Padanian Glamour (2005)

02_santhià-fiori-3Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this (actually: quite pale) sun of Santhià. After some years and many delays, before the end of December, 2005, among the snow-patched fields of the Moleto industrial area near the motorway junction, could eventually open the glamorous Glam Mall designed by Pierpaolo Maggiora. This new fashion village, as already said last summer, has changed its name and raison d’être – no more typical Italian factory outlet, delivering a mixture of high-level introverted shopping environment, speciality shops, design items and cut-off prices. Glam Mall would be nothing of that, but a virtual suburban downtown-replica: one luxury enclosed commercial street, lined with full-price luxury shops. That’s not a small difference, and not only for our pockets or credit cards.

In fact, this new architectural-retail species was born through a double evolutionary process – “double” to say the least. First, there’s the obvious competition inside the retail sector for delivering more advanced products, spaces, services. Second – and much more important in my opinion – the regional (and more than regional) huge socio-spatial change where this relatively small glamorous spaceship happens to land. It’s mostly this interaction with the regional pattern who makes the would-be fashionable “concourse” much more important than the other grey industrial boxes nearby. Except in case you’re a fashion addict, of course.

May be some of you have heard before, of Moleto industrial area in Santhià. The name sprouted through the evolutionary landscapes of Italian factory outlet villages in this dawn of the Third Millennium. Here in Moleto was expected the fourth of the “Fab-Four” cousins forming the Fashion District strategy. I wrote something about this reviewing the disneyan-style Cindarella iron gates in Bagnolo San Vito, just beside the Autobrennero motorway. In Moleto was fought the legal struggle against the eastern bank of the River Sesia, where the Spanish retail-development company Neinver in a “creative” interpretation of the regional law displayed a joint development strategy with the local community. Now right there, in the middle of former rice fields, the fashionable and much popular Vicolungo Outlets village, is a top week-end destination, at the crisscrossing of two European Corridors.

In the while, many other things were changing. The “growth machines” (urban historian Dolores Hayden’s term) were faster and faster spinning their sprawling devices. The high-speed railway and connected motorway system, just to say of one, here in Moleto has developed a former rural greenbelt, between the suburban outskirts and Canavese hills, in one densely-developed environment made of concrete walls, paved parking lots, curving lanes and occasional muddy lawns. That’s just an “external” view of the continuous bridged and paved landscape everybody can experience driving along the one-hundred-or-so kilometres, from Milano to Torino (and many fear the same for the remaining of the so-called Corridor 5 in the Po valley region). And there’s not just an infrastructure stretch question, here: the sprawl-mixing “growth machine” uses the motorway junction as a “development tool”. Where “development” means mostly suburban settlement. And in Moleto-Santhià there’s a very complex and big junction.

Quoting from the recent regional plan adopted by the provincial authority, the Santhià node is a place for “strengthening and reorganizing of the industrial and commercial sectors” inside the context of the “National east-west corridor as composed by Milano-Torino motorway and high-speed railway, the latter linked with the historical line between Livorno Ferraris and Santhià”. Hence, the “development of Santhià as a logistics pole” and related “strengthening of vehicular links to the nearby provinces, establishing a motorway ‘pedunculus ’ Santhià-Biella”.

Looking at it from the local socio-economic development point of view of this “node”, a research made two years ago by Andrea Bertolino for his University degree in Economy, pointed that the “factory outlet centre … on one side tends to monopolize the demand for high level specialty goods, while on the other side opens the entertainment and personal services market to new enterprises”, so acting as a strong local stimulus for the retail sector. Looking at the social habits in the use of the historical part of the town (the traditional retail district) Bertolino wrote that “a change in the urban commercial structure … and the need to supply the visitors flow with new services, could result in a mutation concerning the use of the centre”. In fact, the same has been happening in the historical centres of Serravalle Scrivia and Novi Ligure since the arrival of the McArthur Glen outlet village, as stated in a research published last year by Osservatorio Regionale del Commercio of the Piemonte Region. And in my opinion, the same will happen in some form, sooner or later, everywhere such fake-historical shopping malls happen to land.

And that’s not just a local problem: the issue sprawls right along the lines drawn by developers and investors, showing how far the Glam Mall glitters to the eye of the would-be customer, through the TV-screens as well as the interregional and international infrastructure network. And here comes again the “growth machine”, working on a scale where no development or regional plan works effectually. Operating beyond the local development plan drawn at the community level. Apparently broadly adapting inside the lines of the various regional schemes, the “growth machine” just grows in its own way. And so fuck the planning schemes, they’ll have to change sooner or later.

03_sant26-2-05-02The “plan” for the area of Santhià comes mainly from great expectations for growth, typically sprawling growth, made of big commercial and industrial boxes, and smaller residential ones just beyond some relict cornfield. Linking all together, the usual spaghetti-like highway network, often growing around itself and “connecting” the former empty place to the next. If you drive ten minutes east on the motorway, you’ll find a gracious model of this kind of development going on in Vicolungo. Right in the middle, the river Sesia flows as a liquid boundary between two “regional” (provincial) development schemes. And if you happen to browse the Novara Plan (the one for Santhià is made in Vercelli) you’ll find the same – huge, superregional, international -expectations growing around the local development node. And you actually can already see part of them working: the outlet village, the park theme at the other end of the “two-corridor quadrant”, the new residential suburbs along the new bypass highway …

Bertolino’s study, delivered when Vicolungo Outlets (designed by the retailtainment wiz William Taylor) still stood lonely, an unfinished abandoned construction site, made a tentative SWOT-style scenario on the related impacts of the two projects. Three cases: 1) only the Santhià project completed; 2) both the outlet villages in competition; the Vicolungo village alone on the market. Let’s look in an obvious afterthought at the sole 2) scenario. Positive impacts, include a growing flow of visitors, together with related new job opportunities in various economic sectors, not just locally owned and located. Negative impacts, include an overburdened traffic system (a creeping demand for new highways, I would say), and the side effects on the social use of the historic-commercial centre. Bertolino puts among the “ Strength” items the “stimulus to territorial marketing and urban renewal”, and let me disagree on this particular point.

Asked by e-mail, Bertolino is quite adamant: the view of his study was strictly local, so “positive” and “negative” impacts of the proposed outlet (now Glam Mall) were measured, so to say, inside the town boundaries. Things are different, of course, when you look at the big picture – not so big, if you virtually draw some of those isochrone lines (the ones investors worship, tracing our willingness to drive-and-pay). Things are much more different, too, if you take a better look around Vicolungo, especially if you happen to have seen the place two-three years ago. In Vicolungo you can actually taste an Italian style handbook sprawling development, much different from the so-called “ città diffusa”: the working and planned traffic ducts feed one “classic” development scheme mixing retail, entertainment, light industrial, and finally low-density residential uses. And other various smaller but similar “nodes” of great development expectations are growing and gradually melting into one another, in a vaguely menacingcontinuum. Not a “sustainable” growth anyone would say, but if you browse the local development planning schemes you’ll see one “node” after another, forming an attractive regional necklace. Strangling the region whenever completed.

But let’s come back to the introverted (behave: don’t look toward the external parking lot, please!) fashionable Glam Mall spaces, along the regional highway 143 just west the Santhià bypass. The future “central concourse” – as called in some sketches I found on the internet – seen through a hole in the fence from the side road seems promising. But there’s more than meets the eye, and you must take a look at a map of the project to realize a key evolutionary step: the umbilical uninterrupted link to MoMo: Mother-Motorway. Something tried quite successfully in other Italian fashion villages (or shopping malls, industrial parks …): the dream come true in Moleto after 90 or so years, of New York’s Edward Basset (the father of modern zoning). At the dawning of the mass-motor age right after World War I, environmentalist-planner Benton MacKaye called “motor slum” the growing jumble made along the highways by billboards, service stations, the various grandfathers of the retail box and so on. Planning schemes, regional ones, should have managed this, re-developing the original “slum” into something less noxious and more locally useful. Basset, on the other side, had a business-is-business opposite approach: let’s incorporate the strip to the highway, he said. And he won, of course: thefreeway business centre was born. And now look at this re-incarnation in Santhià, the perfect evolution of the explicit umbilical link, taking the shape of a paved multi-lane stretching to-from MoMo. Try to tell this to the local mayor, interrupting his speech about the bright future and the “local development”. There’s nothing local: just this motorway appendix. OK: this glamorous motorway appendix.

01_santhia_metalFrom a regional point of view, the Glam Mall approach (luxury shops and full price) strengthens the handbook-sprawl effect discussed above. Why? That’s just a sophisticated competition strategy to counterbalance some advantages ofVicolungo Outlets, one could say. According to the top promoter, Massimo Sandretto Locanin, “our intention is to create a real luxury mall in the suburbs, where one knows people are always a bit envious of the big metropolis”. But if you virtually compare this “common sense” side by side with one of the isochrone maps discussed above, you’ll see something interesting: a couple of big, and a bunch of medium-small sized “metropolis”. So why should all those people spend their time and money strolling and emptying their pockets along the glamorous central concourse? The answer is not so far away: just look beyond the parking lot, at the umbilical link. That’s the answer. There’s a whole new class of consumers, suburban affluent families literally hating every bit of the “big metropolis”. Well, actually they live their life in a low-density and socially enclosed environment inside the metropolis, and what they hate is city life. But they like shopping. Oh, how much they like it. They sometimes like even the short polished pedestrian strip where all the shop windows gleam. So here’s right in the middle of nowhere the ideal “urban environment” of so many recent suburban malls projects, where beyond the parking lot you can see only an heart of rural darkness, neatly cut by the ubiquitous four-lane highway bound for the next lonely megaplex.

So here it is, your new suburban affluent Mr. and/or Mrs. McConsumer, city-lover when the “urban environment” served hot is polished, safe, luxurious, with free parking. When you don’t have to move through a real city to reach your favourite gleaming spot, or zig-zagin’ your new SUV among mostly un-elegant traffic-light peddlers. Here’s your perfect, vacuum canned via Montenapoleone, right beside the motorway junction. That is to say, if you don’t count the time spent driving, right beside your garage door. Much better than the “real” Montenapoleone. And just the same prices, wow!

(foto F. Bottini; qui una descrizione in italiano della medesima vicenda)

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