Impressions of Fascist Architecture on Modern Rome

Having learned a few things about Fascist architecture before I came to Rome I already had a bit of an understanding of what it consisted of and the importance of it. It was not, however, until getting here that I really started to understand the deeper meaning behind it all. With our site of the Ara Pacis Museum being located in an area surrounding by Fascist buildings constructed and altered by Mussolini it is easy to see the power and presence this type of architecture has. It has also begun increasingly easier to pick out Fascist architecture whenever I am walking around or to question if something looks Fascist or not. The use of classical ideas and forms executed in a modern way help give this style its own character and help it stand out from the layers of history that surround it while creating its own. When you really think about it, it is not surprising that Mussolini wanted to leave behind a legacy or building tradition that would help him be remembered long after he was gone. This is the exact same thing all the ancient Roman emperors would do and he wanted to be just like them.

It will be interesting to see what comes of fascist architecture in the future though. At this point in time there are still people alive from when he was in power and that still like what he did as a leader. There is no doubt that a majority of the things he did during his reign were terrible and because of that it will be interesting to see if that in a few generations buildings constructed by him are torn down just because they were built under Fascism. Italy does pretty well with preserving their history, as well as, making it anew.  The Ara Pacis Museum is a perfect example of a Mussolini building that was torn down in place of another, new building with the same function. The original building was not torn down just because it was built during the Mussolini era, they had an excuse: it was not up to environmental standards and the monument was deteriorating. This is certainly true but given the circumstances surrounding its demolition and the construction of the new museum part of the reason it was torn down was simply because the current mayor of Rome did not like the building. The things Mussolini did while he was the dictator of Italy, for better or for worse have left a profound impact on both cultural and physical landscapes of the country. Actions such as tearing up the area around the Forum and displacing all of those who lived there to construct the Via dei Fori Imperiale were terrible and created massive housing problems and discontent amongst the population but others, like clearing out the area around the Mausoleum of Augustus and removing the theater from the top of it to return the monument to a portion of its original form were arguably more positive. Sure for the most part the bad things he did outweigh the good but sometimes we just have to look at things for what they are worth.

Roman Identity

About two months ago, I met a Roman when I was at the top of Aventine Hill to sketch. He is a computer game designer and lives in the center of Rome. We talked about my study abroad program, the different life style and living habits among Italy, America, and China, and the architecture in Rome. He told me that he really liked the ancient buildings in the city and enjoys staying in Rome. Considering this semester’s studio project to redesign the Ara Pacis Museum, which was designed by Richard Meier and opened in 2006, I asked him about his thoughts on the only contemporary work of architecture in the center of Rome. I had learned the background about the designing processes of the museum, so I knew that there were lots of controversies behind the building ever since Meier was announced to be the designer of the museum.  Many Roman architects and critics hate the project and refused to visit it when it was built. I wanted to know the public’s opinion today — if they already have now accepted the modern architecture designed by a foreign architect or still feel uncomfortable about visiting the white dazzling box that looks like most Meier’s buildings. He told me that the new building was just okay, and he preferred the original that was built in the Fascist era and was demolished in 2001. He said that the old one was clean, simple and classic; indeed, it was better to house the Ara Pacis and to represent the history. I recognized that, unlike tourists who appreciate a building just because of the appearance, Romans emphasize the identity behind the building.

In antiquity, the Roman Empire was glorious and prosperous under its emperors’ governance and it dominated most parts of Europe. Nowadays, people still can imagine the prosperity of ancient Rome by looking at the Colosseum, Forum, and Pantheon at the center of the city. The ruins were preserved well, and not just for archeological reasons: more importantly, they convey the history that romans are really proud of. As one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, the ruins in Rome reflect Roman identity, which is the best way to introduce the city and the people to the world. After the imperial period, even though the development of architecture and urban planning was influenced significantly by the different periods, it always maintained a noticeably Roman identity.

In Antonella De Michelis’s article The garden suburb of the Garbatella, 1920-1929, she illustrates the characteristics of the neighborhood which fostered the sense of community and Roman identity during its different periods. The specific features of the different buildings in the area emphasize the unchanged identity; as a result, the Garbatella kept the essential styles and functions as the original plan, even though new types of building had been added due to the population’s expansion in the later years.  The author concludes that “although strikingly different, both styles clearly defined the Garbatella as a Roman neighborhood, and one sensitive to the heritage and social identity of its residents; an identity that still distinguishes and defines the Garbatella today”. [i] But what about contemporary architecture in Rome today? Thinking about the Ara Pacis Museum, MAXXI, Parco della Musica, and MACRO, are they representations or reflections of the modern Rome through their modern appearances and high-tech systems?  Can they be rebuilt in other cities without change?

In my opinion, because of the different architects’ specific concerns of the background of the architecture in Rome, the buildings have already embodied the identity of the city. Related to the history, culture, politics, context and other issues, any modern building in Rome couldn’t be replaced by others due to their links to Roman identity. Actually, even though each of these projects are very different, they all convey the city’s identity in a modern, experiential way. As reflections of Roman identity, I believe that more and more people will accept the modern buildings that describe the new life style in Rome.

[i] Michelis, Antonella De, The garden suburb of the Garbatella, 1920-1929: defining community and identity through planning in post-war Rome, Rome Study Center, University of California, 2009, p. 518.  

Building Inspiration

All architects have a similar way of designing, they first seek inspirations, develop ideas, and build. Like many things, the first step is often the most important. So how does one seek inspiration? Some seek it through sketching, reading, others, like Professor Kay Bea Jones from Ohio State University, seek inspirations through research, which sometimes can be too valuable to keep it to oneself.1

After years of studying about Franco Albini, Professor Jones is writing a book to inspire other architects and designers by providing insights about Albini’s achievements and most important, yet not completely well-known contributions.2 In her book, she considers Albini as one of the most important Italian architects that deserves more attention from the design community. She notes that his works, which include museums and public buildings, could offer valuable lessons about design rigor, unity, logic, and effects beyond style. It is quite shocking to me that Albini is not situated among the modern masters of the last century such as Carlo Scarpa, Louis Kahn, Phillip Jonson, and Renzo Piano – one of Albini’s student. I suppose it does happen a lot in reality, sometimes the student is a lot more famous than the mentor, because more often than not, the mentor doesn’t get much credits for his or her teachings.

Jones’s essay on Albini made me contemplate what it’s like to be an architecture professor.3 Some people would say that teaching as a profession is the last resort. In my opinion, it is not true. Without good professors, we wouldn’t be able to be better at what we do. Some professors questions our logic, teaches us to think more, creatively help us seek inspiration, and broades our view on our own design. Some, like Albini, teaches us through silence and work, inspire us through actions like the way Albini inspired Renzo Piano to be the architect he is today. Either way, architecture professors don’t often get the attention they deserve. Perhaps it’s true that those who want to teach architecture are those who are not able to design as well as others, but perhaps they are the ones who realize how important it is to share their knowledge with the world and let someone else continue their legacy. Besides, is architecture solely about design?

Doug Patt, an architect who offers insights about architecture in his video series “How To Architect”, believes that architecture is many things, not just design. In his video “The truth about being an architect”, he claims that “architecture is about making form, story, music and inspiration” and it’s also about illuminating one’s life with philosophy, engineering, history, construction, etc. That is why architecture can be a great profession and a horrible business. Consequently, some of us, as architecture students, often get discouraged when we think about post-graduation, we start to worry about where to work, what to do, and lose the motivation to do our best while in school. We look so far into the future that we start to forget what inspires us. We need something, or someone to motivate, remind, and help us find the inspiration we need whether by writing a book like Professor Jones, sharing insights like Doug Patt, or simply teaching architecture. In the end, they are the architects who build inspiration.

-Minh Tran

1.  Kay Bea Jones, guest lecture for the University of Oklahoma, April 16, 2013.

2. Kay Bea Jones, “Chapter One: Introducing Franco Albini”  book manuscript. Renzo Piano, “Pezzo per Pezzo,” essay translated by Kay Bea Jones.

3. Jones, Chapter One.

The victorious Vittoriano

Monsters are scary. They are bigger than us. They represent the greatest evil, what we fear most. They are our worst fears personified. They are our worst mistakes and illustrate how far we fear we may slip from good.

What do our heroes represent? They are what we aspire to be. What we ourselves cannot always be. They are our goals, hopes, and desires in living form. They are the antithesis of monsters, the repelling force against evil.

How can a monument to a hero be a monstrosity then? Vanity, pride, deceitfulness, and lies can easily be represented in artistic and creative forms. Such is the basis for propaganda. Usually the word propaganda brings forth overt images like those used by all sides in WWII or the style used during the Cold War to keep the American public away from the commie lies and ease the everyday fears the people of the day faced. But those are more aggressive and obvious instances of propaganda. Could something maintain that in your face quality while still being a more subtle and refined instance of progaganda? Certainly. Allow me to introduce you to the Vittoriano.

Situated in the heart of Rome, at the terminus of Via del Corso, and casting a shadow upon the Roman Forum sits the monument to Victorio Emanuele II. It is a beast of a monument. It is so big that it seems to be even bigger because a visitor cannot keep it all in their field of vision unless they cross the Piazza Venezia and even then it seems impossibly large as it stretches off into the distance and toward the heavens. What could the designers possibly have been trying to convey with this marble monster?

Power. Unbridled and unmistakable power. The country of Italy was official formed into the debacle that we know it as today in 1861, with later conflicts to take over the hold out city of Rome, after a series of civil unrests that could be called revolutions if the commentator felt so inclined. These fights were spearheaded by Giuseppe Garibaldi, a man who knew how to stir a crowd. The fighting finally lead to a small government forming and proclaiming Victorio Emanuele II king. This was the first time in the modern era that the Italian peninsula had been under the control of one form of government. It was a fantastic achievement, akin to that of successfully herding cats; an accomplishment deserving of a monument befitting the fantastic achievement.

The monument dedicated to this event is astounding. Its massive and purely white forms eclipse everything in size and in blindingly white contrast. It dominates your thoughts and controls them, but to what end? Most people don’t even really know what it is for. It is an impressive display of governmental might, but why is it there? Quite frankly, because the Italians want to show you how awesome they are and to glorify their history. That is the propaganda element of the Vittoriano. The rest is purely to boost the ego of the Italians that see it. It is a heroic image for those it represents and at the same time a gaudy monstrosity to the thousands of outsiders that visit it.

MUSIC IN ROME

Welcome to Rome. The city where wherever you go, you will run into some kind of musical talent. Rome is a great city that has many different types of these musical performers.  I have seen them everywhere, on the bus, the tram, the metro, while you’re dining at a restaurant, when you’re walking down the street they are there; violin players, accordion players, guitar player’s even instruments that I have never seen are being played throughout all of Rome.  Although there are many different people with their instruments you seem to get familiar with “regulars.”  Some of these are fun to watch and listen to, however others are a bit what I would call bothersome.

Here in Trastevere (neighborhood we live in) we happen to have our regular, “the famous accordion lady”. The mornings are started up not by our day-to-day alarms but rather by the sound of the tram stopping right outside of our apartment. The tram stops, the doors open and out comes the sound of a forceful woman’s voice and the accordion. It would be great if each morning it were a different tune or song, but its every day it is the same old song at the same time. The greatest thing about “the famous accordion lady” is that if you are lucky enough you are able to catch her on the tram on your way to and from school.  Even though we do get bothered some by “the famous accordion lady”, I believe that she could have a great future like those of the musicians in the film L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio.

The film L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio is about a group of Italian artists and intellectuals who decide they want to save the old cinema Teatro Apollo. The group went around Rome to find talented musicians to create an orchestra. The artists were from different lifestyles, cultural traditions and religions that are interwoven in everyday Roman life especially in the quarter surrounding Piazza Vittorio, which is home to many immigrant communities.  This dream project began in 2001 and within several years, and after many difficulties they became successful.

Another artist that would be a great addition to such an orchestra is the violinist that also plays on the tram. He doesn’t play as often as the accordion lady does but he sure does know how to work the violin. However, the best guy that I’ve seen perform yet is one who plays on the street. He differs from those of the tram because he has people come to him drawn by the simplicity and awesomeness of his music.

In the end, I believe that if someone were willing to follow in the footsteps of L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio and continue bringing together Rome’s street musicians one could create a new and original group. They could start with the the violin guy,  the guy who plays on the street or even “the famous accordion lady’’. This could be the start of another successful story of how the city offers opportunities to combine different cultures and talents.

 

Italy: Script vs. Reality

Italy! The name alone sparks fantasies of drinking wine in green vineyards while enjoying beautiful gardens, and architecture. It has been mentioned by a countless number of authors, and shown on the big screen in a more than a number of feature films. The influence of these mediums has reached far and wide, to the point that Italy has become romanticized in the minds of most the population. People flock to Rome, Venice, Florence, or even the Tuscan countryside in search of Italy’s enticing beauty, and many find it when they come to visit. These people are not wrong in doing so either, Italy is a truly beautiful country, only the reality of life in Italy is far different than what is shown through the lenses of cameras and paintings.

When I first arrived in Rome, I was quite surprised to find that most of the walls, doors, and even a few windows were covered in graffiti. Trash and other unpleasant objects littered the ground, and I quickly learned to pay careful attention to where I was stepping. Tourist were crammed into the most widely known corners of the city; my romanticized expectations of Rome were instantly shattered. I didn’t begin to piece together a new picture of Italy until I began exploring places that one wouldn’t find on any tourist map.

I took a visit to the neighborhood of Tiburtino, located just outside of central Rome. The neighborhood was built during the housing crisis that follow the Second World War, and it was here that I began to understand exactly what it is that makes Italy beautiful. Tiburtino wasn’t the grandiose and elaborate Italian neighborhood I had originally anticipated, it was instead quite humble. The designers of the neighborhood were seeking to create an architectural vocabulary that acknowledged Italy’s long history, all while avoiding the country’s more recent connections to the fascist party. While the neighborhood itself may not appear to be much on the surface, closer inspection reveals a methodically planned out system that integrates architecture from a portion of Rome’s past commonly overlooked: the medieval era.

Each block of Tiburtino had been planned to emulate the organic building style that was formed from human necessity during the medieval era, while simultaneously integrating the comforts of modern living. It was a functional housing block that managed to go beyond the copy and paste architecture so commonly seen in America. I was also shocked to find a place that appeared completely humble on the surface, yet had been carefully and meticulously planned and detailed. But it was the effort the designers had made to connect to a particular portion of their history that impressed me the most.

Throughout my time in Rome I have visited a handful of other neighborhoods, each with their own architectural vernacular that tied them to a specific region or place in time. I realized that it wasn’t the romanticized version of Italy that is so commonly seen that makes it great. Despite the trash, graffiti, and occasional shady environments, it is the continuing desire of the Italian people to connect their buildings to a particular place or time that make Italy truly beautiful.

Nostalgia for a garden

The gardens at Ninfa are set amongst the medieval ruins of the town of the same name. During the medieval period the town of Ninfa lay between Rome and Naples so it became an important stop on the way to or from these two cities. The location of the town was at the bottom of mountains where they had access to fresh water, but this also meant that the city lay in a swamp and was prone to malaria outbreaks.  After a successful period the town was repeatedly sacked by barbarians and was abandoned for a more fortified location in the 17th century.

One family retained ownership of the town during its period of decay, ruin and revival as a romantic garden. The town lay relatively untouched until the early 20th century when a member of the Caetani family began planting and cultivating a garden within the ruins.  Today one can stroll along the manicured paths and observe the ruined walls and streets of the original town with carefully placed and arranged flowers and plants. The effect is very thoughtfully articulated with every plant knowing its place, all arranged to make the image of the ruins a perfect backdrop for the plants and the plants an ideal accessory for the ruins. The romanticism associated with ruins has made Ninfa the ideal tourist spot. The ruins are open to the public on the first weekend of the month — although only during spring and summer — which further enhances a desire to see these hidden, special, antiquated gardens.

The magic of Ninfa lies not in the ruins but in the meticulous cultivation of its image. Without the gardens Ninfa would likely be no more than old stones of interest only to dusty old academics. The subject of how ruins come to be regarded with a sad longing was touched on in Nostalgia for Ruins by Andreas Huyssen: “How can we speak of ruins as we remember the bombed out cities of World War II (Rotterdam and Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden, Warsaw, Stalingrad, and Leningrad). Bombings, after all, are not about producing ruins. They produce rubble.”1 Time changes our view of most things.  Bombings in WWII were horrible, similar to a town being invaded by barbarians and destroyed, yet what is left behind is the same and eventually the bad memories are discarded or forgotten and the romance of a time long passed are called forth. The most popular ruins are ones that were once monuments to a society of great power, now discarded and destroyed. We do not look at these ruins and see sickness or suffering or displaced people, we see an idealized past full of unseen futures.

1 Huyssen, Andreas. “Nostalgia for Ruins.” Grey Room, no. 23 (May 1, 2006).

The Parking Thief

The affecting Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette) is an example of how highly Italians value personal mobility. When the main character’s bicycle is stolen his entire world is shattered and he desperately searches for the thief, for without it he cannot work. His anxiety increases throughout the film culminating in a desperate attempt by him to steal a bicycle himself in front of his son in a scene full of empathy and heartbreak. The protagonist comes full circle in the effort to recover his mobility and provide for his family.

In modern Rome, one can draw certain parallels between the protagonist’s need of a bicycle (the job he has just secured will only keep him if he has a bicycle) and the perceived need of a vehicle in today’s culture. Romans love their cars and regularly try to fit them down barely adequate streets, squeeze into spaces an American would never consider a parking spot, and angrily wave pedestrians out of the way. Although compared to many US cities Rome has an adequate public transit system the desire for the freedom of personal mobility seems to win out. Also visible today is the lengths to which people will go to secure their vehicle against theft, car alarms are a common sound and steering wheel lock bar a common sight. The lure of the open road is a strong pull for Romans although never an open road will be found in Rome.  Transport was reaching a critical mass even in the postwar period of the film, one scene shows an overcrowded trolley with men hanging off the sides, and in present day Rome during rush hour or the tourist season a comfortable bus or tram ride will not be found.  Yet, in a lecture by Tom Rankin he stated that there are 85 cars for every 100 people in Rome1 so how is it that the public transit system seems to be at a breaking point? We now have a city where most of the people own cars that do not appear to improve their day-to-day lives.

In many ways, comparing the sad, almost hopeful struggle of the family in Ladri di Biciclette to secure work for the husband by trading their only other possession of value (bedding given to them for their wedding) for the bicycle at the pawn shop, to the modern day Romans desire to move about with absolute personal freedom is ridiculous. Yet Italy and Rome have come so far in the last sixty years that the problems of modern day Romans have been reduced to sadness over a missed possible parking space on a sidewalk where they can avoid paying the parc-o-meter. The desperation for survival of 1940’s Rome has morphed into the desperation to keep up with the Joneses of present day; lest your neighbor upstage you by moving from a two wheeled motor vehicle to a four wheeled one before you can.

1 Rankin, Tom. “7 Themes for a Sustainable Rome.” Lecture, University of Oklahoma, Palazzo Cenci, Rome, IT.