Triest’s Harbor

12/05/2013 | adip office

No, we can’t
Trieste’s Harbor:
Identity and Vocation


Gian Paolo Venier


In order to understand the city’s harbor system, a few historical and legislative implications must be reflected upon. Trieste’s advantageous geographical position massively contributed to the economical, and political identity of the harbor. The Habsburgian port was of strategic importance. It was the Austrian Empires only access to the sea.
The Intensive Programme focused on Trieste’s ‘sistema porto’ ( harbor system ) – a combination of the abandoned Porto Vecchio ( the old Habsburgian port ) and the Porto Nuovo ( new port ). Bureaucratically speaking, the harbor is a ‘porto franco’ – a duty free port divided into five different spatial units, where different taxes apply than in other Italian harbors. This advantage makes it more competitive and appealing to trading companies because goods are not taxable until they are sold. It’s been the key factor to the harbor’s success for decades and has lead to its decadence.
For this reason Trieste’s Porto Vecchio has come under a lot of scrutiny. What is to become of the harbor now that it’s almost entirely abandoned? How can the area be transformed and upgraded? How can the legislative problems that hinder a future be solved? These debates and struggles began more than a century ago and are very well summed up by a local way of saying ‘no se pol’ (no, we can’t). It’s this mentality, which is the true obstacle to a prosperous future of the city.

From Warehouse City to Trade City

We have to thank Maria Theresia, the beloved and visionary Habsburgian empress, who began to rule in 1740. She was the first to recognize the importance of Trieste’s harbor for the empire. We shouldn’t forget that Trieste came into being due to the harbor. Not the other way around.
It was the port’s trade that allowed the city to grow and flourish. It became a second Wien – a modern melting pot. Its multi-ethnic society is still visible today in the city’s synagogue as well as Greek and Serbian orthodox churches. They are urban symbols of an open, busy and tolerant city.

It’s image of a warehouse city came from the Borgo Teresiano neighborhood. Planned and built along the regular axes of the ancient salt pans by Maria Theresia. Business prospered. Warehouses, workshops and depots flourished along residential buildings. The harbor created an entire urban grid in Maria Theresia’s early years. Not until later did the thriving harbor push workshops and warehouses further back. It went from being a warehouse city to becoming a trading city. This was a big step forward that occurred in the transition from Maria Theresia’s reign to that of the new emperor, Franz Joseph. Under a lot of protest, the emperor announced a competition for the new harbor, which we now call Porto Vecchio. The bourgeoisie strenuously opposed the change that came with the planning of the new harbor. They feared a loss of power and privileges. However, on January 27th 1863, Franz Joseph finally declared Südbahn, the powerful railway association, the competition winner. Südbahn‘s engineer, Paul Talabot, had previously planned the harbor in Marseille. The contract was signed in 1867 and was planned to be finished by 1873 for 26 million crown. But the construction lasted an additional ten years, costing an additional three million crown. It was more of a logistical problem than a the failure of the precise and efficient Habsburgian management. The bottom of the sea was muddy which made it difficult to install the pillars. The main obstacle however, was political. The city strongly resisted the new project.
United for the first time, Trieste‘s citizens, its press, the Chamber of Commerce and the Stock Exchange protested and rallied in November 1862 to save Trieste from the danger of becoming a mere trading city. But the construction continued and Trieste ( with its new railway connection to Wien ) flourished rapidly. The 24,000 inhabitants of 1809 grew to 250,000 in 1914 and in terms of traffic, became the fifth most important harbor in Europe.

A Faraway Land

Silvio Benco, a local journalist and writer, wrote lyric pages about the harbor in 1910. To the incoming sailors he would describe Trieste as ‘a panorama city, marvelously white, a happy parasite’. But to all the Triestini he would describe the harbor as a ‘paese lontano’ – a faraway land in ‘chaos and fever’ with its own rules, boats and cranes: ‘The free port, the trading city is absolutely divided from the city of arts, of politics, of literary cafés and pubs…’
This should be kept in mind when thinking about Porto Vecchio’s possible future. It has always functioned as a separate entity from the city. The architectonically beautiful warehouses were meant for goods and not people. Recently, one of the warehouses ( Magazzino 26 ) was restored and reused for art exhibitions. The transformation of the warehouse shows how difficult it is to rethink a space that was initially built to fulfill very different technical and spacial requirements ( e.g. light and air ) than those needed for residential and office use.

One possibility would be to reuse the warehouses for the sailing profession: the old warehouses could easily be converted into marinas with shops for boat-maintenance and other workshops. However, the problem is a legislative one and not merely an aesthetical or urban one. Porto Vecchio remains a duty free port that is virtually impossible to enter freely. The Guardia di Finanza ( the local custom and border police ) controls the area. The only option would be to strategically move the porto franco to another location. In 2007 the engineer Barduzzi developed a master plan for the Porto Vecchio. It was approved in 2010 but still requires political endorsement for it to be realized.

Where To? – The Future

In the mean time, Porto Città ( a network of investors) has won the concession for the whole area. It was approved by the Harbor Authority and implies a sub-concession to other parties. These other parties could well be Trieste‘s world famous International Centre for Theoretical Physics or the University of Trieste with its science community. Could Porto Vecchio become a scientific hub and new platform for knowledge ? Trieste has not yet positioned itself on this matter because it has been wrapped up in the same local quarrels since 1861 !

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