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The Radical Conservation of Red Bologna

In the 1960s and 70s, the Italian city of Bologna’s Communist administration took a radical approach to conservation – opening up the process of shaping the city’s historic centre to grassroots democratic planning.

Communist-led Bologna in Northern Italy, photographed in 1969. Credit: Creative Commons

‘La dotta, la grassa, la rossa’—the learned, the fat, the red—are the affectionate local epithets for Bologna, capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy. ‘La dotta’ for the city’s university, considered to be the oldest in the Western world. ‘La grassa’ for its reputation as a node of regional cuisine. ‘La rossa’ in reference to the warm, terracotta-hued brick and plaster of the old medieval city centre, but also to the Communist local government of the post-war period, which sought to conserve the densely porticoed red streets of the ‘centro storico’ for the benefit of the working-class communities who lived there. For the Left, ‘la rossa’ stands for a brief but remarkable moment where the practice of conserving old buildings became the front and centre of a radical new urban politics.

In the decades that followed the end of the Second World War, Italy experienced huge social transformation as millions of people moved from the rural south to the urban north into towns and cities ill-equipped to receive them. Cities expanded in an uncontrolled, rapid fashion during the boom years of the late 1950s, unrestrained by a relatively underdeveloped planning legislation and profession, and encouraged by an emergent bloc of powerful developers with links to Mafia interests who exerted a huge amount of influence on national and local politics.

A nationwide social housing programme was introduced in 1949, but the overall pattern remained a familiar one: of land values in city centres drastically increasing, the subsequent demolition of old buildings with low use value—typically working-class housing—and the displacement of the occupants. By some, this was felt to be a continuation in principle of the ‘sventramenti’—literally, the disembowelment—of cities under Mussolini. Old working-class neighbourhoods and churches had been flattened indiscriminately in major cities to make way for ceremonial Fascist projects such as the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a busy road that now cuts across the centre of Rome.

Red Governance

Although the Italian Communist Party (PCI) were excluded from national government, the Emilia-Romagna region remained staunchly Communist, and the local party was able to rely on a legacy of working-class and partisan movements to ensure a broad base of support. Bologna first elected the PCI in 1945, and as the only regional capital governed by the Left, the city administration embarked on a project to make Bologna a model of Communist municipal politics – a showpiece for ‘buona amministrazione’.

By the 1960s, as was the case in many Western European countries, Italian cities lay at the heart of a national debate about the relationship between the urban past and modern life, and about what and who the city was for. It was within this context that Bologna’s government pioneered a new, conservation-driven approach to the centro storico, the locus of these tensions and upheavals.

First and foremost, the conservation of historic buildings in the medieval centre was an important way of undermining the logic of largely unimpeded capitalist development. ‘Conservation signifies the social reappropriation of the city’ wrote the planners. ‘Conservation is revolution.’

Furthermore, the city was conceived by the Communist administration as a collective expression of a shared history, a place which was made and remade by the people who lived within it; there was no clear division between the physical environment and the more ephemeral social and cultural qualities that were produced through the motions of everyday life. It was therefore vital that conservation be carried out for the benefit of these people, rather than contribute to their eventual displacement. Always at the centre of this endeavour was to be the question: ‘For whom are we going to restore and preserve this heritage?’

Nor was there a distinction made between the highly valued medieval buildings and the more ‘anonymous’ housing of the later centuries. The preferred approach was a holistic one which protected the entire urban assemblage rather than singular works of architecture. According to the planner and councillor Pier Luigi Cervellati, Bologna was to be an ‘old town for a new society’. By that, he meant that conservation should not be an act of absolute preservation, or the restoration of a particular moment of the urban past, but a means of bringing about a more connected and reflective way of being in the city.

Old Town, New Society

The way to create this old town for a new society was through an urban plan which integrated building conservation with an innovative housing programme. In the 1960s, a group of architects and planners led by the architectural historian Leonardo Benevolo were commissioned to undertake a study of the centro storico. The group produced an extraordinarily detailed building census which catalogued every single building and monument within the medieval city walls and carried out sociological surveys which investigated the ways people experienced and related to Bologna as a place.

Based on the findings of the study, a masterplan for the centro storico was published in 1969, which contained a set of strict guidelines that defined the appropriate method of renovation, conversion (where allowed), and future use for every main building type. Larger buildings such as the San Mattia Convent, which today houses the Resistance Museum, were converted for community use, and smaller buildings were converted primarily for housing.

Following public housing reform in the early 1970s, the administration was able to expropriate land for public housing in five districts of the centro storico and introduce a covenant which offered individual landlords generous grants for renovation work – but only on the proviso that the original tenants would have the right to return at the same rents. Should the tenants move out, the landlord was obliged to take new tenants from the public housing waiting list, and should the landlord wish to sell, the administration had the right to be the first buyer at a reduced rate.

A network of neighbourhood councils had been introduced across the city, which engaged local people directly with planning and the formulation of urban policy. These councils were responsible for approving building licences, as well as ensuring that proposed works were in line with the plan’s urban vision and with local needs.

The plan for the centro storico was just one of many for the city. Formed out of a reciprocal process with the neighbourhood councils, they introduced a range of progressive policies – policies to prevent urban sprawl on the hillsides, to limit traffic in the centre, to increase public transport, and to create public facilities such as schools and cultural centres in each neighbourhood. And yet despite the international acclaim with which the plans were met (Bologna was lauded as the ‘best governed state in Europe’ by Newsweek in 1974), Cervellati did not think that the plans had been a success. ‘Without the public ownership of land’ he said, ‘there can be no real socialist land policy.’

With hindsight, his pessimism was not misplaced. The waning of public participation from the 1980s, the split of the PCI, the loosening of regulations, and the growth of tourism have all contributed to the creeping gentrification of Bologna’s centro storico. Compared to cities like Rome and Milan, however, it still houses a significant residential population within its city walls, and the palpable sense of a thriving local culture.

Today’s Empty Containers

With the exception of the short-lived Community Areas Policy of the Greater London Council in the early 1980s which directed resources towards the rehabilitation of buildings for community use, there has never been any serious attempt to integrate building conservation and progressive social politics at scale in Britain.

Instead, heritage designations have tended to exacerbate the dispossession of existing communities. As a capital city with a highly pressurised housing market, London has been particularly susceptible to these forces. The aggressive gentrification of Barnsbury in Islington in the 1960s followed its designation as a conservation area and the introduction of match grant funding for renovation (which favoured newer middle-class residents who could afford it). This was scathingly caricatured by the novelist Jonathan Raban in his 1974 book Soft City, where Raban portrayed conservation areas as a mechanism for the middle classes to consolidate their interests.

The ‘heritage premium’ continues to contribute to the rise in property values and the transformation of places from diverse working-class areas to enclaves for the rich in contemporary UK cities. With attitudes about the desirability of post-war architecture changing rapidly, social housing is increasingly vulnerable to this trend. The Grade II* listing of Balfron Tower, designed by the architect Ernö Goldfinger, saved the building from demolition in the late 1990s but not from social cleansing. Social tenants have since been forced out by the housing association Poplar HARCA, who are converting the block into apartments for the luxury housing market, complete with a number of ‘heritage flats’ bedecked with period details.

Park Hill in Sheffield, another Grade II* listed brutalist housing estate, has met with a similar fate. Designed by Sheffield city architects in the early 1960s and famous for its application of the ‘streets in the sky’ concept on a huge, visionary scale, the estate was not maintained, and was later deemed a failure. It was saved from demolition by its listing in the nineties, and transferred to the developer Urban Splash for free in 2004 after the residents had been decanted. It is currently being converted into housing for creative young professionals and students.

Unlike the Bolognese planners, conservation and heritage professionals in Britain have long sought to promote their industry as one which is conducive to capitalist growth and expansion, which can complement the interests and the aims of developers and big business. It’s an approach which is often taken out of necessity, in order to make a persuasive case within a planning system with a democratic deficit and a reliance on private for-profit developers. It’s also an approach which positions buildings simply as objects – as empty containers for the highest value activity, with no commitment to the people who use them and make them what they are.

The conservation of buildings in the UK is not a neutral process – heritage designation and renovation can too often lead to dispossession, and the undermining of the kind of places that these measures claim to protect. But there is a different way, of both conceptualising buildings and safeguarding them – of joining conservation and socialist politics, and of protecting a legacy of social housing for those who need it, and for whom it was built.

Bologna shows us that heritage protection can be an important part of a progressive urban politics which creates cities for people, not profit. It shows us that conservation can be the social reappropriation of the city: that conservation can be revolution.