In May 1519, 500 years ago, Leonardo Da Vinci passed away the age of 67. In these times of celebration of the Italian visionary’s absolute genius, we would like to recall his project for an “ideal city, whose principles are now, in some way, visibile and livable in a corner of Chicago.”
There is a place, in Milan, that hides the formula for the perfect city.
It’s a spot inside the National Museum of Science and Technology, at Via San Vittore 21; a Museum full of charm, ideas, technology and visionary spirit.
One of its rooms displays a model, crafted by Mario Alberto Soldatini in 1955, in which Leonardo’s ideas and sketches of a new urban concept take concrete shape: “the ideal city”.
In 1486, the plague killed off half of Milan’s population. A problem solver was needed. Leonardo took on the task resolutely and set out to work, devising his own ideal city version: a place where multiple urban levels are built on top of each other for the sake of functionality. The result is a sort of “multi-layered city” where canals, porched areas, streets and private houses coexist beautifully, thanks to the application of an innovative concept – that of vertical development – to its full potential.
“Leonardo created an ideal city, although he could never implement the project. The model includes: porched palaces, routes and paths on two levels, arcades, canals, stairways”.
It marks the end of the Medieval city with its narrow alleys, dark cul-de-sacs, houses massed up in irregular clusters and filth prevailing everywhere. The new city, according to Leonardo, had to be “rational”, “clean”, “functional”.
Hence, the important role of canals. At the city’s bottom layer, they would form Milan’s first internal navigation system, crucial for improving freight traffic; once a year, the same canals would also serve for general cleaning purposes. Water for transportation, water for cleaning.
On the upper layer, there would be warehouses and a street network for business and trading.
Going up one more level, we would find porched areas with workshops, labs and retail shops. The porched areas were for the citizens to walk and shop freely even on rainy days. On the workshops’ upper floor would live the shop owners, as was customary at the time, hence the Italian phrase “casa & bottega” (“home & workshop”). And finally, on the city’s top layer, as distant as possible from freight traffic, trading and any eventual disease from below, would be the private apartments of the bourgeoisie. Here, you would find an independent indoor walkway designed for social purposes: meeting, dialogue and city walk.
But there’s more: the buildings of Leonardo’s ideal city introduced something never seen before: the “tower shape”, an architectural innovation so ahead of its time that it would appear again only centuries later, in the 1930s, in the works of the so-called “Neues Bauen”.
“The streets are arranged in two separate levels, the upper being roads for gentlemen, off-limits to carriages, and the lower, at the disposal of commoners, for carriages and other beasts of burden. The underground level is for emptying chamber pots, for stables and similar stinking matters. The city shall be cleaned regularly, hopefully once every year.”
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Never mind useless, overpriced Vertical Forests! Never mind all-talk “starchitects” and their projects only for the wealthy elite class (caste)! Never mind the pseudo-democratic spirit of projects conceived by upper middle class architects for underprivileged districts (Zen, Palermo). Never mind Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai.
The ideal city is still there, well-displayed, available for all, signed by the greatest designer of all times: Leonardo Da Vinci!
There’s a place in Chicago, Illinois, USA, where – due to some magical circumstances – Leonardo’s ideal city project seems to have become concrete.
Its name is Marina City and it’s a complex built in the 1960s.
There’s a canal. There’s a touristy harbor. There are distinct levels of transit and city walk. There’s a layer for cars.
There, you can find contemporary versions of the tower shape – built with top design and construction standards – that are multi-purpose: for parking, shopping and housing.
There, you can find parking lots that stretch up to the sky, saving room for the streets below and making life simpler for car owners and apartment residents.
There, you can see the functional democratic layer system that Leonardo Da Vinci envisioned, sketched and designed long before, in the 16th century.
So, there is something that connects Leonardo Da Vinci’s Renaissance and the American ’60s, in this precious corner of Chicago: the possible dream of an ideal city.