Letter from Europe

In search of Eden

Issue no. 2014/16


There is something very pleasing about communities which display a strong architectural coherence. In some instances, the sense of order and unity might take its spark from one striking central feature. The Italian city of Palmanova is a good example.

Dear fellow travellers

There is something very pleasing about communities which display a strong architectural coherence. In some instances, the sense of order and unity might take its spark from one striking central feature. The small town of Zamosc in eastern Poland (featured in hidden europe 19) is one such example. The central square, built in Renaissance style in the late sixteenth century, is an appeal to order that radiates out across the entire town. It helps of course that Zamosc is small. Order need not be equated with uniformity - the beauty of Zamosc is in the variety of architectural styles on show in that dazzling main square and surrounding streets.

Zamosc is flamboyant in its style. Complicated, fussy and fun - perhaps that suits Catholic tastes. Protestant rationality in New England suggested that God's interests might better be served by the simplicity of rectangular town plans, a trend which was also evident in Europe where communities founded by Moravian Brethren have a functional simplicity in their town plans. Fine examples include Christiansfeld in Danish Jutland and Herrnhut in Saxony (we had an article on Herrnhut in hidden europe 22).

All these places contrive to give a strong sense of a community rooted in the surrounding landscape. But the boundaries are clear - whether it be Zamosc or Herrnhut you know the moment when you cross from town to country. Letchworth in south-east England is very different. In a pioneering way, it recast the relationship between urban and rural space. Letchworth was founded in 1903, and the ideas underpinning the world's first garden city resonated across Europe. Indeed, it was 100 years ago this summer that the Russian Garden City Society was established with its head office in St Petersburg, although work on the first Russian garden city at Prozorovka had already been started two years earlier. Vladimir Semenov's original town plan for Prozorovka is based upon designs by Ebenezer Howard (whose book Garden Cities of Tomorrow inspired the development of Letchworth).

The Bolshevik Revolution did nothing for garden cities in Russia, so Prozorovka faltered but it still has in parts that distinctive sense of order commended by Howard. Nowadays the town is called Kratovo. It lies 40 km south-east of Moscow, so wise readers will not confuse it with the identically named town in Macedonia which by chance features in the next issue of hidden europe (which is published on 11 July).

Architectural coherence can of course be recast as a metaphor for social control. The Fascist architecture of Italy in the 1930s became part of the discourse of propaganda and coercion. There was order and coherence to be sure, but all constructed within a framework of political ideology. Time has softened some of these settlements, but they are still very much worth a visit. One of the more interesting is Torviscosa on the plains of Lower Friulia midway between Venice and Trieste. The town was founded in the 1930s with a textile factory at its heart, naturally inviting comparison with another very ordered community of the previous century: New Lanark, south-east of Glasgow, which was also created for textile workers. The two are however as different as chalk and cheese. Order comes in many guises. We could conceive of living in New Lanark. We wouldn't want to live in Torviscosa. Nor, we are sure, would you.

Curiously, little more than an hour's walk north of Torviscosa is another town that was designed to appeal to a sense of order. It is called Palmanova and was founded by the Venetian Republic in 1593. It is perhaps the most consummate expression anywhere of the notion of the Renaissance città ideale. But it did not prove very popular with citizens of the Venetian Republic who preferred the bustle and confusion of life near the Grand Canal to the ordered delights of Palmanova. It was a dismal failure, with some sources suggesting that the authorities in La Serenissima offered criminals a pardon on the condition that they relocated to Palmanova — where some, no doubt, were tortured for the rest of their days by the geometrical rigour of the place.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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