Greening Ciompi Square – Memory of a landscaping action

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Several years have passed, but I can’t use the once upon a time yet. But this narrative has the taste of a fairy tale, at least in memory, as it’s born from the simplicity of an idea, a proposal, carried out in a reality that often tends to counter the possibility of a gamble. A proposal carried out by young, fresh minds, in a period of great creativity. This story, not being a fairy tale, has no moral, but still wants to demonstrate the strength of an idea, and briefly tell how a small project was born that gave life, at least for a short time, to one of the iconic places of the city of Florence.

In 2016, I was still a student, and some classmates pitched an idea that proselytized the class. It all started from Turin, during the IFLA International Congress in April. The voice of the students was clear and simple: we have to invite Pablo Georgieff from the COLOCO studio in Florence to work on a project. To take up this invitation, which also had the flavor of a challenge, was Prof. Enrico Falqui, a fervent supporter of young ideas and a convinced reformer of the ancient approaches to public space that rage in cities despite the age in which we live.

The opportunity was provided by the dismantling of the historic flea market in Piazza dei Ciompi. From a place full of life and frequented by both tourists and citizens, it passed to a heavy urban void and contrasted with the nearby streets full of excitement. The decision regarding that square saw multiple interests take shape: on the one hand the traders, deprived of the place in which to carry on their business, the residents, fearful of seeing the square transformed into a favorite center of Florentine nightlife, and the students, at the search for a solution that respects the transformations of that site, but at the same time proposes an approach based on the variety of uses and users.

What was an act of liberation towards a space that was rapidly degrading, was preceded by a period of study and analysis of its potential, trying to outline the historical passages that had interested it. From an area used as the vegetable gardens of S. Croce, it then became an open space resulting from a demolition in the 1930s, in anticipation of a triumphal avenue in the heart of Florence, to then become the last seat of the Loggia del Pesce and host the famous flea market, as already mentioned, now demolished, but immortalized in famous cinematic sequences such as in the meeting with the usurer Capogreco in “Amici Miei – Atto II”.

Meanwhile, in the creative mind of Pablo Georgieff, ideas started to come out, bursting. I remember with great amusement how he proposed, with innate simplicity, to use the square as a large stage, where a dance-theater show could be mounted, culminating in a festive but somewhat formal ceremony. As if it were the most obvious thing in this world. We students didn’t have it repeated twice, and preparations for the great event began. Everything would culminate on October 29, a day that the square would remember.

Get familiar with the place first. Proceed with bare feet, feel the materiality of the asphalt, of the gravel, thus observing the spontaneous vegetation that was reappropriating the land. An open-air construction site, a place with no more identity, enclosed in itself by a now useless railing. An unexpressed and increasingly degraded void. The idea behind the temporary intervention was based on a ceremony, at least bizarre, a baptism of the stone pine that has stood in the center of the square for years.

The name chosen to link to this plant, iconic and unmistakable for those who understand landscape architecture, was Simon, a tribute to Jacques Simon, who passed away the previous year (2015), a landscape architect who, with his spirit of creativity and resourcefulness, knew how to transform the landscape, interpreting it through art and poetry, with simplicity and imagination.
Simon would become the guiding spirit of the event, observing us from a tree, a key element of the landscape project, much loved by him.

The tree would thus become a symbol of the square, a turning point in the search for a means to arouse the interest of passers-by, an indelible point of reference for the neighborhood. A few nights before this event, mysterious signs and question marks appeared in the streets of S. Croce, inviting the population to ignite their curiosity. Everything was prepared in detail. In the spirit of rediscovery of a place with many potentials, the performance wanted to propose precisely this versatility, without dwelling on one or the other aspect, favoring the ephemeral and playful side of the space. Small temporary markets were installed, a place of exchange (of ideas) in which plants, books and “simulacra of antiques” were offered.

Inside the fence, the scenography included a turf that would then stretch outwards, also lying on the steps of the Loggia; a sort of 2.0 pioneer nature on which to rest between performances, admiring the square from a different perspective. A large number of colored ribbons were attached to the pine, echoing the traditions of tree cults. The artistic-creative event began on the morning of 29 October. Dressed in overalls, entirely white were it not for a single question mark drawn on the back, we students started a walk through the streets of the neighborhood, involving passers-by with our unstoppable movement. The route culminated in the square, where the actual performance would begin.
Baptism couldn’t be the most festive: dances, rhythm, music, a continuous procession around the tree, which was dressed in twisted ribbons. Officially the pine had become Simon, taking possession of the square in which he was born and lived, which gradually filled with curious people fascinated by the strange unfolding of events. Precisely this is the point, the ultimate purpose, to show that a place lives by those who animate it, with targeted and conscious interventions, based on a creative concept that only freedom of thought can give.

In the afternoon we proposed a second performance, this time based on dance and color. The movement generated by the dance allows to know and spatially recognize the place, to measure its distances; color permeates the space and establishes a link between the past and the future of the square, reinterprets it according to new multispecific canons. There are two salient moments of this dance: a first cadenced rhythm in which a grid of white paint is drawn on the floor, and a very lively continuation in which the movements and gestures become free, chaotic, resume the randomness of the encounter between passers-by and the variety of functions that could have restored vitality to the square. Finally, having put down the paint, taking off and putting down the gardener’s boots (another emblematic wink to Simon), tired and satisfied, we observed the square from the outside, as the spectators had done all day.

The judgment on this intervention wasn’t necessary to express it in words, since the number of people who attended to observe, ask, adopt a plant was much more explanatory than any compliment or criticism. The seed had been planted, and so for a few days the colors, the shouts, the festivity remained. But like all good things, it doesn’t last long and is easily lost in memory. Today that place is very different from what we had imagined, not very different from what it looked like before Simon’s baptism. A square within the square, a new enclosure that divides the garden from the rest, as if to separate nature and the city. The possibilities have vanished and creativity has drifted away, giving way no longer to an abandoned space, but to a question mark within a void.

The question Simon will be asking is: what about those happy and playful days? As already mentioned, not being a real fairy tale, this story has no moral, but perhaps we can find some lessons. There is no limit to the possibilities if more minds come together, if the will to do is combined with many abilities. None of this would have happened without the contribution of each participant: the students, throwing a stone into a flat pond; Prof. Falqui, anxious to observe the circles that the stone would have produced; Pablo Georgieff, who taught us to observe those circles from the perspective of water, and to color them. Collaboration, creativity, art, passion, community, temporariness, change, are all essential components for the revitalization of urban spaces, more than ever in this contemporary era. Answering pine Simon’s question, the happy and playful days will soon return to every square and street, with a little will and a pinch of imagination.