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COURSE IN URBAN MORPHOLOGY – 2020-21 – Prof. G.Strappa



Master Course Ar 1051714 


Via Gianturco, room G 31, 3.30 – 7.00  pm

prof. Giuseppe Strappa , arch. Anna Rita Donatella Amato, arch. , arch. Francesca De Rosa. arch. Ermelinda Di Chiara, arch. Alessandra Pusceddu,

OPENING  7th OCTOBER  –  3.30 pm

The course aims to teach a method of reading the built landscape through the knowledge of the forming processes common to urban fabrics and buildings. Despite their great variety and complexity, in fact, some common and continuous formative principles can be recognized in such processes. The basic notions of organism and process will be used to read the built landscape. The term “reading” does not indicate the simple and neutral recording of phenomena, but requires the active contribution of the reader, creating a synthesis of the will of the subject and the attitude of the object. The main purpose of the typological study proposed by the course is precisely the identification of the qualitative differences contained in the characters of the built reality, the recognition of the process of their formation and transformation, their internal dialectic of extensive exchanges and integrations.

The notion of process

Giuseppe Strappa

The notion of process ( learning form Alnwick)







Delft paper Alnwick pubblicato           click here

  1. Aims

Alnwick is a small, picturesque town in Nothumberland, on the border between ‘England and Scotland. Doubtfully it could  be of great interest to foreign art scholar for the value of its monuments or to the historian for its documental importance. The value of the book M.R.G.Conzen wrote about Alnwick and the reason why we believe it is important a new edition for the Italian readers are due to the relevant  ideas about  the city it contains, and the kind of reading it proposes, which is  generalizable.

What explicitly interests the author is, in fact, a theory on urban form. Theory (and not just method) in origin aimed to the studies in geography, but which is valid not only for other case studies, but also valuable for other fields of knowledge. In this sense, the study in the formation of a small urban center acquires an ontological value as  it deals with the fundamentals of urban  knowledge: it investigates why and how an urban form is born,  according to which laws it grows and changes to the current condition.

Analyzing the form of the built landscape not as an aesthetical product (as the surface of things), but as the visible aspect of a structure, thus  expressing its characters and transformations, the work of Conzen is somehow “architectural” just in the sense that our school gives that word. On the basis of the analysis of the Conzenian text we had made for the Italian edition, I would like to make, in this paper, some observations  about principles and definitions he employs:
1. Which of these principles are also architectural;
2  If they are working  for contemporary design.

  1. Architectural notion of “process”
    The most original of these conzenian principles for the architect is, in my opinion, the notion of process.
    Process, literally from Latin procedo, to advance, is, in the field of our  studies, a series of events related to each other leading to the formation, transformation and ruin of a territorial, urban or built structure.

But, beyond the definitions, bearing in mind the notion of process means looking at the world with different eyes: looking at things not as they just appear, but in their becoming, as a moment of transformation, as a temporary condition of passage. Nothing is immobile, even the monuments. The buildings, the urban fabrics, the city that we see are equilibrium states in the transformation of matter that becomes provisionally construction. The actual built landscape  is part of a large flow of transformations in which we must learn to recognize the origin, the  developments and the possible future changes. These possible future changes  are the project itself.
This notion of process expresses, as we see, a point of view very different from that of history. The historian, in fact, reconstructs the past as a path (as a sequence of events) aimed at the present. The history fixes steps and signs that have a direction. The same idea of modernity is a modern creation: it is made ​​to begin when it is useful to begin, with the Italian Renaissance, when the values ​​that we share today were acknowledged (freedom, individual expression, the man at the center of the universe etc.)
This also applies to the architects. The same history of modern architecture recognizes in the past the signs and stages that operate to demonstrate the need for modern forms. Le Corbusier reads  in ancient history what  is functional to point the way to the modern revolution. He see things as they appear and judges them  with his own aesthetical sensibility and beliefs. For him, for example, the Roman palazzos  are just containers  of “gold and horrors” not the result of a great urban and civil transformation. Understanding  its forming process, its character of a small town “turned”  inside, he would have interpreted the palazzo as a palimpsest of modernity . In fact, the concept of ​​process is alien to the ideals of the Modern movement: it involves not the reading of sudden revolutions, but of transformations that take place over a long time, performing a non-linear history.  It involves duration, transition states that occur in the slow passage of time.
Implies recognizing cultural areas and historical periods.

  1. The Conzenian notion of process
    M.R.G.Conzen never gives a definition of the term, but the whole book on Alnwick is a structured, rigorous, even meticulous enunciation of the concept of process, a demonstration of its validity for urban studies and, in my opinion, even a possible contribution, today, for the formation of a new architecture that overcomes the way of reading the city as space and volume “a method – he claims – which has its roots largely in an earlier architectural preoccupation with the contrast between  ‘voids’ and ‘solids’ and its aesthetic implications. ” (Conzen,1969, p.4).  The Conzenian notion of process involves all the scales of analysis, from the land plot to the city plan. See the case of the process of formation, saturation, transformation and recession of the burgage (medieval plot) through which we can understand the current form of housing types that form the central fabric of the city, from the Middle Ages, with the increase due to  the new density of the working-class neighborhoods, until the final demolition of part of the fabric subsequent to the contemporary urban renewal .  The Burgage cycle, as defined by Conzen, by producing typical forms of construction deep in the lot, and repeated in the fabric, also shows clearly specificities and  differences with other cultural areas, as in central and southern Italy, where the industrial revolution had a very different impact and single-family houses have been recast to form multifamily “in linea” houses. Conzen creates an entire universe of definitions to explain the general notion of process, where recurring terms such as accumulation of forms, persistence of forms, pattern metamorphosis, indicate a progressive development, according to certain laws of successive increments of the urban fabric. So, we can distinguish different ways of transforming the built landscape:
    – The process of transformation of the plot system [Plot pattern metamorphosis] through which the plot models produce diachronic variants,
    – The process of fusing  the lots [Plot amalgamation] that produces the growth in size of the lots or those of division and cropping.

–  The process of morphological  growth [Accumulation of forms] caused by particular social needs, economic and cultural conditions during subsequent periods more or less distinct .

Some definitions are identical to those of the Muratorian school such as restructuring cycle [Redevelopment cycle]: the transformation process in response to the economic revaluation of the central urban soil under conditions of gradual increase in the power of capital investments, with the formation of new urban tissue , followed by a phase of gradual replacement  of unitary parts. Even the most relevant and scientifically innovative of concepts introduced by Conzen, the one of fringe belt, is linked to the notion of process. I want just to remark here  its absolute actuality and how it can interpret the non-linear development of the contemporary city, their periods of stagnation and others of accelerated development, their  mixture of different types of land use, characterized from  great  fragmentation in urban fabric and diversified patterns.

The result is an “architectural” reading of the formation of Alnwick which starts from territorial routes, conditioned by the form of the soil, still identifiable (apart from the interruption of Pottergate church area), as links of the urban centers of Lesbury, Eglingham and Wittingham. A process of “knotting” is formed, in this case expressed by the central area of Alnwick, typical of all specializations  at any scale of the built environment, including building scale.  A process, I would like to point out, that should  be investigated in all its aspects as it explains the formation of many modern building  types.

The great triangle of Central Alnwick (Fig.1), resulting from intersection of routes, was originally in fact a large open area, the ancient market square of a border town that, for its size, could meet the needs of a  farming community and those of a regional center. The free market area of the Anglo period, is then transformed from agricultural and animals market in a space with shops. Starting with the first wooden structures, it is progressively saturated and solidified. While the burgage plots on the perimeter tend to repeat in succession, the node organizes having its own unitary plan, establishing a relationship of necessity between the parties. It tends to form a concluded space. The fabric  has developed spontaneously from small isolated buildings and temporary shops, through a slow process, in more compact unities, easily identifiable as market aggregates opposed to the surrounding, oldest and serial, road blocks. In conclusion, we can understand the actual form of central Alnwick as the expression of his transformation process where increasing pressure on the central spaces available will lead to the gradual saturation of the ancient triangular area of the market, resulting in the filling within the system of the three main roads and the formation of new roads and fabric within a structure previously developed.

  1. The Muratorian school notion of process

For the Muratorian school a process is the gradual mutation of urban fabrics and building types. The bearing process shall be the reference one, in that it contains the historical development of the solutions fully integrated, and therefore allows us to recognize the parallel processes, the processes of synchronical typological variants derived from diachronical transformations, which then identify mutations intrinsic to each place and development stages of each city.

Taken for granted the evident similarities between the theories of Conzen and those of the Muratorian school, it must be said that there are also evident specificities. Consideration should be given to the fact these their theories are not abstract ones applied to the built landscape, as Platonic ideas identified from time to time in individual cases, but on the contrary, principles of general validity extracted from the analysis of factual case studies (Caniggia, 1976).

The ideas of ​​organism and organicity are therefore specific to the Italian school (Strappa,1995; Strappa,2003) as they were born from the studies on a very different urban landscape.  Alnwick has been formed and is readable today as a serial structure, in which each element maintains its own specificity even in the aggregation. Even in fusions of burgage building types remain serial. In the Italian city units blend  together (or de quantified) to form new types of buildings , tending to organize themselves over time as a new organism.

Some examples. The small town of Castel Madama, east of Rome, for example, consists of a fabric formed by  courtyard houses separated by ambitus that organically formed even the city wall. Over time, the courtyard houses have been divided into smaller units, giving rise to new building types (pseudo row house or single-cell house), while the open space of the court has generated access routes to new city gates, due to the progressive worthlessness of defensive  walls (Camiz,2011). In this sense, perhaps the clearest expression of an organic forming process is the Italian palace, generated as a transformation of the fabric.

The apulian palazzetto, small palace, (Fig.2) derives from the transformation and recasting of housing units.
From the Ninth, Tenth century a type of palace derived from courtyard houses is formed in Apulia, identified by buildings such as Palazzo De Luca in Molfetta, De Lerma in Bitonto, Baldassare in Altamura, Beltrani and Palagano in Trani.  (Carlotti, 2010; Strappa et al., 2003).

In other areas the permanence of the court is even more evident. We cannot understand the facade of a Venetian palace, for example, but as a transformation of the original domus, where the central tracery, the  polifora light and transparent, is the heritage of the courtyard open space (Strappa, 1998).

And we cannot understand the Roman palazzo, as well, if we don’t recognize it as the result of a row houses recasting process in which the traces of the original modulus are retained on the facade.

Palaces as Lancellotti or Altieri are the clear product of a process that transforms a portion of tissue in a new building.

  1. Use of the notion of process in architectural design
    For the architect, the notion of process makes sense if it is “working”, if it is capable to have a real effect on the built environment. Reading, as the project, is always a critical operation and involves the responsibility of the designer. Let me present, as my interpretation of  what is said above, the processual design of a building for public services in a small Italian town. As the proposal is based on the continuation of a historical process of transformation of the city still going on, the reading of the forming process is a substantial part of the project . This reading is based on two ideas:
  2. The collaboration of housing to form thespecialized buildings.In particular,in the project,the notion of “palazzo” is used as a synthesis of the processof union betweenthe differentunits.Theproposedsolution is anupdatingof the existing fabric(residential and rural buildings currentlyabandoned)with virtually nodemolition. Reemployingexistingbuilding not only will help in defendingthe charactersof the built landscape, but will also produceasignificant economyin thecost of the intervention, and an energy savingdue to the considerablethicknessof theexisting wallsandthe shape, locationand exposureofold buildings.
  3. All the partscomposingthe townarelinked to each otherby a specificratioof necessitythatconstitutesthe main character of the urban organism.These relationships,made​​legiblethrough architecture,form thestructure of the newproject.The new buildingis formedas a newurban node, a knotting of the courses that establish the new public spaces.

The existing buildings to transform have characters that plainly indicate the derivation from three original courtyard houses, according to a type common in many other small historical towns of consolidated rural traditions. We hypothesized the evolutionary phases of the transformation process typical of these buildings:

The first formative phase is characterized by the presence of a fabric of elementary courtyard house, with access from the route;

– The second formative phase in which a partial filling of some of the courts is developed, with the construction of secondary rural buildings;

– The third formative phase (the current one) in which some of the large courtyard houses, originally owned by a single owner, are split up to develop a  new tissue of smaller pseudo row houses;

– The fourth formative phase (hypothesized on the basis of the ongoing process), in which the recasting of building cells is developed around a common court, and knotting of routes to form a new specialized building according to the palazzo building type

The fourth and final phase corresponds to the project, proposed as the result of a continuous process of cooperation between unities. The new building (Fig.3) will have the representative character of the palace, evidenced primarily by the space of the courtyard, where the paving expresses the hierarchy of routes, connected  to the main urban areas, tied together in an  internal square  which will be a new Carezzano civic center. The new space, bordered by old buildings reused, paved with stone slabs, will be used for public events, along with the space connected to the Piazza S. Eusebius and the Town Hall Square, in which the material and the design of the paving express a clear link.

  1. Conclusions

We developed this project not as practice work, but as a test of a designing  method in a site until then unknown to us[1]. So we did not absolutely expected to win, also because the spirit of the competition  implied the demolition of the existing buildings and the renewal of the old center trough the  input of contemporary ”mediatic “architecture. The fact that, instead, we unexpectedly won the competition is, in our opinion, a confirmation that things are changing. We believe that the architecture of the spectacle is ending.
Maybe people are tired of buildings for no reason twisted and is worried by the gherkin shaped  skyscrapers rising in almost every city, in London, in Barcelona, in China.
We must find new ways. Also due to the sequence of economic and social crises that pose obvious problems in employing resources, it is necessary to establish new principles in architecture (logical, economic, ethic ) based on the proper ratio between the means we employ and the goals to be achieved. We believe that, against the contemporary cult of luxury and waste, this new ethic and aesthetic of measured, parsimonious use of resources should coincide, in large part, with the understanding (following the teaching of Conzen and Muratori), the updating and the wise, innovative continuation of the formative process of existing buildings and fabrics.



CANIGGIA, G. 1976. Strutture dello spazio antropico, Firenze, Uniedit.

CARLOTTI, P. 2010. Studi tipologici sul palazzetto pugliese, Bari, Polibapress.

CONZEN, M.R.G. 1969. Alnwick Northumberland. A study in town-plan analysis. London, Institute of British Geographers, 1960 (1°).

MARETTO, M. 2012. Saverio Muratori. Il progetto della città. Saverio Muratori, a legacy in urban design, Milano, Francoangeli.

STRAPPA, G. 1995. Unità dell’organismo architettonico. Note sulla formazione e trasformazione dei caratteri degli edifici, Bari, Adda Editore.

STRAPPA,G. 1998. The notion of enclosure in the formation of Special Building Type, in Typological Process and Design Theory (Proceedings of the International Symposium held at M.I.T., Cambridge, on march 1995), Cambridge.

STRAPPA,G. IEVA M, DIMATTEO M.A. 2003. La città come organismo. Lettura di Trani alle diverse Scale, Bari, Adda Editore.

STRAPPA,G. 2003. La nozione caniggiana di organismo e l’eredità della scuola di architettura di Roma, in: G.L.Maffei (ed.), Gianfranco Caniggia architetto, A.Linea, Firenze.

STRAPPA, G. 2006. Lettura e progetto dell’organismo urbano di La Valletta, Bari, Polibapress.

STRAPPA, G. (ed) 2012 Studi sulla periferia est di Roma, Milano, Francoangeli.


Images captures

  1. Holdings in the central triangle of Alnwick, 1567 (from Conzen, 1969) .
  2. Formativeprocessof the Apulian “palazzetto”from courtyard house, to pseudo rowhouses, to specialized building (from Carlotti,2010).
  3. Recasting design ofcourtyard housesfor a newcivic center in Carezzano(design team: G.Strappa, project leader; A. Camiz, P.Carlotti, G.Galassi, M.Maretto, designers; N.Boggio, P.Ciotoli, M.Longo,collaborators).


Giuseppe Strappa – Università di Roma, “Sapienza” gstrappa@yahoo.com

Attualita’ della proposta di M.R.G. Conzen

Attualita’ della proposta di M.R.G. Conzen

Giancarlo Cataldi, Gian Luigi Maffei,  Marco Maretto, Nicola Marzot, Giuseppe Strappa

Presentazione del libro L’analisi della forma urbana (Franco Angeli, Milano, 2012) edizione italiana del libro di M.R.G. Conzen, Alnwick, Nurthumberland. A study in Town Plan Analysis Institute of British Geographers, London 1960
















L’edizione italiana dello studio su Alnwyck riveste, a nostro avviso, un significato che va oltre la documentazione dell’analisi esemplare di una piccola città inglese ai confini con la Scozia, per acquistare un senso più generale.

Con la fondazione dell’Isuf (International Seminar on Urban Form), nel 1994, gli studiosi italiani di morfologia urbana hanno scoperto il patrimonio di conoscenze della scuola geografica inglese che fa capo a M.R.G. Conzen, illustre geografo di origine tedesca autore dello studio che qui presentiamo, e dei suoi continuatori, J.W.R.Whitehand, T.R. Slater, P. Larkham, K.Kropf, oltre al figlio Michael Conzen.

Non solo ne veniva riconosciuta l’affinità con molte delle proposte sviluppate dalla scuola italiana, sulla scia dell’insegnamento di Saverio Muratori, ma, soprattutto, se ne costatava la reciproca complementarità ponendo finalmente le basi concrete, dopo tanto parlare di rapporti interdisciplinari, di un lavoro comune attraverso il quale geografi e architetti potessero condividere, all’interno di uno stesso terreno di studi, metodi di ricerca e, ci si consenta il termine, “vocazioni” comuni. Perché, questo è il punto, il lavoro di M.R.G. Conzen dimostra una spiccata propensione a interpretare la città e il territorio come sintesi vitale di un flusso di esperienze storicamente individuate. M.R.G. Conzen ha compreso in modo operante, in altre parole, quello che per noi costituisce la sostanza stessa dell’architettura: che ogni forma (del territorio, della città, degli edifici) è il risultato di un processo, della progressiva associazione organica di parti, e che ha senso scomporla e indagarne le componenti solo se si tiene conto della sua sostanziale unità e indivisibilità. Possedeva, dunque, una nozione di organismo urbano e territoriale che, mai espressa attraverso esplicite definizioni, ha operato come un sostrato profondo nel dare coerenza “architettonica” alla struttura teorica della propria indagine.

Questo dato costituisce uno dei grandi motivi d’interesse dello studio su Alnwick, ma anche, riteniamo, la ragione dell’attualità della proposta di M.R.G. Conzen: lo sforzo di comprendere la forma delle cose non per quello che sono, ma nel loro divenire storico permette, infatti, di leggere anche le condizioni di lacerazione della forma del territorio contemporaneo come stato di transizione, momento provvisorio di una trasformazione continua il cui carattere è, in questo, non troppo diverso da quello città medievale in perenne cambiamento, ed è informe solo per chi non sappia leggerne la latente aspirazione alla composizione e all’unità. E’ proprio questa aspirazione a riunire il molteplice, più che l’unità in se, a dare forma alle cose e senso al progetto.

In questo senso la lettura di Alnwick è l’individuazione di una teoria: la storia perfetta di un piccolo borgo narrata nelle sue fasi formative fino alla condizione contemporanea. Fasi ricondotte a provvisorie unità da un singolare “epos geografico” che individua, rende cioè unici e irripetibili, comportamenti generali che la lettura riconosce come patrimonio comune di molti altri insediamenti e territori dove la forma del suolo e il lavoro dell’uomo stabiliscono una solidarietà riconoscibile come “tipica”.

E’ di natura architettonica, inoltre, una delle principali innovazioni nella lettura del territorio introdotte da M.R.G. Conzen, quella di fringe belt, che ha a che fare direttamente non solo con la documentazione che il cartografo riporta attraverso convenzioni, ma con la lettura critica, che coincide con il progetto delle trasformazioni.











Si tratta di una nozione complessa, cui è impossibile associare un termine italiano, tant’è che nella traduzione abbiamo dovuto impiegare una perifrasi ma capace di fertili traslazioni dall’ambito strettamente geografico a quello progettuale, contribuendo a cogliere, oggi, alcuni caratteri fondanti dell’instabile metropoli contemporanea. In realtà le idee affini di “perimetro” e “confine” sono state da qualche tempo alla base della lettura di qualsiasi forma del costruito, in particolare nel campo degli studi urbani condotti da architetti, mettendo in luce, tra l’altro, la storica contrapposizione tra città e campagna e il suo disgregarsi nel magma dello Spratly urbano. Eppure esse sono capaci di cogliere solo uno degli infiniti stati di transizione, semplificando le letture ma anche riducendone il significato. Propongono, in altre parole, uno sviluppo discreto di un processo in realtà continuo e che procede, nondimeno, per fasi di accelerato sviluppo seguite da altre di rilevante stasi. La nozione di fringe belt coglie invece le trasformazioni intermittenti del perimetro nel loro fluire: non solo come confine, ma come premessa di una nuova struttura dapprima fluttuante e incerta (liquida, si direbbe oggi) che si consolida, viene demarcata e diventa più stabile nel tempo. Compresa a fondo, l’innovazione terminologica e metodologica conzeniana permette di interpretare la frammentazione delle periferie urbane non semplicemente come caotiche, e per questo indecifrabili, lacerazioni, ma nel loro significato autentico di strutture in formazione, delle quali vanno riconosciuti caratteri evidenti e potenziali.

Questa innovazione, rivolta alla realtà dei fenomeni in atto, sembra oggi tanto più attuale, quanto più le analisi urbane si vanno distaccando dallo sviluppo dei fenomeni concreti.

E’ in questo senso che l’edizione italiana dello studio su Alnwick ha il significato, come si diceva, di una proposta alternativa: individua un fronte comune contro la deriva astraente di molte delle riflessioni contemporanee sull’architettura alle diverse scale del territorio, della città, degli edifici. Ci confrontiamo oggi, infatti, con una crisi dai caratteri ignoti nelle grandi fasi di transizione del passato, dove la lettura indiretta e mediatica del mondo costruito va sostituendo la conoscenza diretta della realtà, svincolando la forma progettata dalle relazioni organiche che dovrebbero tenerla unita agli altri aspetti dell’uso del territorio. Smarrendo, in fondo, le basi che permettono di leggerne la reale complessità e di cogliere l’istanza a quel vicendevole rapporto di necessità tra le parti che il grande flusso delle modificazioni del paesaggio costruito, forse più che nel passato, oggi ci pone.  Senza la nozione di organismo urbano, senza la forma data da un confine pur mutevole e strutturante, la lettura di una condizione in rapida trasformazione, gli spazi dei margini irrisolti della città contemporanea acquistano il significato, suggestivo quanto inutilizzabile, di grandi schegge in conflitto tra loro. Lo spazio delle nostre periferie finisce così col ricadere nel grande mare del pittoresco metropolitano, dei territori “ibridi e vaghi”: la città reale come combinazione fortuita, uno dei tanti casi del possibile.










Si vedano, per convincersene, le interpretazioni della città contemporanea (da Virilio a Koolhaas) che hanno conquistato intere generazioni di architetti, dove la metropoli diviene un luogo della mente che racchiude personali rappresentazioni delle trasformazioni in corso, livelli sovrapposti di “architetture eventuali”, layers di realtà possibili e discontinue, secondo una cultura disciplinare che organizza, di fatto, il consenso alla crescita della metropoli contemporanea per addizioni ininterrotte e seriali.  E’ evidente, se solo si alza lo sguardo al di sopra delle contingenze, come la funzione dell’architettura sia ancora quella dell’arte borghese, ancora quella tafuriana di “allontanare l’angoscia introiettandone le cause” che racchiude, anche, l’ambizione di progettare la casualità del molteplice letto nei suoi frammenti separati: l’evocazione della complessità contro la sua soluzione. Scomparsa la pertinenza con la propria fase storica e con la propria area culturale (tolte dal loro tumultuoso contesto economico e antropico) le forme si trasformano in oggetti di evocazione. Una tecnica di seduzione, dove le contraddizioni sembrano di volta in volta, illusoriamente e paradossalmente, sciogliersi nell’eccesso dello spettacolo.

Non è, dunque, un caso che lo studio su Alnwick, e la proposta di metodo che contiene, siano proposti al lettore italiano proprio oggi, quando la produzione neoromantica dello star system internazionale pone quesiti sul ruolo stesso dell’architetto, sulla sua funzione anestetizzante di mediazione culturale e politica.

Comprendere il testo di M.R.G. Conzen significa scoprire (o confermare) una via d’uscita: leggere il territorio e la città contemporanei non come semplice, apparentemente neutrale constatazione di come essi ci appaiono, ma come processo operante e conflittuale, che permette di interpretare, scegliere, disegnare in continuità col grande flusso di trasformazione del costruito e della sua storia.