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Designing public spaces


A new square for the municipality of Sonogno (Ticino, Switzerland)

Enrico Sassi


Describing the project for the new main square in the Municipality of Sonogno offers an opportunity to reflect on the design of public space within contemporary architectural discourse.  Over the last few decades the significance and crucial role of public space have not always been fully acknowledged. The design of public space is - in our opinion – a fundamental and central aspect of the sustainability of the built fabric. The creation of successful public spaces is a very effective tool in fostering or consolidating local identity.

Public realm design

The question of the form of urban space has always been part of architecture’s theoretical reflections on the history of the European city (Benevolo 1993, 2011, Rossi 1966, Gregotti 1966, Krier 1975). Indeed, the history of the city often coincides with the history of the transformation of its physical form.

However, any theoretical reflection on the public realm must proceed from a philosophical consideration: the concept of public realm is mythical in origin, which roots it both in physical space and abstract, metaphorical, immaterial space. The public realm of Western urban civilization derives from the Greek classical city. In his ‘Politics’, Aristotle relates the theory proposed by Hippodamus of Miletus, who first developed the idea of an urban structure based on the designation of different areas for specific purposes within a regular grid. In Hippodamus’ model, cities are characterised by a tripartite division of functions: asty, acropolis, agora. The part of the city known as asty is designated as residential; the area known as acropolis is the sacred part of the city, dedicated to the construction of temples, home to the gods and generally sited in an elevated position (from the Greek àkros, summit, supreme, high and polis, city). The third area of the city is known as agorà (from the Greek aghèiro, concave, meeting) and here all non-religious and non-residential activities, i.e. commercial, civic, collective, political and public activities take place. This is where the concept of democracy emerges – where the citizens of the polis meet to legislate. Public buildings are built around large voids in the urban fabric and people meet within this system of spaces; here the population sees itself reflected in the space of the agorà, which later becomes the space of the foriin the Roman city, monumental structures mainly dedicated to commercial and recreation activities.  In the ancient city, public space is but an urban void marked by the presence of one or more monumental buildings. This tends to become a sort of constant, so that in the Western city tradition public space becomes a monumental space.  This no longer applies to the contemporary public realm, which is of a different nature: a monument is not necessarily resent, it is not always well bounded by the compact and continuous facades of historical buildings, nor does it always embody a spatial representation of identity.

In the history of urban space, the nineteenth century is the period when the design and production of symbolic public space flourished. The city and its spaces underwent great transformations; the most significant among them was Hausmann’s demolition and reconstruction of the historical centre of Paris. The modernising of the pre-existing, often mediaeval imprint of the urban structure bears witness to the will to regenerate the city, but also to shape and refine the city as an aggregate of infrastructures, buildings, monuments and public spaces of symbolic and aesthetic value(Sitte 1889, Olsen 1986).

The idea of a compact city was increasingly questioned by the theories of the Modern Movement which transformed the concept of public space, giving it a more neutral and generic form: the public realm becomes an endowment of free or green public spaces where the free forms of modern architecture can be placed, as theorised by Le Corbusier in “La Ville Radieuse” (Le Corbusier 1935). The provision of free space increases significantly in relation to what was designated as public space in the ancient city; a new form of “free” space emerges, open rather than enclosed by continuous building facades. In the 70s the idea of the city as an assembly of unconnected parts, of freely assembled fragments independent of any pre-existing plan, becomes consolidated (RoweKoetter 1978).

Since the sixteenth century, the idea of the urban form has been influenced by Leon Battista Alberti (Alberti 1485), who regarded the city as a large house, and the house as a small city. This belief remained a feature of European architectural research in the post-war period, and architects and urban planners worked on the assumption that the city and urban space are the result of the sum of the buildings it is made of (Solà Morales 1994), that is to say that the form of urban space is somehow produced by the architecture of the buildings.

During the Nineties a number of studies theorised the end of public space or regarded it as a residual, characterless space, the result of the production logic of the global city (Koolhaas 1997, 2006). An important text, in this context, is Michael Sorkin’s"Variations on a Theme Park", (Sorkin 1992). In the book, the author identifies a series of mechanisms that are peculiar to theme parks, which he applies to an analysis of reality, highlighting its progressive “Disneyfication”, i.e. the growing similarity between the rules that govern the multifarious aspects of everyday life and the rules that govern the functioning of the theme park, which is based on the idea of a simplified representation of the world. The book’s sub-title – "The New American City and the End of Public Space"– introduces the notion of the progressive disappearance of public space, traditionally based on the equivalence of concepts of public space, community life and local identity. This way of thinking had a measure of success, perhaps due to its apparent “modernity”. According to these theorists public space is dead, replaced by motorway service stations, discos, shopping malls, stations and transport hubs – in other words, by anything that is somehow connected with leisure activities and the infrastructural system.

We believe these theories to be wrong and consider the question of public space of great relevance in ensuring the production of successful urban spaces. In the Nineties a series of parallel reflections were developed on the central role of the project and the significance of public space understood as a series of spaces of different scales and associated with contemporary social categories and meanings (Caputo 1997, Jacobs 1993, Wallach 2000, 2005).The most significant contributions are Jan Gehl’s and Lars Gemzøe’s seminal studies on the redevelopment of historical city centres (Gehl Gemzøe 1996, 2001).

We believe that public space design is crucial and that attention to the quality of the space between objects is one of the tools for creating successful built environments (Gregotti 1993, 2013). In Ticino, reflecting on the making of the environment is a consolidated tradition (Rossi 1987) and has produced significant practical experiences, such as the work of Luigi Snozzi at Monte Carasso (Snozzi 1995, 2012). The theoretical reflection on these themes, conducted at the Accademia di architettura in Mendrisio in particular by Aurelio Galfetti, is part of this tradition. Galfetti writes: “Actually, by designing space, be it public or private, the architect also expresses his own vision of the world, of society, of mankind – for those who can read it. However if that architect is a craftsman, that is, if he is interested above all in making things, then he works by thinking above all about voids and solids, shaping and harnessing them to improve the quality of life in the widest sense. To improve the living space of mankind, building has no meaning other than this.” (Galfetti 2009, p.18). The theory of the central role of public space has been revisited and expanded by Michele Arnaboldi (Arnaboldi 2012, Sassi 2010, 2012). 

Contemporary public space has been interpreted and read in different and more complex ways than the traditional public space of the street, the square and the park, and must be understood at different scales: as landscape or territory (Ferrata 2008, 2017) and as a way of repairing the urban fabric and re-using disused spaces. In this respect, we would like to draw attention to our project for the re-use of the garden of the Pro Senectute community health care centre in Balerna, Ticino, Switzerland (Sassi 2013, 2014, 2015) and to the project for the reclamation and redevelopment of the Arzo marble quarries in Ticino, Switzerland (Sassi 2017).

Faced with the complexity of contemporary society and of the contemporary city we are unable to offer standard solutions: the number of open questions is greater than that of well- established answers. However, we believe that public space– by which we mean physical space – is a type of space that must be produced by a conscious act of design and through constant research on the organising principles of space. Unless local administrators deal with the issue of public space, no public realm is created, simply because it is not economically profitable. Neither economic forces nor property speculators care about public space, because empty space cannot be marketed. And yet public space is fundamental for the creation of a successful urban environment, which, in turn, is one of the essential requirements for promoting economic activities. Investing in public space should therefore be considered a strategic activity for fostering dynamic social development. Below, the design for the main square in Sonogno is described as evidence in support of this thesis.


The Municipality of Sonogno is the most remote village of the Valle Verzasca, in the Locarno region; it lies at the end of the road that follows the contours of the valley. It developed in a basin where the Redorta and Vogornesso rivers meet, and is surrounded by mountains. Located at an altitude of 919 m above sea level, it extends over 37 km2. In 2016 the population amounted to 87 residents. Outside the historical city centre, the land at the bottom of the valley is still farmed (predominantly subsistence crops and hay). The village of Sonogno has very distinctive stone houses; traditional buildings have been restored and are now mainly used as secondary dwellings. The village is in fact a significant tourist resort. In Canton Ticino, in 2015, 1.2 million visitors were recorded, and a total of 2.9 million overnight stays. A significant number of the tourists who visit Canton Ticino stay in the regions surrounding the lakes: in the hotel sector alone (hotels and care homes), the Lago Maggiore and Valli region (the Locarno area) accounted for 1 million overnight stays (45.5% of the total for the Canton) (USTAT 2017).


     Figura 1. La imagen muestra el edificio de la “osteria”, ahora una tienda de artesanía. El edificio entre la fuente y la tienda fue demolido, mientras que la fuente se ha trasladado a otra localización. Se pueden ver dos edificios, actualmente demolidos, a la derecha. En la parte baja, a la derecha, se encuentra la piedra que hoy constituye el pedestal del edificio del museo. (Fotografía histórica, principios del siglo XX)
Figure 1. The image shows the “osteria” building, now a craft shop. The building between the fountain and the craft shop was demolished, while the fountain has now been moved to another location. Two buildings, now demolished, are visible on the right. On the lower right is the stone that now constitutes the plinth of the museum building. (Historical photograph, early twentieth century)

The Municipality of Sonogno is also listed in the Federal Inventory of Swiss Heritage Sites (ISOS)as one of the settlements to be protected. The ISOS record describes it as follows:”[…] The farthest village in the Valle Verzasca: although developing rapidly as a tourist destination, which has led to a considerable adaptation to new housing requirements, it retains the legacy of a most precious rural heritage and an important church complex. […] The gradual population decline was reversed in the 1980s, when promotion of tourism visibly revitalised the village. The “discovery” of the village by tourists fostered the revival of the local cultural and material heritage, such as traditional wool craft, the creation of a museum, the establishing of a Foundation for the promotion of the region. The restoration of a communal bread oven should also be seen in this context.” (Heusser-Keller 1981)

The design of the square

Before the project was completed, the area now occupied by the square was a poorly defined space, the result of the successive demolition of two buildings, torn down between 1942 and 1945 to build a new access road to the historical village centre. The Autopostale buses used this area as a turning circle and the square was also used as a temporary car park. The space was poorly organised and the tarmac surface was in a bad state of repair. The design of a new public space in this unique context required a very detailed metric survey, intended above all to understand the specific nature of the place. The brief set out the issues the design needed to address: paving and adjustment of the ground surface (including removing the tarmac and replacing it with new paving); street furniture to be integrated into the overall space design; the development of a lighting strategy as part of the overall design of the space.

Figuras 2 y 3. A la izquierda, el área ocupada hoy por la plaza, antes del proyecto. A la derecha, planta mostrando el espacio de la plaza, resaltada en rojo.   
Figures 2 and 3. The area now occupied by the square before the start of the project (on the left). Plan showing the square, highlighted in red (right)

Three of the streets in the historical village centre merge in the space of the piazza, which had previously been paved with rectangular setts of Lodrino granite; one of the challenges was completing and integrating the different geometrical patterns of the various road surfaces. Some of the ancient buildings now in use as shops open onto the square, together with the Val Verzasca Museum and a restaurant: these elements were to be included in the future square. The project therefore focused on defining and designing spatial boundaries of the square, designing the paving surface, selecting the format, type and colour of the paving stones.

Figura 4. Levantamiento del proyecto y planta mostrando el esquema de pavimento y de mobiliario urbano.
Figure 4. Project elevation and plan showing paving layout and street furniture

Traditional natural stone buildings in the historical centre of Sonogno were built with local stone. The great variety of these stones gives the surroundings a particular feel and a distinctive range of colours. In particular, a rusty red stone (whose colour is due to the iron oxide it contains) was often used in masonry, in addition to the light grey and dark grey stones (granite and gneiss). These stones give the walls their characteristic warm colour.

Lodrino granite setts were selected to pave the square, extending the paving of existing roads, and these were complemented by purpose-made “red” stone setts. A nearby stone quarry was identified in the Verzasca river, where large “red” stone blocks were extracted and subsequently cut and made into 12 x 12 cm cubes. Due to the high iron oxide content, the setts tend to oxidise over time and develop a deep rust colour. For the street furniture too we opted for natural stone (granite). Large stone blocks form a retaining wall that doubles as seating.

     Figuras 5, 6, 7, 8 y 9. De izquierda a derecha, extracción de la piedra roja en la cantera junto al río Verzasca; Corte de los bloques de piedra; corte de los adoquines de piedra roja; Adoquines de piedra roja granito de Lodrino de fondo; y adoquines de piedra roja. Fotografías de E. Sassi.        
Figures 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. From left to right, quarry in the Verzasca river, extracting a red stone block; Cutting the stone block; Cutting the red stone setts; Red stone setts with Lodrino granite in the background; Red stone setts. Photos: E. Sassi.

To mark the boundary of the space a new natural stone surface was laid and the public space around the ancient Museum building was adjusted by extending its plinth on the side of the piazza. The plinth also serves as a step connecting the square with the space between the two buildings of the museum complex. The project includes the definition of the remaining perimeter of the square with granite blocks with a brushed finish.

Figura 10. Vista aérea de la plaza de Sonogno. Fotografía: Alberto Canepa.
Figure 10. Sonogno Square, aerial view. Photo: Alberto Canepa
Figura 11. Vista aérea de la plaza de Sonogno. Fotografía: Alberto Canepa.
Figure 11. Sonogno Square, aerial view. Photo: Alberto Canepa.

The tarmac was removed and replaced with new natural stone paving sourced from the Ticino region (granite setts from Iragna, vertically laid granite slabs from Onsernone and Iragna, small granite setts from Lodrino, red stone blocks specially quarried from the Verzasca river). The stones are laid in a pattern that defines a new centre and connects the main elements that characterise the space within the square. The use of stones in three different colours aims to integrate the new design within its context, echoing the colour of the stones of the existing historical buildings.

The paving pattern consists of two concentric circles. The larger circle (17.50 m diameter) connects the main elements of the square: the new stepped plinth of the Museum, the elevation of the craft shop and the seating that encloses the green space under the fir tree. The larger circle adapts and integrates the paving pattern of the road surface. The smaller circle has a diameter of 5.80 m, equivalent to the space between the two buildings of the museum, and is entirely paved in natural red-coloured stone (12x12 cm setts). Dark grey and light grey 5x45 cm granite slabs are laid vertically, alternating in a radial pattern to form the circumferences of the circles. The rest of the square is paved with light grey granite (12x14 cm blocks of variable length), like the streets of the town centre. The perimeter of the square is marked by 50cm-wide light grey granite slabs. 

Figuras 12 y 13. Secciones del proyecto.
Figures 12 and 13. Sections.

Before the project was completed there was no public seating in the square. The existing plinth outside the Museum was extended along the side of the square to form a new stepped granite plinth that links the two buildings that form the new museum complex (the existing Val Verzasca Museum and the new Museum of Ancient Gestures) to the square. 

Figuras 14, 15 y 16. Detalles de la plaza. Fotografías: Alberto Canepa.      
Figures 14, 15 and 16. Sonogno Square. Photo: Alberto Canepa.

The ancient, large, flat corner stone (pioda) was retained and relocated to mark the junction between the old and the new section of the plinth. New granite seating has also been laid along the perimeter of the square. A small structure designed to hold a waste paper bin has been constructed with the same materials used for paving the square. The project provides uniform illumination to the square from a single central light source suspended from a steel cable. New street lights have also been installed near the road.

Figuras 17 - 23. Detalles y vista aérea de la plaza. Fotografías: Alberto Canepa.
Figures 17 - 23. Sonogno Square. Photos: Alberto Canepa.


The new public space was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the residents and local authorities. Since the very start the project aroused the interest of the media and progress reports were regularly published (RSI 2014, TIO 2014, CdT 2014, GdP2014, LaRegione 2014, La Rivista2015). The opening ceremony was regarded as an important occasion and extremely well attended. The event was widely covered by the media (RSI 2016, TIO 2016, La Rivista 2015, 2016, Baltisberger 2016, LaRegione 2016a, 2016b, Brignoni 2017).

For the creation of this new public space the Municipality for Sonogno was awarded the ASPAN prize 2017 by the Swiss Association for Territorial Planning (ASPAN Ticino).



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Nota Legal
Directora: María A. Leboreiro Amaro, Dra. Arquitecto. Profesora Titular de la E.T.S. de Arquitectura de Madrid
Consejo de redacción: Miquel Adriá, director de la revista Arquine
Carmen Andrés Mateo, Arquitecta. Profesora Asociada de la E.T.S. de Arquitectura de Madrid
José Mª Ezquiaga Dominguez. Dr. Arquitecto. Profesor Titular de la E.T.S. de Arquitectura de Madrid
José Fariña Tojo. Dr. Arquitecto. Catedrático de la E.T.S. de Arquitectura de Madrid
Fernando Fernández Alonso. Arquitecto. Profesor Asociado de la E.T.S. de Arquitectura de Madrid
Josep Mª Llop Torne. Arquitecto. Profesor en la Facultad de Geografía de la Universidad de Lleida
Javier Ruiz Sánchez. Dr. Arquitecto. Profesor Titular de la E.T.S. de Arquitectura de Madrid
Secretaría: Llanos Masiá
Edita: planur-e
Avda. Valdemarin, 68
28023 Madrid
Traducción: planur-e
ISSN: 2340-8235
Copyright: (2013): planur-e
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Planur-e: www.planur-e.es es una revista digital editada en España en materias de territorio, urbanismo, sostenibilidad, paisaje y diseño urbano. Nació con el objetivo de exponer buenas prácticas dando voz a los profesionales, planteando que sean los propios autores de los trabajos quienes los presenten. Se colabora así a su difusión, al tiempo que se ofrece, a aquellos que se aproximan al proyecto, la oportunidad de ver otras formas de trabajar y contrastar sus propias reflexiones y propuestas. Planur-e por sus características pretende llenar un hueco, dada la escasez de publicaciones en estas materias. Alcanza en este momento su número diez, con un planteamiento monográfico y da, al tiempo, en su Miscelánea cabida a múltiples temas. Cuenta ya con un número importante artículos alrededor de 150, hasta el momento, y con autores de muy distintos países, lo que enriquece su tarea de divulgación.

Información General
En cumplimiento de lo dispuesto en el artículo 10 de la Ley 34/2002, de 11 de Julio, de Servicios de la Sociedad de la Información y Comercio Electrónico (LSSICE), ponemos a su disposición la “información general”, que comprende los datos identificativos de la entidad titular de este sitio web:
Titular: planur-e
Dirección: Avda. Valdemarín, 68-28023 Madrid
Lugar de edición: Madrid

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