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Europe is Not a Tree

The Editorial Board of “Ardeth”
p. 5-10
L’Europa non è un albero [it]

Editor's notes

DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH07.01

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Europe is Not Tree Map

Europe is Not Tree Map

1This issue of “Ardeth” comes out at a time when the material and institutional space of what we call “Europe” is undergoing a profound transformation, facing demands that in many ways would have been unforeseeable just a few months ago. The question of what might be the terms of the relationship between architecture and Europe – or more precisely between the architectural project and the European project – has also changed rapidly in the course of the making of this volume. We have gathered different perspectives, which consider Europe either as a (regulatory, institutional, value) condition of possibility for architecture, or as a result and effect of architectural operations. But we have also recorded substantial differences in the ways of considering the effectuality of the project, understood sometimes as a device for symbolising ‘European’ values and connotations, other times as a process of implementation and materialisation of geographical, political and socio-economic conditions.

2The image chosen by our guest editor to open the call for papers (even before the Covid-19 pandemic made its entrance on the world stage) uses a set diagram to outline the complex correlation between the institutions that make up a possible ontology of ‘Europe’. The map of institutional entities, partly embedded and partly intersecting one another, is reminiscent of the ‘semilattice’ structure that Christopher Alexander used in 1965 to distinguish the ‘natural’ from the ‘artificial’ city in his famous article A City is Not a Tree.

Fig. 1 – Elaboration on the semi-lattice structure as in Alexander’s diagram (1967 [1965]: 198)

Fig. 1 – Elaboration on the semi-lattice structure as in Alexander’s diagram (1967 [1965]: 198)

3Concluding that article, Alexander stated that “In any organized object, extreme compartmentalization and the dissociation of internal elements are the first signs of coming destruction” (Alexander, 1965: 61). “Trees” – projects of strictly hierarchical systems – would therefore be artificial and fragile constructions, reductions to a figure of order that is too schematic and above all detached from history, from its sedimentation and resistance. As is the case with the urban phenomena to which Alexander referred, any description of Europe, even the institutional one, is dense with overlaps and intersections: this is a fundamental requirement for its existence and resilience – although at the same time this hybrid reticularity is also the source of countless contradictions. In view of this diagram, we can certainly say that Europe, too, “is not a tree”.

4The topological correspondence between the institutional map of Europe and Alexander’s urban diagrams is not just an analogy. The Europe that this issue of “Ardeth” attempts to deal with has some clearly architectural characteristics, at least as long as one considers geographical and political space as the inescapable territory of architecture. The ‘European project’ to which the call for papers refers is an architectural project, insofar as it can be defined in terms of material and symbolic structures endowed with fragility and resilience, which presuppose processes of construction and transformation of space in the medium and long term. The eminently spatial problem that the concept of Europe is re-proposing at this time (once again and more literally than ever) is precisely the overturning of its definition as terra continens, which from antiquity reaches into the twentieth century (think of Carl Schmitt’s writings on the ‘Earth’ as the foundation of the jus publicum Europaeum, in Schmitt, 1954 and 1950).

5Peter Sloterdijk has explored in depth the characteristics of those places that claim to be closed around a hearth, protected by walls, moats and concentric defences. The ‘continent’, he argues, aspires to this condition, at least if it is understood literally as ‘the continent’, an autogenous receptacle in which the content contains itself (Sloterdijk, 2014). But it is precisely the overturning of this autogenous container that we are now facing: a process that the inhabitants of the European space can take charge of, provided they recognise its scope and historical depth. Whoever reaches the homeland after circumnavigating the Earth – writes Sloterdijk – disembarks in a place that can no longer be transfigured into the domestic and native worldly cave that it once was. Those who are living in today’s day and age, after Magellan, are obliged to consider even their hometown as the projection of a point perceived from the outside. Globalisation has been going on ever since, blowing off layer by layer the imaginary wrappings of indigenous collective life, lived closed in one’s own house, self-oriented and endowed with redeeming power (Sloterdijk, 2014). Today, this condition appears so evident that it even goes beyond what Sloterdijk himself might have intended.

6The impossible containment of Europe is the same as that of architecture: there is no absolute island on which to take refuge, to make a project without interference or intrusion. The contributors to this issue have established different and even mutually conflicting links between the European project and the architectural project. As usual, in this introduction, we have tried to bring together the terms that recur in the various papers, attempting to restore their proximity and opposition. First of all, it seemed crucial to ask ourselves what kind of relationship between Europe and architecture is envisioned by the texts collected here: do architectural projects play a constitutive role with respect to the existence of Europe, or is Europe – as an institution, a system of powers and legitimations – a necessary condition for the existence of ‘European’ architecture? Secondly, we have tried to establish what kind of effects the authors attribute to these projects of ‘European architecture’: are they effects of signification and symbolic representation, or are they material transformation effects, with their multiple repercussions?

7The result is a double opposition, which we have arranged on two axes according to the ‘Cartesian’ system we usually employ as a reading guide. On the horizontal axis, there are two opposing modes of relationship between Europe and architecture: the pre-eminence of the project on the left, and the prevalence of the institution on the right. In the first case it is assumed that the architectural project can act as a fundamental device for the inductive and incremental composition of Europe. The architectural project here precedes the institution. In the second case, the institutional framework is, on the contrary, a necessary condition for the establishment of a European architecture. If at the endpoint of the project axis we find the idea of Europe itself as architecture, we move in the direction of the institution we assume, conversely, that architectures can only exist in the name and context of Europe, under the aegis of treaties, agreements, funding and recognition.

8On the vertical axis, we have distributed the opposition between those who emphasize the symbolic functioning of projects (symbolization, at the top) and those who give priority to their material and spatial effectiveness (materialization, at the bottom). In the first case the focus is on the project as a device of representation (of values, cultural contents, objectives of progress and innovation...) that produces mobilization and unification on the level of collective meanings. In the second case, on the other hand, the architectural project is mainly considered for its ability to bring Europe into existence as a concrete material space (in its urban forms, infrastructures, spatial practices).

9In this way, four distinct quadrants emerge, to each of which we could refer different specific project effects.

10In the first quadrant we find those cases in which institutional legitimacy is accompanied by a strong symbolic investment. One could say that this is the quadrant of monuments in the broad sense, but also of European awards and recognitions. In this perspective, Socrates Stratis retraces 30 years of Europan projects, highlighting how the institutional framework of the initiative strengthens the network relationships among young European architects, but is also capable of promoting a horizon of values and objectives, especially in terms of “common imaginaries for the inclusive city”. Adopting a dialectical approach with the institutional level, Sandra Meireis defines instead the European Union as a “utopian project that stands out against the background of a succession of crises”, up to the Covid-19 pandemic. In this framework, “the hope for renewed social cohesion” and the perspective of a Green New Deal should take concrete shape through the architectural project: the project proposal acts here as a manifesto, preceding the construction of the institutional conditions for it. But only by virtue of the realization of the “future European Republic’’ will it be possible to achieve the systematic implementation of architectural projects.

11In the second quadrant, which combines institution and materialization, we could place the field of transnational infrastructure and projects. In her paper, Chiara Pradel tackles the impact of the large AlpTransit railway tunnel connecting Italy and Germany through Switzerland. Although the author tries to highlight the monumental and ‘poetic’ dimension that might emerge from the project, the material impact of the process seems to prevail over the rest of the discourse. With its 13.3 million cubic meters of excavated material and 57 km of underground crossing, this ambitious transnational project presupposes the existence of an institutional reality so strong that it can even move mountains.

12In the third quadrant (project and material effects) it is possible to include the operations of transformation of the urban fabric and even minor settlements, understood as contingent processes. The exploration of the Quartier Européen in Brussels between 1958 and 1992 allows Sebastiano Fabbrini to focus on the background of the ‘supranational architecture’, which was supposed to represent a “common European home”. The author concentrates on the hardware of these events, covering real estate, procedural and technical issues, with the aim of showing “How architecture contributed to shaping the EU”. Starting from another specific case, but with an approach more oriented towards a project proposal, Manuela Raitano, Angela Fiorelli and Gloria Riggi address the area of Termini station in Rome. From the particular they then shift to the general: from the Termini project they induce a “model for a welcoming architecture”. In this case, too, one could say that “the project makes Europe”, but compared to the previous article these authors embrace a stronger value proposition, which orientates the architect’s profession: “Through the disciplinary lens, we investigate the possibility of a direct, large-scale commitment on the part of the architect in the construction of a city which is already multiethnic, but must become inclusive and intercultural”. In their visual essay, Silvana De Bari, Valerio Di Festa and Stefania Iraci Sareri attempt to measure individual and collective “tourist practices” through the design of a combinatory system of “minimal units” and “architectural materials [...] that could be used to create new types of spaces, places and experiences”. This is a predominantly methodological attempt, proposing the development of a design strategy that can in many ways be generalised (provided that the same ‘materials’ and the same temporary living practices can be found in different places in contemporary Europe).

13Finally, in the fourth quadrant we could place visions, manifestos and possibly decentralized projects, but oriented towards unifying principles (such as the Urban Innovative Actions legitimized by the perspective of sustainable development). Alexander Stumm reproposes the theme of design utopia and its symbolic force through the case of the Atlantropa project, conceived by Herman Sörgel in the late 1920s. Almost a century later, the author finds the same rhetoric and hegemonic strategies between that project – based on a gigantic system of hydroelectric plants and dams – and the Desertec program, which envisages the installation of large photovoltaic systems in the desert areas of North Africa. With a strongly critical approach, Peter Volgger describes the socio-spatial practices of Mouride groups as an example of ‘migrating architecture’, able to face the territories of dispersion and alienation, “without waiting for architects”. Such practices are organized symbolically among groups that are always on the move, but which allow them to act materially on space. This case points in the opposite direction to that traditionally understood by the architectural project, considered a potential “instrument of hegemony and domination over marginalized people”. This is a radically anti-institutional research horizon, in which the materiality of practices descends from the symbolic cohesion of social groups.

14The issue ends with two authoritative contributions, which appear eccentric with respect to the architects’ views and in many ways differ from each other. In the first, Carlo Galli dedicates an adaptation of his Theses on Europe to “Ardeth”. The text does not take a position on the specific question of architectural projects, but allows us to better understand the reticular nature, the power relationships and the weaknesses of current European institutional arrangements – which nevertheless seem to remain the essential and necessary condition for any project, architectural or otherwise. In the second contribution, Anna Livia Friel and Marco Provinciali interview Romano Prodi on an exquisitely “symbolic” theme, namely the possibility of representing the identity of European institutions through architecture, in the context of the EUPavillion project.

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Alexander, C. (1965), A City is not a Tree, “Architectural Forum”, vol. 122, n. 1, April, pp. 58-62 (Part I), vol. 122, n. 2, pp 58-62 (Part II) [it. ed. C. Alexander (1967), Una città non è un albero, in Note sulla sintesi della forma (Appendice 3), Milano, il Saggiatore, pp. 194-230].

Sloterdijk, P. (2014b [1999]), Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e) [it. ed. P. Sloterdijk (2014a), Sfere II. Globi, Milano, Raffaello Cortina].

Schmitt, C. (2015 [1954]), Land and Sea: a World-Historical Meditation, Candor, Telos Press Publishing [it. ed. C. Schmitt (2002), Terra e mare, Milano, Adelphi].

Schmitt, C. (2003 [1950]), The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum [it. ed. C. Schmitt (1991), Il nomos della terra nel diritto internazionale dello “jus publicum europaeum”, Milano, Adelphi].

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List of illustrations

Title Europe is Not Tree Map
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Title Fig. 1 – Elaboration on the semi-lattice structure as in Alexander’s diagram (1967 [1965]: 198)
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Bibliographical reference

The Editorial Board of “Ardeth”, “Europe is Not a Tree”Ardeth, 7 | 2020, 5-10.

Electronic reference

The Editorial Board of “Ardeth”, “Europe is Not a Tree”Ardeth [Online], 7 | 2020, Online since 01 June 2021, connection on 04 October 2023. URL:

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