In an era when cities are quickly and easily navigated by smartphone, and information can be found in minutes, how would we orient ourselves if we were deprived of all devices and had no landmarks?
I challenge you one day to go out into your city, or your village, and see if, as you wander through urban spaces, your route is indirectly defined by elements that are consolidated and clear in your visual imagination.
This is because you have defined your sense of place, made your city legible by identifying several landmarks, i.e. landmarks that allow you to orientate yourself in the urban landscape.
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has defined a landmark as "a building, property, or object that has a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of a city, state, or nation".
A landmark, contrary to what one might think, is not necessarily something showy, it can be a monument or even a natural element that enriches our experiences of urban environments.
This aspect also depends on the type of viewer: tourist or inhabitant?
The landmarks don’t have to be huge to be impressive in the minds of locals, on the contrary a tourist is looking for a more scenic and probably well known marker.
A striking example is what happens with the city of Milan, and in many other Italian cities.
Any person visiting Milan for the first time will head for Piazza Duomo and will orientate his entire visit to the city by establishing distances and routes around that landmark. For an inhabitant of Milan, Piazza Duomo is the mainstream reference, the one where everyone wants a souvenir photo with fluttering pigeons.
An inhabitant of Milan, on the other hand, may have as a major reference something simpler: for example underground stops. If you mention the Garibaldi station, the average inhabitant will not only think of that green sign in white block letters, they will think of everything that revolves around it: Biblioteca degli Alberi, Piazza Gae Aulenti, Unicredit Tower, Corso Como and so on.
And again, we could say that the landmark monuments of Milan certainly include Castello Sforzesco or the Arco della Pace, but so is an entire neighbourhood like Brera, because when you walk around Brera you can tell you’re in Brera.
From the fine arts stationery shops scattered here and there to the small boutiques selling design and fashion objects, from the cafés with their outdoor area in the inner streets near the historic building of the Pinacoteca di Brera.
The concept of landmark has also been studied by an important urban theorist, Kevin Lynch who encapsulated this theory in his book "The Image of the City" (1960), defining urban space as a place of perceptions, i.e. of those associations that visitors can create between the images of the city they experience and the memories they associate with it.
Simply put, it is as if each of us would create our own mental maps in which we organise spatial information according to our direct experience of places. Perhaps this is where the poetics of architecture lies: the possibility of creating unique relationships between the observer and the surrounding environment. Cities suggest relationships to us, but it is up to us as observers to select the information and attach meaning to what we see.
I challenge you again: get lost and look around as if for the first time, identifying your landmarks and creating your own unique mental map.
23Bassi has already created its own map to take you around the history of Italian architecture. The landmarks selected, to create the City Signposts, are those monuments that we believe you should have seen at least once in your life and that in our experience as viewers have characterised tours of Italian cities. Like the Mole Antonelliana which, as we moved through the streets of Turin, became a pivotal point, enabling us to see and appreciate it even from great distances. If I were undecided about what to do this weekend, I would choose one of the cities designed to map out your landmark tour!