/ RESEARCH for footprint*
/ T.U. Delft, Architecture Theory Journal
What if the city of the twenty-first century was not as we have imagined it? What if the culture of congestion was swept away by an isotropic, weak and diffused urban reality; by the culture of dispersion? A nebulous and potentially limitless city freed from any physical and symbolic centre, where uncertain attempts of urbanity overlap with the idealised landscape of the countryside.
From this perspective, the central area of the Veneto region in Italy can still be considered a laboratory that produces urban and architectural forms for the contemporary city. The territory is here considered as a palimpsest [1,2], as the product of a slow and incessant process of accumulation of traces, elements, attempts, which have been overlapping over centuries. The structure of the text reflects its stratification: the elements presented here are only a few of the layers that compose the image of this region; they serve as evidence in the investigation of the role that anthropisation processes have played in the continuous modification of the landscape. Within this frame, the ‘architecture of logistics’ is presented as one of the elements that have imposed a pervasive economic-political control of the territory, to the point of producing specific forms of living.
Veneto became a Roman colony in the third century BC. Colonies were settlements founded by the Romans to secure conquered territories by imposing military, economical and juridical authority. The fundamental tool used to impose such control was the ‘centuriation’ (in Latin centuriatio or limitatio), the subdivision of land based on a square grid (Figure 1).
In its radical simplicity the grid served multiple purposes. First, it was a tool to measure and to define the limits of the new territories: topography made it possible to quantify the extent of Rome’s sovereignty. Most of the conquered land was considered public (the ager publicus populi romani, or public land of the Roman citizenry), the rest was divided into private properties and distributed to veterans (the ager viritim divisus, or land assigned to private citizens). Land, rather than money, became the main reward for legionaries who soon understood that there was a much more enduring connection between private property and personal political-economical power.
Topography and land allocation allowed Rome to create a first land registry, an abstract representation of the form of territory. In fact, Romans used bronze tablets, called forma coloniae, to draw the map of the limits of the new colonies and their internal subdivision. Land measurement and political order were indissolubly bound: the forma coloniae was joined by the lex coloniae, a juridical system which imposed the legal and fiscal principals of Roman domination on a specific territory. Despite its geometric neutrality the grid was a device that provided controlling power and individual freedom.
Centuriation led to a rationalisation of agricultural production due to vast deforestation and reclamation works and to a general regularisation of the hydraulic system. The productive essence of the grid is particularly evident in the Veneto countryside, where its orientation does not follow the cardinal points, but rather the slope of the land, the flow of water and the orientation of the sun. In this sense we can say that the Roman grid did not imply a total subjugation or obliteration of nature. The grid was rather conceived as a tool to modify an existing natural reality, as a monumental project of the soil.
The massive earthworks required for constructing the grid could only be provided by the army. Military logistics, meaning ‘the branch of military science relating to procuring, maintaining and transporting material, personnel and facilities’ was the science that ruled land surveys, property allocation, and infrastructural engineering. The centuriation itself can be considered as a device used to design a specific geography of war, since it facilitated the movements of troops, their spatial distribution and the ability to rapidly restore the supply of ammunition, both in peace and wartime.
The indissoluble relationship between the grid and military occupation is reflected in the fact that the castrum (the military camp) was usually built at the crossing point between the grid’s two main axes, the kardo and decumano. The kardo maximus often corresponded to the prolongation of a consular road, providing a direct connection between Rome and the new territories. The two axes were then repeated in parallel in the vast rural landscape.
Spatial domination was thus constituted by two contrasting elements: on the one hand the military camp, conceived as a limited walled settlement; on the other hand the grid, a potentially never-ending infrastructural system. The dialectic between these two figures was at the root of the very concept of ‘territory’: the Latin word territorium designated, in fact, the land (terra) surrounding a military camp, used by legions for sustenance.
The gradual process of inhabitation of the countryside produced a specific architectural type: the villa rustica or ‘working villa’. Unlike the urban villa, the rustic villa was a productive place, a farm-house estate, dedicated to both agricultural and artisanal activities.
The rustic villa was loaded with cultural symbols and meanings: it represented the place where one could rediscover and celebrate a set of conservative values that had vanished in the looseness of urban life. In this sense, it was proudly anti-urban; its productive nature provided both economic independence and political autonomy. The rustic villa exacerbated the dialectic underlined by Aristotle between the city, meant as the public place of the techné politikè (politics), and the house, conceived as the private space of the technè oikonomikè (economics). Within the villa’s boundaries the owner ( the dominus) dominated not only the relations connected to household management, but also those related to production logistics, by managing work loads, storage and supply.
In the sixth book of De Architectura, Vitruvius meticulously describes the villa rustica. Vitruvius lays greater stress on the fact that the villas must be functional, efficient and productive . He claims that even the symmetrical compositions that should guarantee the classic principles of venustas (beauty) must be applied only if they do not compromise those of utilitas (utility). In fact, Vitruvius does not describe the elements of an architectural object, but rather the functioning of a family factory, in which the size, the organisation and orientation of the various environments are not linked to any architectural language, but rather to production efficiency.
In 1570 Vitruvius’s text was taken up by Palladio, who in the second of his The Four Books of Architecture described and redrew the ‘villa of the ancients’, underlining the relationships between working and living spaces. The Roman villa rustica represents an essential reference used by Palladio to design several of his venetian villas. Both the Roman and the Palladian villas were directly related to agricultural production; both provided cultural and political control over the rural landscape; both symbolised the social tension between the city (Venice) and its territory (Veneto). Palladio succeeded in declining an architectural language capable on the one hand of expressing the cultural ambitions of the new Venetian patrician class and, on the other, of assimilating traditional architectural elements linked to agricultural production. This strategy is reflected in the juxtaposition of two elements, combined to different degrees: on the one hand the villa’s central body – with the rooms of the owner’s family – and on the other, the barns – for tools, animals and servants . Palladian villas staged an ever-changing dialectic between symbolism and pragmatism, between freedom and servility.
The history of the Roman Empire is the history of an act of spatial ordering. It is on the basis of such order that Rome was able to establish a new juridical system, whose stability was provided by conquering and by assimilating everything that was ‘other’. Within the limits of the empire everything was dominated, controlled, foreseen. Conversely, everything that remained outside its borders was considered unpredictable, unstable and then antagonistic. In order to be compelling Rome’s power must be uniforming, totalising, boundless, global: preventive war was always a ‘just war’.
Spatial and cultural uniformity were guaranteed by urbanisation (meant as a pervasive process of infrastructural development) and architecture. In fact, on the one hand architecture was governed by a codified language capable, at the same time, of imposing the values of the Roman culture and of absorbing indigenous specificities. On the other hand, centuriation was a generic infrastructural system that could assure fiscal taxation, military control and commercial efficiency, by guaranteeing flows of goods, people and information. ‘Every new age and every new epoch in the coexistence of peoples, empires, and countries, of rulers and power formations of every sort, is founded on new spatial divisions, new enclosures and new spatial orders of the earth.’  The Roman Empire imposed a territorial order that was rational, generic, isotropic.
Isotropy comes from the Greek words isos (equal) and tropos (way) and means uniform in all directions. The concept of isotropy underlies an absence of hierarchy, of specificity, of limits. Isotropic space is repetitive, serial, neutral. Its lack of quality makes it open to the possible, to the most disparate and contradictory scenarios.
The urban figure that best translates the concept of isotropy is the grid; its architectural equivalent is the typical plan. Both allow for the absorption of the most unpredictable programmatic fluctuations; both tend to a zero-degree of architecture, to the ‘almost nothing’.
The long processes of anthropisation which occurred over more than twenty centuries have transformed the Veneto region into an isotropic territory (figure 2). The elements of which it is composed are always the same, but they are assembled in ever-changing configurations, scattered in a vast rural landscape: private houses with gardens are juxtaposed with industrial warehouses, agricultural fields, greenhouses, gas stations, showrooms, sport fields, shopping centres, workshops, farms, villas, bell towers and chimneys.
Isotropy is a political figure: it can be seen as the metaphor of a democratic, horizontal, open society. Isotropy stages, at the same time, mass culture and individual freedom, capitalist technological rationalism and the autonomy of the subject: the Veneto region is composed of a nebula of individual utopias and domestic paradises. People have seen in Veneto a new freedom of living in Europe; the freedom from the compact city.
The dense and pervasive presence of infrastructures (asphalt and water) has turned Veneto into a flexible territory, irrigated with an uncommon economical potential: a fertile land to develop decentralised forms of production. The territories of isotropy are disillusioned and practical: Veneto is a reminder of the decline of the ‘strong thought’: any form of knowledge and, by consequence, any attempt at large-scale planning, is accepted not because of its ability to manifest an ideology or an incontrovertible truth, but only because it allows the achievement of the goals set by the market-economy. This is why logistic science has become such a dominant form of knowledge: it represents the most effective discipline for ‘planning, implementing and controlling procedures for the efficient and effective transportation and storage of goods from the point of origin to the point of consumption’.
Until the end of the 1950s, the Veneto region was one of the poorest areas in Italy. It was a predominantly agricultural territory, characterised by low productivity, an extreme fragmentation of farmland property (one hectare per family), high rates of emigration, flood crises, and poor food and hygienic conditions. Veneto was ‘the South of the North’. From an economic perspective the only exceptions were represented by the industrial poles of Marghera (petrochemical industry) and Vicenza (textile industry), two examples of classic Fordist standardised mass production and mass consumption.
Nowadays, despite the economic uncertainties of the last ten years, the region remains one of the most populated and productive of Italy and one of the richest areas in Europe.
Things had begun to change when families, in order to overcome poverty, started running extremely simple artisanal businesses in parallel to their main farming activities. They were working at home or at most in the shed out in their back garden. In the space of twenty years, this rarefied nebula of family-based firms became one of the world’s best examples of an innovative post-Fordist industrial system. Sheds have since been replaced with small logistic warehouses, old farm houses have been turned into workshops, farm storages into small factories.
One of the key elements of this economic miracle was the natural ability of different businesses to create a widespread network. Companies started to share their knowhow, to specialise their production and to create small industrial districts: whether consciously or unconsciously they were recreating a production chain scattered on a territorial scale.
During the 1980s a Fiat union worker, asked to describe the new dimensions of post-Fordist production in Northern Italy, explained that if in the past the workers entering in the factory could find a bulletin board detailing the production breakdown, now, by contrast, they would have needed a ‘territorial’ board to reconstruct the geography of manufacturing.
The gradual decentralisation of industrial production, which in the past was all condensed in the urban space of the factory, led to the rise of the Veneto contemporary metropolis. The Veneto città diffusa is, in fact, a metropolis in which the economical development of small and medium sized enterprises was superimposed, on a territorial scale, on the traditional universe of agricultural production. This superposition was supported by a euphoric political laissez-faire. From this perspective Veneto represents an alternative to the model of the modern western metropolis: its metropolitan development was not generated by the simple extension of an existing urban fabric, but rather by the gradual densification of an already inhabited rural landscape. Nevertheless, I don’t think we can consider the Veneto città diffusa literally as a Großstadt, since it lacks that civic sense that lies at the very root of the concept of the city. Veneto is instead a territory-factory, an unidealised ‘Agronica  (figure 3)
One of the most interesting architectural types produced by the Veneto metropolis is the casa-capannone or casa-laboratorio – which I’ll be calling HomeWork – (figures 4,5,6 and photo survey). HomeWorks are hybrid devices composed of a shameless superposition or juxtaposition of a single-family detached home with an industrial warehouse. In this sense, it is an architectural machine that represents the quintessential example of a specific form of Post-Fordism, based on highly decentralised industrial production and on an ambiguous relationship between living and work spaces.
HomeWorks are a kind of cadavre-exquis of the two main symbols of Veneto economical wealth: the villetta (the detached house) and the capannone (the workshop). In many ways Veneto’s formal vocabulary is indexed by these two typologies, with the house celebrating individual freedom and the warehouse representing the rituals imposed by economy.
Sometimes the clash between the bucolic specificity of the rural landscape and the disturbing aesthetic of these hybrids produces a sense of unexpected beauty: is this the ultimate portrait of this rising metropolis, our Proustian madeleine ?
The single-family detached home is, first of all, a status symbol: it is, at the same time, proudly anti-urban and contemptuously anti-rural. The villetta is often exuberant and architecturally uninhibited; it can be built by following any style: neo-classical, neo-Palladian, Tuscan, modern, rationalist, post-modern, international. The smallest common denominator within such a chaotic formalism is the property wall: the detached house is introverted, protected by fences, hedges, gates. Home security is an asset; this is why every smart technology is employed to install alarm-, lighting-, camera systems and motion detectors.
Unlike the Palladian villa, the detached house does not engage in any dialogue with the surrounding landscape. The nature which surrounds the house has to be delimited, safe, private. Nature can have a two forms: the domestic garden and the vegetable garden. The vegetable garden is a miniature of the surrounding productive landscape; it is often hidden in the backyard, it is the leftover of an agricultural tradition which new entrepreneurs prefer not to celebrate.
The domestic garden is a symbolic space, a small paradise on earth where families amass fetishes and allegories: classical or fascists sculptures together with garden gnomes, symbols of regional irredentism and exotic vegetation, inflatable swimming pool and fake wells, peace flags and beware-of-the-dog signs. Sometimes detachedhouses lie on a small artificial embankment. Topography alters the relationship between the house, the fence, and the surrounding context by suggesting that showing off beats security.
The shed is austere, inexpressive, cheap. It often consists of an ordinary concrete or prefabricated steel box, with no specific qualities except for its wide-span structure. Its radical lack of quality makes it unbearably contemporary, undoubtedly global. The shed is the place of the Veneto che lavora (Veneto that works), of the economic initiative of small entrepreneurs (often of working-class origin) and of a general spirit of sacrifice. Like the Silicon Valley garages, the shed or the ‘workshop’ became an inescapable topos in corporate rhetoric, by suggesting a dense mixture of individual creativity, humility and persistence. The shed is remembered with a sort of innocent nostalgia in the storytelling of all major entrepreneurs: Leonardo Del Vecchio, the second richest person in Italy, started his career in Veneto, from a ‘small mechanical workshop for third parties to what Luxottica is today, a leader in the design, manufacturing, distribution and sales of premium, luxury and sports eyewear’.
On the other hand it is often a place of exploitation, of weak union power and of illegal work. The generic spatial flexibility of the warehouse reflects the ‘generic flexibility’ of labour power, which must be able to adapt to ever-changing working conditions.
HomeWorks suggests a double image of the family. On the one hand, the family can be seen as a compact nucleus in which various members work to support a certain productive activity. On the other hand, as a group managed by the paternalistic authority of the ‘father-master’, which is seamlessly imposed both on a family and professional environment, within domestic and productive spaces.
Ambiguities persist on a political level. Small business owners represent a fundamental part of the Lega Nord’s electorate, a far-right, regionalist and ethno-nationalist party. Veneto’s entrepreneurs fear state regulation, the European Union, global competition, immigration and the idea of a multi-ethnic society. Immigrants must leave the cities but they can stay in the sheds behind the house. People often rage against the negative impact of migrants’ exploitation on of the local economy, but rarely against the system that benefits from such exploitation. In this sense, the shed can be seen as a parasite that modifies its host’s behaviour. 
The relationship between HomeWorks’ living and productive areas is never egalitarian: production activities have an indisputable priority in the occupation of space. It often happens that the ground floor of the house is turned into a small store or a showroom, the first floor into an office. The office is the managerial space par excellence, where office business bureaucracy goes with logistics management: it is the place where the company owner can plan the flow of supplies, activities and shipments.
Thanks to gradual building extensions, domestic spaces are usually moved to the second floor or eventually to the third in order to accommodate the second generation of the family. From this point of view, HomeWorks represents one of the rare building types that guarantees a dense mix of programmes.
The 2008 financial crisis has severely affected the Veneto economy. Among the ruins of the post-Fordist metropolis, there are more than 12,000 empty warehouses, an unproductive capital estimated at around 4 billion euros. Lately, logistics is gaining ground among thehas became the most diffused and effective industrial destinations activity to recycle vacant buildings: small sheds are transformed into storage spaces for those large brands that have survived the recession. The biggest obstacle to this transformation is size. If in the past one of the mottoes of the Veneto economic model was ‘small is beautiful’, today the large distribution industry has realised that ‘small is inefficient’: size matters, and many warehouses cannot be reused because they are simply too small to store the goods of large companies. Big corporations are getting bigger and bigger, by inaugurating an era of new gigantism whose new dictum is ‘small was cute, but big is better’.
In 2017 a maxi hub was built in the Verona area for the Number 1 logistics group, an Amazon distribution centre in Padua, a giant fulfilment warehouse of the Despar supermarket brand near Rovigo. The logistics sector is, in effect, imposing a new economic model and, by consequence, a new spatial order which prefers great traffic arteries to the isotropic secondary network, robots to skilled workers, and compact intermodal hubs to decentralised productive districts.
In a 1975 interview, Pier Paolo Pasolini said:
Capitalism is today the protagonist of a great internal revolution: it is evolving, revolutionarily, into neo-capitalism ... Such a revolutionary, progressive and unifying neo-capitalism generates an unprecedented feeling of world unity. Why is this happening? Because neo-capitalism coincides with the complete industrialisation of the world.
Pasolini was among the Italian intellectuals who most criticised the process of cultural homogenisation imposed by capitalism, underlining its global and all-encompassing character. In his opinion, the city and the territory were the first witnesses of such transformation. As a matter of fact, the last layer of the Veneto metropolitan palimpsest is composed of pure generic architecture: anonymous shopping malls, science parks, large road infrastructure and logistics terminals. After the financial crisis only those medium-sized companies that already had strong relationship with the global market managed to survive. Localism is already part of the legend and even HomeWorks are now listed in the endangered species. Will they be saved by the next Davos summit, by the umpteenth industrial revolution?
22 October 2017: the referendum on Venetian autonomy. The day the ‘yes’ vote prevails: the great majority of voters overwhelmingly backed greater political and economical autonomy from Rome. Is regionalism a desperate counteraction to global economy or rather a consequence? The confirmation of the falling of nation-state sovereignties? Is Europe destined to become a fragmented federation of regions sharing market treaties, rather than the civic principles of democracy? During recent decades Italy has been governed more and more by ‘cabinets of experts’, grand coalitions or caretaker governments. The overcoming of the left-right division is not a political statement but a disenchanted observation.
Are these the symptoms of a general acceptance of the rules imposed by a much wider and boundless authority ‘that effectively encompasses the spatial totality, or really that rules over the entire “civilised” world. No territorial boundaries limit its reign.’
Will urban planning become just another world to indicate logistics?
1. André Corboz, ‘Le Territoire comme palimpseste’, in Casabella 516 (1985): 22–27.
2. The idea of ‘the land as palimpsest’ is a persistent topos that occurs in the entire work of Bernardo Secchi and Paola Viganò.
3. Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2013).
4. Vittorio Gregotti, ‘Architettura come modificazione’, in Casabella 498–499 (1984): 2–7
5. Bernardo Secchi, ‘Progetto di suolo’, Casabella 520 (1986): 19–23.
6. The relationship between logistics and military science is brilliantly analysed in the essay by Francesco Marullo, ‘Logistics Takes Command. Architecture, Warfare, Abstraction’ in Log 35 (Autumn 2015): 103–120.
7. The relationship between the Roman castrum and centuriatio alludes to the one between Roman civitas and urbs formulated by Pier Vittorio Aureli in The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, (Harvard: MIT Press, 2011), 6–9.
8. Elden, Birth of Territory, 64.
9. Carnes Lord, Aristotle’s Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). On the Aristotelian concept of oikonomia as management of family and household, see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 , 28–29) and Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 17–50 and Aureli, Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, 6–7.
10. Marco Vitruvio Pollione, De Architectura trans. L. Migotto (Pordenone: Edizioni Studio Tesi, 1999[ 1486]).
11. Andrea Palladio, I quattro libri dell’architettura (Milano: Enrico Hoepli Editore, 2014[ 1570]).
12. The relationship between living and productive spaces in Palladian villas is analysed by James S. Ackerman in The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) and by Amir Djalali, ‘Prehistories of Common Space: Conflict and Abstraction in Renaissance Architecture’ in , The City as a Project, ed. Pier Vittorio Aureli (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2013), 102–136.
13. Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum, trans. G. L. Ulmen ( : Telos Press, 2003 ).
14. The genericity of the Roman urban system is analysed by Rem Koolhaas and the Harvard Project on the City in ‘How to Build a City: The Roman Operating System’, in Mutations, (Barcelona: Actar, 2011), 10–20.
15. The concept of ‘isotropy’ and its application to the Veneto territory is at the centre of Paola Viganò’s research. See Paola Viganò, ‘Water and Asphalt, The project of Isotropy in the Metropolitan Region of Venice’, Architectural Design, vol. 78 (2008): 34–39 and I Territori dell'urbanistica. Il progetto come produttore di conoscenza (Milano: Officina, 2010).
16. Glossary of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, www.cscmp.org.
17. Eurostat : http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat.
18. Aldo Bonomi, Il capitalismo molecolare, (Torino: Einaudi, 1997).
19. “Agronica” is a project developed by Andrea Branzi between 1993-1994. It explores the potential relationships among agricultural and energy production, post-Fordist industrialism and new form of consumption. See Andrea Branzi, Modernità debole e diffusa, (Milano: Skira, 2006).
20. The typology of the casa-capannone was presented by Stefano Munarin and Maria Chiara Tosi in Tracce di città (Milano: Franco Angeli, 2002 ) and by Giancarlo Paba, ‘Tre momenti della crisi del piano urbanistico: la crescita del territorio, la diffusione della casa-laboratorio, il sistema dell’iperrappresentatività politica’, in Piccola città e piccola impresa, ed. Raimondo Innocenti (Milano: Franco Angeli, 1985).
21. ‘Meet Leonardo del Vecchio’, Luxottica website, last updated 17 February 2018, http://www.luxottica.com/en/meet-leonardo-vecchio.
22. The transformations in the Veneto's production landscapes and the emergence of new political discourses is analysed by Luiza Bialasiewicz in ‘The Geographies of production and the contexts of politics: dis-location and new ecologies of fear in the Veneto città diffusa’ in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24 (2006): 41–67.
23. Katy Mandurino, ‘Da abbattere o riconvertire. La scelta del Veneto sui capannoni vuoti’, Il Sole 24 Ore, 9 February 2018.
24. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Saggi sulla politica e sulla società (Milano: Mondadori, 1999)
25. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2000).