As our video interview gets underway, a small cast iron teapot moves in and out of view in the corner of the screen. Elena Cogato Lanza is reflecting on her studies in Italy, which she spent between her home town of Vicenza and the University of Venice. While sipping tea, she says, “I was interested in everything. For a long time, I couldn’t decide between anthropology, art history and architecture. I wanted to understand how the ways in which we occupy space become cultural acts.”
In the end, it was architecture that won out. As a discipline, it allowed her to engage with all other fields, to work with engineers on research projects and, more recently, to explore the possibilities of digital technology. As academic editor of the June 2020 issue of Urban Planning, she asked Frédéric Kaplan, director of the Venice Time Machine, to discuss his project. Through the use of Big Data and virtual reality – highly promising tools for architects – the Time Machine will enable researchers to journey into Venice’s past.
And indeed, it was time travel that became Lanza’s field of expertise in Venice. “The university had a renowned department of architectural history,” she says, “and I was immediately drawn to the field. Very early on, I knew that my focus as an architect would be research rather than construction.” Lanza uses history to uncover a city’s potential, and thereby predict its future. This expertise has led to invitations to serve on international scientific committees. From 2004 to 2009, she worked for the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, in particular on the future of the Greater Paris region, and since 2018 she has chaired the Greater Geneva Steering Committee. She also serves as a scientific advisor in France, Italy and Belgium.
Her real breakthrough, however, came after she qualified as an architect. In 1990, she was awarded a research grant that enabled her to study at the Geneva-based Fondation Braillard Architectes. She settled in Switzerland and immersed herself in master plans for Geneva’s urban redevelopment dating from the 1930s. The project, which never left the drawing board, revealed a completely different vision of the City of Calvin. Her scholarship resulted in a thesis that Lanza completed at EPFL as an external student.
Territory as palimpsest
Concurrent with her PhD, Lanza began publishing her research and took on an increasing number of projects. “It was at that time that I was fortunate enough to meet André Corboz, a historian of architecture and urban planning, who was a professor at ETH Zurich. He was a significant source of inspiration for my work, and remains so to this day.” Corboz introduced her to the concept of territory as palimpsest, the idea that a city is the product of numerous superimposed, interwoven historical layers – urban “texts” that are themselves the result of a range of theories and collective visions. “For example, canals in urban areas very often become paths, which in turn become roads, and sometimes plans are drawn up to reopen these waterways!” she explains.
“I became aware that one could devise scientific tools to grasp a city’s potential for change and understand the connections between its various strata. These are not architectural tools per se, yet they are based on spatial and visual analysis skills typically applied to projects in this field.” She honed her methodology and, in order to base her observations on objective facts, constantly sought out correspondences between cartography and quantitative analysis in her various research projects. Gradually, the central topic to which she would devote her career became clear: how can one reinvent the contemporary city?
A constellation of ambiguities
Beginning in the 2000s, her thesis behind her, Lanza began teaching the history and theory of urban planning at EPFL and, on occasion, at the universities of Lausanne and Neuchâtel. “I always tell my students that good theories are not necessarily the most all-encompassing ones, but rather those that contain a constellation of ambiguities, and whose flaws become apparent over time. This lends them a capacity to change course and serve as a basis for ongoing inspiration. In urban planning, we need to be very attentive to the greater context that is unfolding, not just precisely defined objectives.”
In addition to teaching, Lanza continues to publish monographs and contributes to collective works as part of research projects at EPFL. She is also very dedicated to her role as publisher: in 2008, she founded the vuesDensemble series at MētisPresses. The aim of this line of publications is to provide new critical perspectives and forward-looking analyses in architecture and urban planning and to better understand the historical background of contemporary cities.
Conceptualizing a car-free planet
Starting in 2013, Lanza led one of her most iconic research projects, “Post-Car World,” under the auspices of the Swiss National Science Foundation’s Sinergia program. The project drew up proposals based on the hypothesis that, in the near future, private automobiles will be completely phased out. The group began by gathering transportation-related statistics in Switzerland, and were particularly interested in the fall-off in the number of driver’s licenses and the increase in sales of public transit passes. “We need to understand the meaning of these weak signals,” she says. Her analysis focused on the Geneva-Lausanne metropolitan area.
“We mapped the transport connections between these cities from 1900 to the present day and found that this network has remained more or less unchanged,” she says. “We concluded that tomorrow’s low-energy and soft mobility solutions will track this century-old grid.” The project also envisioned the creation of a new tram-train along the path of the current motorway, which would become a new central artery halfway between the towns in the foothills of the Jura Mountains and the towns along the lake. A volume summarizing the team’s interdisciplinary research will be published in the fall.
Beyond the urban/rural divide
Lanza is currently working on the issue of urban food security: “We need to develop synergies that address the divisions and difficulties that exist between urban and agricultural areas, as well as those between subsidized forms of agriculture and those that are marginalized or even ignored.” Similar to the weak signals indicating a willingness to shift to different forms of mobility, society is also emitting a number of weak signals concerning food security. These include a growing desire to eliminate dependence on agriculture that generates high levels of carbon emissions, the idea that green spaces are all too scarce in cities, and the search for a blend of housing, public spaces and productive activities that foster a better quality of life, among other concerns.
When Lanza talks about the Wahlen Plan* (Switzerland’s strategy for food self-sufficiency during the Second World War), describing it as visionary and inspiring with respect to today’s challenges, she makes no secret of the fact that innovations in the balance between city, nature and agriculture are still a long way off. But the initial signs are there: “I was passing by Geneva’s Parc des Bastions recently and I was surprised to find that a new municipal vineyard has been planted near the last remaining vestiges of the city’s old fortifications,” she says. “This is a perfect example of an urban palimpsest! Even on the smallest scale, the urban environment can always reinvent itself and become more multifaceted without sacrificing its historic character.”
The newly-planted vineyard near Geneva’s Parc des Bastions. © Alain Herzog / EPFL 2020
*Wahlen Plan (Historical Dictionary of Switzerland – in French)