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"Colletta di Castelbianco" Project: Rediscovering Sense of Place in the Era of the Global Village

The decision to provide Colletta di Castelbianco with on-line telecommunications services represents the result of a carefully examined reflexion on a plurality of themes such as the restoration and reuse of the former rural settlements, the traffic problems afflicting metropolitan areas and its consequent alienation, environmental pollution and the advent of the information society, to name a few. Themes seemingly distant but all in some way attributable to the problem of the quality of life in post-industrial society.

Beyond the categories of "urban" and "rural"

The decision to provide Colletta di Castelbianco with on-line telecommunications services represents the result of a carefully examined reflexion on a plurality of themes such as the restoration and reuse of the former rural settlements, the traffic problems afflicting metropolitan areas and its consequent alienation, environmental pollution and the advent of the information society, to name a few. Themes seemingly distant but all in some way attributable to the problem of the quality of life in post-industrial society.

The city and the countryside

If from those high rocky crags we were to contemplate the cities erected by man for his shelter and comfort, there to live and adore the gods, ages would become confused in our gazes, and almost coming out of open tombs, the dead would surround us invisibly. They, the dead, are always close to us, when our gaze rests full of love upon towns built in olden days; and as their work lives on in those stones and in the furrow of the fields, so does their spirit flutter, faithfully protective, over the towns and the earth.

Ernst Jünger, On the marble cliffs

Although particularly significant, Colletta is but one of the many examples of the enormous urbanistic heritage from the past that characterizes Italy, rich with minute infrastructures, prepared by centuries of human labor, that bear witness to the harmonic and balanced relationship between man and the surrounding environment that characterized the premodern world. It is a heritage of inestimable value, fundamental to the protection of our historical-cultural identity, that unfortunately is often forgotten and abandoned to a fatal degree, or that is profoundly altered in blind commercial exploitation.

Giancarlo De Carlo coined the suggestive expression of "crustacean system" to describe Colletta di Castelbianco in reference to the very unique architectural conformation that characterizes it. But for a long time the stone shell was all that was left of that crustacean, from the moment the last residents left several years ago. How to infuse new life into this shell? How to bring back a place like this into the modern circle of activity and at the same time avoid transforming it into a museum-like end to itself?

The problem is not easily resolved. In fact, even though a small rural settlement could offer much in terms of quality of life (quietude, fresh air, clean water, genuine local food, a safe, peaceful human-scale environment, close contact with nature, selective and simplified social relationships), it seems deeply out of place and anachronistic regarding the modern metropolis with its productive activities, the metropolis where, to use the words of Georg Simmel, the "objective spirit" is prevalent, or where the possibility is prevalent for the individual to accumulate a great quantity of knowledges and experiences but always superficially, without being able to explore and reflect upon the information acquired and its intrinsic meaning. The historical, economical and social contexts of which a village like Colletta is born are obviously different from those of which modern cities are born: an urban and industrial city more and more characterized by frenetic and alienating life rhythms opposes itself to a rural and agricultural society.

The loss of time and of space

At the current moment we live four times as much as a century ago; but perhaps we live four times less well, four times less intensely; is there perhaps a devaluation of currency? Mobility is the unstable principle of daily life, that has hardly any other. A vagrancy particular to our time. Is is not for haste that we throw overboard, one after the other, the slow instruments of the past, horses, candles, cooking on a slow fire, courtesy?

Paul Morand, In praise of rest

"True luxury, that no one thinks anymore of offering oneself, is to take one's own time" writes Paul Morand in "In praise of rest". It is a rest made of concentrated attention, internal withdrawal, which Morand thinks is the "permission to be oneself" denied to people trapped in the frenetic rhythms of city life. "Who, in big cities, " Morand asks himself, "still takes the time to eat, to sleep, to accompany the dead to the cemetery on foot? It is speed that grinds up and disconnects our old world; built on deep foundations by slow architects, it is abandoned by impetuous mechanics that work only on the surface".

There is no doubt that the dimension of speed stands out more and more as one of the main characteristic elements of modern society. According to Gillo Dorfles "given the constant acceleration of our displacements and the disengagement of our movement from that of nature, movement has become, more than any other "parameter" of our existence, a completely "unnatural", modifiable at will, "indeterminate" element that drops into a fictitious time because it is detached from man's and nature's biological rhythms.

And Dorfles denounces a process of "uprooting" provoked by just that speed and by the consequent diminishing of travel times that have led to the so-called "neonomadism" phenomenon and to a decentralization of living that cutting into the attack on the residence - think of sleeping quarters - has provoked a "loss of affective memory". The residence then has lost that archetypical dimension of "place" of base within whose coordinates our existence takes place:

While cities spread out like spots of oil, a more and more diffuse mobility imposes life systems of constant uprooting. The last twenty years have been characterized by voluntary and involuntary migrations of gigantesque proportions: from the Americans who change residence on an average of once every three years to those who, all over the world, are forced to abandon the interior and rural areas of their own countries. This world condition renders space less and less the property of those who inhabit it. The voluntary or forced movement of the last decade bears an imprint that is not that movement of the nomad, but of the wandering of one who is lost. (Franco LaCecla)
Metropolises and reinforced concrete spread out indefinitely like a cancer that devours the area enlarging city outskirts and eating up villages and nearby townships: "This new 'demarginalized', 'evaporated' space is a landscape that alternates between place and placelessness, and the whole effect of it is the collapse of any sense of place, the no sense of place". (La Cecla)

Having lost time we have also lost place for there is no place in the absence of time. Without time we have nothing but spaces: quality vanishes for the gain of quantity. According to the anthropologist Marc Augé a place is defined by the identity of the community that resides there, by the relationships that exist between its inhabitants and by their history, while a non-place is totally anonymous and deaf to the necessities of those who pass through it or live in it. It is functional only for the interests and the economic mechanisms of which it is an expression, mechanisms that necessarily are producers of uniformity and destroyers of all diversity and individuality (architectural, environmental, biological, human, historical or ethnic).

Spending one's time inside automobiles, airplanes, trains, international hotel chains, shopping malls, office buildings, and within the virtual spaces of the information highways means living constantly within a non-place, changeable but always the same. It means undergoing a schizophrenic tearing apart of the material and virtual areas: the reference is to Mike Davis's City of Quartz where Davis underlines the process of separation of the city: the material city and the immaterial city. One needs only to think of cities in the United States built so that it is impossible to walk, talk, stop, sit down or do anything other than to drive fast or stay at home.

Electronic telecommuting

The more we devote ourselves to speed, the more we must be intimately persuaded that it conceals a being at rest, and that each acceleration of speed is nothing but the translation of an immortal native language.

Ernst Jünger, The Worker

Speed, therefore, that transports, like a flood wave, things and people but also, and more and more, information. "Speed is the ultimate absolute" writes Paul Virilio referring to the electronic technologies of telecommunication, technologies that represent the apex of that process of acceleration that, begun with the transportation revolution, now threatens, according to the French urbanist, with the communication revolution - communication that has reached the speed of light - to make us lose the extension and the duration of the world: the negative horizon, the entire world's symbolic loss of space-time.

But it is just the "absolute" speed of electronic communication that can finally consent to a deceleration of individual life rhythms. The moment it becomes possible to reach any place - and more than one place at one time - in the form of a simulacrum, or doppelgänger - and in that guise it is possible to do one's work, to collect information, to avail oneself of services - the depersonalizing condition of urban life - with its alienating rhythms and its forced courses, its levelling violence in that it strips the existence of people of all social classes of all that it holds most dear - it can be avoided: a return to life in small towns far from metropolitan areas becomes plausible. In a small town it is possible to rediscover an identity, one's sense of community, the memory of one's own past, one's own culture, one's own history. In a small town the formation of the subjective spirit is possible - the reference is again to Simmel - that is to say the individual's capacity to get in touch with the objective spirit consisted of vast deposits of culture and information accessible via the infohighways.

Thanks to the new telecommunication technologies it becomes therefore possible to live and to work in rural areas while remaining however at the center of the flow of world events, without having to go through that process of uprooting that is one of the fundamental problems of our time. It becomes possible to regain familiarity with the natural and physiological rhythms of time; with the rotation of day and night and the succession of the seasons, with our breathing and with our heartbeat. From here the possibility to find again ourselves (the instant we return to our own private dimension) and those around us.

Telecommuting would thus allow many people to avoid the stress and loss of time due to the necessity of getting to one's place of work - that type of alienating movement that Paul Virilio denounced and described in terms of annulment and substitution of travel, the second term of the "departure-travel-arrival" triad, as concerns "a kind of inertia, of interval between home and destination" that denies us any possibility of discovery of the world - leading to a rediscovery of the "sense of place", to the rooting to the land and to a greater attention to family relationships and friends. In this sense telecommunications could constitute a soothing answer to the often grievous apprehensions of those who view advanced technologies as agents of social isolation.

With the substitution of current telecommuting, that restricts one to alienating crossings along "corridor roads", in favor of a new electronic telecommuting one could thusly reconstruct that fragile and precious relationship between individual, group and place destroyed in its time by the advent of industrial society, dropping it however in a new context where telecommunication technologies could play the role of the magic object ("a hat that transports one to distant lands") that in the fables analysed by Vladimir Propp, the scholar of folklore, transferred the hero from familiar space into unfamiliar space, from a here geographically and temporally situated to an elsewhere devoid of physicality and of concrete space-time coordinates.

[The Impacts of Information Technologies On Urban Form And Life / Incidence des autoroutes de l'information sur la vie et la forme urbaine, 3e Colloque d'architecture & comportement, 13-15 novembre, 1995, Ascona, Suisse]

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