Angelo Renna:
Bringing animals at the centre of the urban project

Interview with the Italian designer, an important figure in the Radical movement, on strategies of a new coexistence between humans and animals to move towards a less anthropocentric metropolis.

Earth is experiencing a huge decline in animal population. Scientists call it the “sixth mass extinction” because in the last century more than 50% of the animals have disappeared. As designer we should develop new strategies of a new coexistence between humans and animals in our cities. In 2008 Andrea Branzi has taken part in the competition organised by the French President Sarkozy to analyse a possible future for Paris. The Italian architect together with Stefano Boeri proposed to introduce free animals in the city. We met Andrea Branzi in his studio in Milan to talk about his project.

The project by Andrea Branzi for the Grand Paris, Graphic work by Angelo Renna

Can you tell me more about the Grand Paris project that you have developed with Stefano Boeri in 2008

For the competition held by the French president Sarkozy on the future of the city of Paris, we proposed a non-expansive program of intervention on the metropolis, based on the recovery and functional conversion of the existing situation, on the quality of interiors and the insertion of 50,000 sacred cows and 30,000 free monkeys in the parks and avenues of Paris. Our idea was to move towards a less anthropocentric metropolis, that would offer “cosmic” hospitality, open to biological diversity. We took the model of the Indian metropolis as a reference. Sacred cows, camels, elephants coexist together with humans in the city. The presence of free animals inside the urban territories creates a sort of reduction of the stress, like elastomers inserted in an accelerated mechanism, which increase the level of unpredictability of the system and force it to slow its pace. Protected by their sacred nature, the animals interrupt routes and increase the mystery of the constructed world. In urban traffic, a sacred cow can cross unexpectedly. It’s better to pay attention first because you can get a fine and second because it brings bad luck according to the Indian tradition. There are entire neighbourhoods invaded by groups of baboons, jumping, stealing, beating each other but being considered sacred animals they remain untouchable. We can find temples for snakes or mice. Or like Parsee; they have built towers in stone at the entrance of the city (called tower of silence) for dead bodies to be exposed to carrion birds and vultures following the idea of the life as a cycle. We see an integral pacifism. A strategy for a “cosmic” hospitality… Where dead are kept together with life, poor together with riches, sacred cows together with car traffic. There is an idea of totality and great spirituality. In particular, the Indian philosopher Jainio of the 5th century has theorized the “integral” non-violence. It means you cannot kill humans but even animals, insects, microbes, ants and all living beings: “It is sacred everything is alive”.In the project for Paris, the presence of free animals takes shape from a universal vision of existence and being.

The Towers of Silence, circular, raised structures built by Zoroastrians, are used for dead bodies to be exposed to carrion birds, usually vultures

Today in the European cities is happening a similar phenomenon. Many wild animals are moving in cities and urban contexts. Here they can easily find food, but also there are forced to move in because cities are growing so fast and big that the space for free animals is consistently reduced. More than 30.000 foxes are living in London, 10.000 boars in Berlin and Rome. Many other cities are facing up the same situation… Can we relate these phenomena to the Indian metropolis?

Sure, even if they are phenomena with a very high complexity and diversity. The Indian situation has a spiritual-religious origin, while in Occident we are having more a loss of control. Here we are facing more as unexpected phenomena, while in India they are expected and accepted situations.

Andrea Branzi

So unpredictability means also dangerousness? How can we keep under control this condition?

Yes, It could be. It is a diffuse and unexpected event. It assumes a real dimension like many other possible events that could happen in the city. The Indian society does not identify itself in buildings. The identity of the city is not about monuments and palaces, but it regards humans, colours of clothes, decorations... It is the “living” metropolis and the architecture is not separated from it.

Why the Indian society represents a reference point for you? What can we learn from it?

It is a different “world” and not easy for us in the west to understand. It is not folklore, but it is a specific reality, a possibility that should be explored, because, for example, the idea to introduce monkeys and cows in an urban context is a possibility. These free presences become part of the living universe and the encounter with them is able to change yourself and what is around you.

Andrea Branzi, left, and Angelo Renna, in Branzi’s studio in Milan

A few years ago, you developed a project “Animali domestici” (“domestic animals”) and recently “Gabbie” (cages). Would you tell me something about these projects for animals?

In Mediterranean tradition domestic animals like dogs, cats and birds bring good fortune. Ancient Romans considered domestic animals as protective and lucky presences. In case of danger for the home, the dog die and the owner is safe. The furniture was considered a household goblin that protected you. It is an extremely remote and well-established anthropological origin. The Pompeian furnishing is an example, which often reproduces zoomorphic shapes. Recently I have worked on cages for canaries. Like micro architectures, they give hospitality to these particular birds. These small animals are part of the ancient Mediterranean tradition. In the Poggioreale prisons in Naples prisoners often hold canaries in the cells. This is a very common tradition; even in houses, shops and living environments that modernity has long ignored. They are extremely professional animals that come from generations of canaries in cages and therefore they are used to live in domestic environments.

Voliere #2 by Andrea Branzi for Galleria Luisa Delle Piane

Is the canary part of the design process in this specific case?

Yes, of course. The animal is the centre of the project. I really like the image of animals. They are magic presences possessed by indecipherable goodness. When you introduce a fragment of nature into a project, it emits an infinite power superior to the whole geometric system of modernity, while its uniqueness makes it almost sacred.

Published via ZOO INDEX with a kind agreement of Angelo Renna.
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