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Learning from Veria – Heritage as an Opportunity

January 11, 2012

In 1968 two teachers at the Architecture Faculty of Yale went with a few students to Las Vegas for a study visit.  Two years after the outcome of this experience was published first and, with little changes, in 1972 in its definitive shape . 40 years after Learning from Las Vegas, the text that brought to international attention the theories about complexity and contradiction in architecture by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is still an enjoyable and stimulating reading, it is the neon signage on the front of a sophisticated and sharp criticism to the classical principles of Modern Architecture. Many good ideas  with abominable results in the so-called post-modern architecture that infested the late Seventies and Eighties worldwide.

In the meanwhile the debate about the linguistic features of modern architecture faded away, but a book like Learning from Las Vegas still provides  inspiring reflections about the basic principles of urban development. In Italy it has been re-published in 2010 by Quodlibet, raising a renewed interest  as a contribution to the debate about urban sprawl, suburbanization and room for new models of urban development in a globalized world.

This short introduction recalling Robert Venturi’s book is to explain the title of this post that is about some pictures of a Greek Macedonian city – Veria – and the final report of an international workshop on the technical aspects of urban heritage regeneration that took place there in May  2011 in the framework of the URBACT LINKS Network.

Needless to say that Las Vegas and Veria have nothing in common; they could be seen as two opposite ends of urbanisation processes.  On the other side I like to recall Venturi’s book to underline how much we can learn from the observation of a city and how it can help understanding others, even if extremely different.

That was the experience made by the URBACT LINKS partners in Veria, well reflected in the comprehensive report edited by Kleopatra Theologidou (Host Partner City of Veria), Frédérique Calvanus (Lead Partner City of Bayonne) and myself as Lead Expert of the Network, including a.o.  contributions by prof. Job Roos (TU Delft) and prof. Ioanna Papayianni (University of Thessaloniki).

From the reports and newsletter I like to quote the following text summarizing the outcomes of the workshop in relationship to the local challenges.

Heritage as an opportunity

Built at the foot of the Vermion Mountains, on the axis of important ancient roads, Veria, a small city with a population of 45,000 inhabitants, is 2,500 years old. Veria possesses fertile hinterland and rich waters, which helped its rapid growth and continuous historical presence.  It is perhaps one of the few Greek cities that kept the same name and location for such a long period. The historic traces from the different eras are numerous, however, most of them were hidden and interspersed among the urban fabric as it was created in the latter part of the 20th century. Amongst these, a strong presence of 45 Byzantine and post Byzantine churches with important frescoes, Muslim monuments and a synagogue in the Jewish neighbourhood.

“Just a few decades ago, Veria had a completely different image with a completely different potential. Its image today varies and we could describe it as disappointing when referring to its architectural heritage. By participating in the LINKS programme, we are seeking to produce a plan of action for the eco-restoration of the historic centre that will transform the problem into an asset and that will convert Veria into an exemplary city; a city of innovation.  A city which is  environmentally friendly, as well as friendly to its citizens, thus contributing to the improvement of the quality of life, local development and the revitalization of the local economy.”

A different analysis of the challenges facing the city of Veria was introduced by representatives of the local authorities and members of the URBACT Local Support Group (ULSG) during the public session on the first workshop day. In particular, the speech made by Kleopatra Theologidou, from which the quotes are taken, set out the frame of Veria’s partnership in the LINKS network and the technical aspects of the revitalization of its historic city centre.

“It can be said today that there is no distinct and coherent historic centre. Some parts of the town have maintained their traditional character but they are dispersed. Here is LINKS’ first challenge and the possibility to propose environmentally friendly interventions to restore the continuity of these areas and take advantage of the knowledge and experience developed during the collaboration with our partners.

Using the knowledge, methods and guidelines recommended by our partners will ensure comfortable living conditions in the historic buildings and at the same time protect and preserve their values. As these values differ from one building to another, it is a challenge that could have an important impact not only locally but on a wider geographical scale, including buildings similar to ours.

In short, what are these building characteristics and what is the situation in Veria today?

The historic buildings in Veria could be classified in 2 main categories: the older ones which follow traditional patterns and the later, which follow traditional patterns influenced by other European architectural styles. Of course, in between, there are many variations and transitional types.

The main characteristics of the first category are the introverted and the defensive forms towards the public space, a form that changes dramatically towards the courtyard where the scenery is quite different.  Outdoor and semi-outdoor spaces and balconies face the courtyard where the basic occupations of the family take place. The building materials are stone walls of porous stone on the ground floor and mezzanine, reinforced with wooden belts and timber frame constructions on the upper floors. There are a limited number of windows on the ground floor. As a result, the energy behaviour of the building is different on the lower and the upper floors. How we can improve the energy behaviour of such buildings with so many open spaces is quite a challenge.

In the second category of buildings the layout of the openings changes. They are reduced on the upper floors and increased on the ground floor, thus creating a balance and symmetry of vertical and horizontal lines. The use of wood is reduced, that of brick increased and in some cases iron is adopted as a building material. The horizontal plan has a closed contour, with quite a few balconies and is closer to modern standards of housing.
These buildings are clearly kept in better condition and in many cases do not have serious stability problems. It is clear that in these buildings the restoration approach is different, as well as their energy behaviour and needs.”

Inspired by the speeches of Greek colleagues, the visit and the unique atmosphere of the city, the LINKS partners discussed considerably amongst themselves and with local stakeholders about the measures which would prove the most efficient as regards to the quality of life in the city and accelerate the regeneration process in a sustainable way. The measures that were the most frequently mentioned can be summarized as follows:

(1)    Survey and technical assessment of the present situation of historical buildings on a detailed map and database of the historical city centre.

(2)     Restrict new constructions both in the city centre and on the outskirts of the town and at the same time encourage restoration and reuse of existing buildings by providing incentives and reducing administrative burdens.

(3)    Improve the quality of public spaces, control traffic, at least in the city centre, increase the attractiveness for pedestrians and cyclists in order to re-connect the different parts of the town that are today split up.

(4)    Find new ways to disclose and exploit the enormous cultural hidden assets of the historical city centre with a creative management of heritage.

(5)    Reactivate traditional craftsmanship which is necessary to rehabilitate old buildings and boost local economy.

(6)    Decrease administrative burden (and time) needed for the approval of each rehabilitation project, without lowering quality standards.

(7)    Use eco-restoration as an opportunity to increase the economic value of historical buildings and attract investment with eco-incentives.

All the round-table talks clearly disclose the fact that none of these issues can be dealt with separately. To combine the various measures in an integrated and holistic approach is the only way to deal with the complexity of the problems, global and local, challenging the city of Veria.

Below some streetviews taken when arriving to Veria, during the workshop and  study visits.

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