tolerate waste and that it can no longer only be considered according to an individualistic and utilitarian logic. The world of architecture, town planning and design must contribute to establishing a model in which various players work together to stimulate social, economic and environmental dynamics that will produce new meanings and identities.

Romina Surace for Symbola

For further informations visit our research projects sites:
Freedom Room
Coltivare una comunità
Designing our future
Rethinking Happiness
New Stories New Design
A Perfect Weekend
Citizen City
Family Business

Cibicworkshop is the research center founded by Aldo Cibic.

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