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Editorial. The Ordinary Right Conundrum: Representativeness VS Citizenship?

Carlo Olmo
p. 15-21
This article is a translation of:
Editoriale. Il cruccio di un diritto ordinario: rappresentanza contro cittadinanza? [it]

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DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH04.02

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Authority to Counteract Complexity

1The law is perhaps the first victim of the social and cultural processes that characterize contemporary societies. In this issue, Marco Dugato ironically illustrates the legislative simplification parable that makes evident the crisis in the theorization of complexity, instead of a redemptive end, summoned by philosophers, sociologists, biologists, and engineers. Indeed, reactions to such a crisis involve ordinary rights and, even more, the governance of processes, the core of which is reduced to the institutional engineering of complex social processes, and a simplified idea of innovation, whether intended as technological or competence dissemination.

2Moving from partially conflicting hypotheses, the essays by Marco Cremaschi and Cristina Bianchetti add to the thesis of the crisis of ordinary rights as inherently linked with spatial theory. The two essays trace a path in which the discussion of rights unveils the inability to rediscover the meaning of public space, risking the production of new social myths, which are, indeed, associated with individual positions – such as Bergson, Maritain, and communitarian ideologies in Europe – simply to avoid neoliberal ideologies. Yet, there is also room for the difficulties in avoiding laziness when proclaiming multicultural statements, which, in part, do not want to see the écart that exists between cultures (Jullien, 2016); on the other hand, they radicalize the betrayal that has made the relationship between rights, individuals, and land too flexible (Supiot, 2015). Considering all of these processes, appeals to any sort of authority expose potential weakness. Even the authority of architectural and spatial projects and designers is under threat, despite the always solid archistar discourse. Yet in another social process authority supports the reduction of substantial Aristotelian matters to the formalization of guarantees that undermine the very concept of law.

3In medicine, care for those who suffer has been replaced by caring for codes of conduct; similarly, social sciences are also victims of the paradigm of “protocols”. There is no substantial practice of engineers, architects, lawyers, or social scientists. Such professions are increasingly disconnected from factories, building sites, laboratories, and societies, respectively. Their practice, as well as their ethic, is substituted by norms to which to conform. In this volume, the possible outcomes are illustrated by Juan Guevara and Rob Shields in their piece regarding spatial stratification in Bogota, a case of both specific and peculiar overlapping of written and informal rules.

4Both contributions by Bianchetti and by Guevara and Shields concern actions that almost materialize the multiplicity of rights. Perhaps the main issue today lies in the conflict between procedures (intended also as a general safeguard from potential disputes, regardless of the specificity of the particular issue at hand) and the capacity to orient actions toward a purpose – suffice it to be a transparent purpose if not a virtuous one, as would be most desirable. Prisons and psychiatric institutions, far from being machines, are the most radical expression of a victory of procedures over care today, intended in the way that most attribute to Foucault, as authority over the capacity to suggest solutions, to envision scenarios, and to help citizens (through that projective ability that design holds) to exercise their fundamental right: to choose rather than obey (De Magistris, Scotti, 2018).

5A possible option is, as Cremaschi does in his essay, to speak of Tracing rights on the ground or, in other words, of the way Paris has attempted a distinction between rights and land (a distinction that far surpasses that between ownership and surface). This position attempts at constructing frameworks that only work throughout their dimension, and forget how even Aristotle considered Hippodamus as legislator, not by chance in Politics, due to the basic relationship between rights and the boundaries within which those rights can guarantee an expression of citizenship. Even before the decision is made, the problematic relationship has to be constructed between the project and rules and between rights and boundaries.

6A helpful example of this method applies to the notion of the “common good”, a catchphrase that is particularly fashionable today, that links transformative design and rights (Grossi, 2017). The root of the term “common” has been lost. “Common” derives from Latin communis, composed of com- + munis, which mean “together” and “gift”. In Roman Law, and particularly in the Justinian Code, the common good was established on the basis of reciprocity and gratuity of the use of a “gift” (Bruni, 2010). These two principles of reciprocity and the gratuity of some “gifts” directed public policies in the late 19th century, when some goods were conceived as inalienable, such as hygiene, because the right to access them could not be negotiated.

7Are there common goods today? A few months ago, while elaborating on identity, François Jullien attempted a different definition, based on his extensive work on the concept of “écart” (2016). A major écart concerns the recent Italian bill that regulates how state property can be transferred to local municipalities. A distorted application of theory has resulted in allowing acquisition upon presenting a project of valorization to be implemented within a fixed term. Practically, the law states that a common good can be enjoyed by local citizens instead of being directly sold to private entities; this may sound like good news, but it can happen only if the very nature of the common good is altered, quite likely to exploit some commercial value. The principle of making good use of public resources is commendable, but it may generate paradoxes. This is where Carl Schmitt’s skepticism over the relativism of values might be reconsidered (2008).

8In the issue, Daniele Campobenedetto and Matteo Robiglio test the reconceptualization of masterplans as tools that produce both knowledge and transformative approaches when applied to the layering of rights throughout centuries and that may become common goods. Yet, both paths open a conflict between valorization and the project; the latter can neither be reduced to added value nor can it turn upside-down the long-standing relationships of power that hold together the discourse of betterment as well as the proof of the utility of the action (Ginzburg, 2014). Dugato continues: “In recommending new rules, the architect should be reminded to think about collective utility and dream of the future”. In the case that this does not happen, no bridge will overcome the gap between an authoritative notion of law and the presumptive dimension of the project.

9In truth, law and architecture should ally to oppose those homologations that merely reflect the culture of internationalized technocracies, nowhere more so than in large-scale projects managed by engineering companies that make the construction work while the archistars or designers at large are left with the role of producing narratives even more than images (Olmo, 2010). Amidst a culture and society that is founded on conformity to norms and the circulation of copies (Augé, 1997), the space for projecting is annihilated and the built space retains the exclusive value of spectacularizing ideologies.

10Whether it concerns the right to citizenship or the city of rights, there can be no real conceptualization nor practice of it possible without dealing with complexity and recognizing hierarchies and diversities that exist. Before heading toward this conclusion, it is better to go through another node.

Theory, Competence, and Representativeness

11The rules of the project can be constructed on the basis of a modern tradition of participation (De Léon, 2017) if we look to an academic world, where the distance between the project and the architecture has been acknowledged and where competence is evaluated based not on the jobsite but, rather, on the basis of the project’s ability to associate contrasting interests (Durbiano, 2018). In truth, a theory of value that only looks at the effect produced by the project raises a plethora of questions that are all but irrelevant. This issue of Ardeth shows that with a certain degree of cruelty, not in the least in the difficulty of updating disciplinary references after Foucault and Lacan’s lessons.

12To start with, competence risks to be brought back to theories of value in order to safeguard it from being a mirror to aesthetic or critical theories; theories of value, though, conflict with the impossibility of the law to cater to particular interests. This not only points toward a revival of the tyranny of utility that conditioned the normative season of architectural modernity (suffice it to read any anthology of Das Neue Frankfurt) but also points toward throwing away the baby (representativeness) with the bathwater (the original intention of safeguarding competence), thus, conditioning the ethics of design practice.

13It is common sense that the political representation of the majority’s will is under threat in present times, and this implicitly questions the legitimization of minorities; more radically, it can be said that all forms of representation of the majority have been vanquished. The crisis was evidenced in the 1970s in Italy, specifically in Torino, when grassroot organizations and sector associations monopolized the representativeness of shared interests with the purpose of getting closer to people in relevant matters. Examples can be found in legal medicine, stemming from the organization of factories, or the design of schools based on Montessori’s theory, to name a few (Vineis, 1999). That experience intersects most of the institutional formalization of representativeness, counterbalanced by the proliferation of decentralized institutions, such as neighborhood committees, by which the aim of the representativeness of universal citizens’ rights or the majority’s interests was simply withdrawn.

14Nowadays, the crisis of the institutions concerning where the rights of the majority should be enacted, such as town halls and neighborhood committees, goes beyond misinterpreting general values. Not only do institutions work inefficiently, despite referring to the same general values that the ordinary right emphasizes, but, most of all, such a crisis is counteracted by the paradoxical proliferation of spontaneous organizations that mobilize in support of or against very specific interests. Frequently, they are so localized that they oppose general interests. It is too simplistic to label these forces as not-in-my-back-yard syndrome.

15The position that local and particular interests are not legitimized as far as they defend particularism is not acceptable. They are well represented in this Ardeth issue by the inhabitants of Les Grottes. Whatever the difficulties, the way to provide them with institutional representativeness has been neither satisfying nor redemptive. Yet, it is evident that present institutional forms displace, disperse, and fragment the representativeness of such particularist interests out of the institutional architecture itself. Additionally, most likely, the roots of the crisis of urban policies can be found in this marginalization (Bobbio, 2002).

16A meaningful side note should be added. It was one of the characteristics of pre-modern social organizations to merge particularized and territorialized interests with representativeness, whereas modernity has rooted its premises in the ambition of universality. The reconceptualization of city is, thus, the unavoidable guest for all conversations regarding rights and design. It is the most complex expression of the common good, as noted above. The city’s nature is that of a neither entirely public nor only private good. Its very existence is related to the acknowledgement of its “common good” statute by those who are entitled to claim rights concerning it, either a citizen or a public official. “Common goods” are those that bond together citizens in a community. Some concern social goods, while others are more directly associated with space, such as squares and streets.

17In the context of the crisis of representativeness and, therefore, the crisis of decisions made “for the majority”, the problem is how limited representativeness and particularistic interests can reproduce the common goods that are needed for the city to live. Returning to the approach for which Ardeth is aiming, which concerns theorizing the measurement of the effects of decisions and design, how can design ignore welfare and imprisonment policies, as dealt with in this issue, as far as they may impact universal quality? The risk is to exclude substantial rights as well as an open conversation on values, which, more than critical theory or aesthetics, is indeed what legitimized the representativeness and authority of those in charge of design in the processes that transformed any action aimed at future results in the twentieth century.

Authority and the Ordinary

18When dealing with authority, the design and law professions share the same sensitivity for once. Widespread populism expands from the extreme simplification of political representation to overrepresented slogans, increasingly found in the schools of architecture, such as the green city, the creative city, etc. They seem to mimic shared values; nevertheless, these slogans become practices and policies only by relying on know-how and the interests of designated competences and concerns that have never dialogued, thus, generating the city of new-corporativism (Secchi, 2013; Mazza, 2015).

19The illusion of territorial engineering is the expression of technocracy in command of social constructs. Among claims, “green”, for instance, is an exemplary good practice in Les Grottes. Green is equal to a park in Anglo-Saxon tradition, which does not fit most of the European cities’ histories. Above all, the opposition between “good nature” and “evil city” is too much of a simplification. Perhaps, alternatively, an idea of European urbanity should bet on the widespread presence of vegetation in neighborhoods, one that enhances the responsibility of active citizenship (Baudelet et al., 2008).

20It is not only a simplification of good and bad characters that marks the distance between competences and representativeness, which becomes a matter of attributing authority; the language itself and the tools that are applied to represent changes are also affected. In 1764, when the construction of the Sainte Genèvieve church was started in Paris (the church is now known as the Pantheon), the representatives of the majority and of documented competence, Soufflot and Perronet, decided that it was necessary to share with citizens the expectations of the result of the works. To do so, a famous painter, Robert, was given the task to visualize the pronaos of the church and its surroundings in a 1:1 model (Gabetti, Olmo, 1989).

21Imagery and scenery are crucial components for the preservation of the common goods value of the city. Imagery and scenery can legitimize or falsify as well. In this specific case, the representation of a future space is instrumental to exercise authority, and the production of urban imagery is necessarily the grounds for dialoguing between competences and the majority. Without this space for dialogue, it would be the corporative technical city that prevails with rights reduced to conformity to norms.

22The construction of the city, or rather of its buildings, has become too private an issue. The situation calls for an informed and non-instrumentalizable reflection on a much wider scale than it is possible to do here. Nonetheless, it is perhaps possible to trace a few fundamentals.

23The first node, again, refers to the valorization of the fixed capital intertwined with design, particularly large-scale design. The issue is bigger than the use of urbanization fees that expand services for citizens and, therefore, activate practices of citizenship-building. Indeed, city’s rights and their alienation are concerned.

24The issue is not new, and a primeval example of large-scale compensative equalization can be seen in 1754 Lisbon after the great earthquake and fire (Cardoso, 2006). The use of compensative equalization is precious, as long as it can be tailored to different contexts that are functional to territorial logistics of land consolidation. It is then a clear example of a technical tool that generates spatial imagery and landscapes. Without them, and without a complex notion of the social production of meanings that the city constructs, the compensative equalization strategy can easily be reduced to misleading particularism of a city’s representation as the sum of fragmented interests (it is not by chance that Cremaschi refers to Excavating Rights).

25In a strategy of sharing transformative scenarios as well as their timing and controversies, the compensative equalization re-establishes the principle of the city as a common good, given that common goods – building on localized spheres and boundaries (Torre, 2011) – have to deal with “connivance”. Further, the subtle intertwining of competence and “connivance” is precisely our second node.

26For those familiar with the historic European cities (Cutolo, Pace, 2016), it comes as self-evident that blocks and portions of the cities have been built by a connivance of developers, companies, and professionals. Connivance has to be intended in the meaning common among anthropologists, which is a close-knit, solid, and reciprocated relationship within a stable society (Gomarasca, 2009). What if the condition of stability changes, for example, in terms of the dimension of urban areas, to be made as a “city” during the urban expansion that followed WW2? What if the matter of knowledge and information becomes crucial without equal changes in the competence for urban decisions, as in the Trente Glorieuses?

27Knowledge is disruptive; it breaks down pre-existing certainties, transforms actors, and establishes new competitions among the stakeholders of urban transformations. In the knowledge society, some basic rules have to be respected, or populisms will find fertile ground to develop. Mainly, the players at stake should be acknowledged.

28The third node revolves around ordinary rights as the horizon to recombine transformative design as far as possible. With reference to the production of the city and the relationship between representativeness and the authority of urban design, whatever expression of representativeness is considered, not all decisions have to be subject to negotiation, which is likely the reason for the premature failure of urbanism.

29However, representativeness might proactively encourage the private sphere in redefining the extent and scope of its relationship with land. Practically, I argue for the conceptualization of a city of knowledge based on the neglected principles of connivance and ordinary law. In this way, a transformative action of design can truly be measured by the inducted effects, and it is enabled to shift its authority from a priori principles to its capacity of mobilizing and representing collective interests. This is a way that rejects emergency and pressing contingency even if it is quite the opposite of what is seen all over the world.

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Bibliographical reference

Carlo Olmo, “Editorial. The Ordinary Right Conundrum: Representativeness VS Citizenship?”Ardeth, 4 | 2019, 15-21.

Electronic reference

Carlo Olmo, “Editorial. The Ordinary Right Conundrum: Representativeness VS Citizenship?”Ardeth [Online], 4 | 2019, Online since 01 May 2020, connection on 21 April 2024. URL:

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About the author

Carlo Olmo

Polytechnic of Turin, Department of Architecture and Design – carlo.olmo[at]

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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