Sooners study architecture in the Hogwarts of Rome: The Cenci Family Palace


Cenci Palace. Photo by Minh Tran.

While the white wig clad servants in gilded coats, maids ducking quietly through secret doors, and members of Rome’s high society have long vanished, the Cenci family palace still maintains the essence of palatial life in Rome during the late 1500’s. The outside of the building is like so many others in Rome and can go almost unnoticed to a passersby in the piazza. But upon crossing the threshold of the massive green doors, visitors are instantly flung back in time. A hike up the monumental travertine spiral staircase (which is rumored to have been designed in such a way that Lord Cenci could ride his horse up them) takes you to the landing at the third floor where a heavy dark door opens into the studio spaces.


Cenci Palace stair. Photo by Minh Tran.

Marble floors, fresco covered walls, elaborately vaulted ceilings, and hand plastered columns make up the grand foyer. The floor of the building that the studio resides on undoubtedly must have been used for public audiences and hosting guests who needed to be put in their place by the majesty of the Cenci Palace. A visitor would have to progress through a series of rooms before reaching the actual room that Lord Cenci would be in. The first room, where most people would spend the majority of their time waiting, has a large stone fireplace and is now where the main library is located. Shelves around the room contain volumes of both contemporary and classical works of architecture, design, and history. The next room is slightly smaller in size with a much smaller fire place, this is where the students from Iowa State have their studio. The next two rooms are studio spaces for the University of Oklahoma. They are more elaborately decorated and would have been used to stage and queue visitors before they actually proceeded into the final room of the wing (our lecture hall) in which Lord Cenci would have greeted them with his notoriously terrible attitude and awful temper.

Cenci Palace by Klaas Reimann-Philips.

Cenci Palace by Klaas Reimann-Philips.

The Cenci family1 was your typical dysfunctional high ranking family of Rome’s glory years. Lord Francesco Cenci was quick to anger, fond of immorality, and an abusive husband and father. After years of crying out for help to the local officials, his wife Lucrezia and daughter Beatrice conspired to kill him while the family stayed at their summer castle. After the first attempt with poison failed, the pair resorted to more gruesome means with a hammer before shoving the Lord off a balcony to his death. Like all perpetrators of poorly executed plans of passion, they were caught and later beheaded in a public spectacle. Legend has it that on the anniversary of her death, Beatrice’s ghost crosses the Tiber River with her head in her hand.

Whether or not this ghost story is true, the Cenci palace has a long and fabled history in the heart of Rome. Walking through the narrow doors of the studio spaces on a daily basis will certainly have a lasting effect on each of us, much like the cobble streets of the city around it will. Having such fine quarters with new faces in a new place will be a grand experience for the lives, educations, and future careers of the students from the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture.

– Grant Newby

1   Knopf, Alfred A. “From Ponte Sant’Angello to the Ghetto.” Rome. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2005. 254. Print.

In defense of the Vittoriano: Monumental Reception and Ambiguity

Terry Kirk’s article Monumental Monstrosity, Monstrous Monumentality focuses on reception of the architectural sublime, and when the sublime crosses a line into monstrosity, using the Altare della Patria (pseudo-affectionately nicknamed “Il Vittoriano”) as a case study. Kirk underscores the need to realize and internalize the line we straddle as designers when designing monuments or other places of public gathering/service/etc. When dealing with the problem of effective memorialization, there is always the chance (particularly when lacking background in the event) that the design will be inadvertently offensive – even monstrous.

It is without a doubt a landmark in Rome – descriptions of just how out of scale it is read like the classic form joke: “How big is the Vittoriano? Well, it’s so big that…” Possible completions include: “it’s taller than the Saturn V rocket”i, “over 20 people attended a banquet in the stomach of the horse in the equestrian statue of King Vittorio Emanuele II”ii, and “there are three different museums inside itiii”. Its white Brescian marble towers over the city, visible throughout Rome in spite of its odd stacked structure and lack of a dome.

The Vittoriano follows all the “rules” of political monuments – it is grandiose, ostentatious, bombastic, and inspires a certain feeling of inadequacy in the viewer – but it is executed in such a way that plants it firmly in the school of Albert Speer, Étienne Boullée, etc., particularly when resolved while considering Italy’s Fascist period in conjunction with it. Mussolini capitalized on the monument, transforming it into the “locus of the hypnotic nightmare of Fascism”iv, and thus transformed its meaning – the way in which its expression of the sublime is experienced. It went from being awe-inspiring to loathsome, from minimizing the viewer in the face of unimaginable and steadfast unity to minimizing the viewer in the face of an uncaring, despotic government.

However, Kirk additionally mentions that the only people who “actually like it” are tourists, who by definition have no cultural memory.v This seems to indicate that the form is fundamentally sound – by following the rules, it remains able to capture the attentions of people, and take their breath away, in much the same way as it did in the early 1900s. Its success amongst these cultural neophytes is undeniable – one has only to walk near Piazza Venezia in tourist season to see swarms of people ooing, aahing, and taking photos.

However, by traditional measures of success, the result is less clear-cut: a common axiom still employedvi when discussing Italian culture is that it mostly doesn’t exist – that the allegiance of Italians is primarily toward their cities rather than the concept of “L’Italia”, and that Italians only identify as such when outside of Italy. What this has to do with the backlash against the Vittoriano can probably never be determined, and anyway falls more under the jurisdiction of more social sciences. However, it is amusing to note that the monument is relatively inaccessible despite its humongous size, and there are guards patrolling to ensure that visitors refrain from smoking, eating, sitting, talking, etc. – all things that are expected, even welcomed, in the public spaces of Italy.vii This is ostensibly because the Vittoriano is so precious to Italians, but Kirk is far from the only source asserting the opposite. In this light, its reception can be seen as such an incredible failure that it cannot even be treated as a normal public space, with its superintendents unable to reconcile how it would be used with the intended idea of it.

I propose that its ability to continue generating controversy – in all its forms – is in fact admirable, as it shows that although a designer cannot control the reception of their design, this frees up the definition of success (particularly when speaking about monuments) to mean something subtler: the ability to keep people engaged in discussion, so that it remains relevant, and with it, the event it is memorializing.

i 135 meters to the Saturn V’s 110

ii Attended by then-Mayor Torlonia, the owner of foundry Bastianelli which made the statue, and 21 workers

iii The Central Museum of Italian Unification, the Sacrarium of the Banners of the Armed Forces, and the Italian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

iv Kirk, Terry. “Monumental Monstrosity, Monstrous Monumentality.” Perspecta, no. 40 (January 1, 2008).

v Ibid.

vi As of 2013, a full 143 years after Italian unification

vii It is really beyond bizarre that a monument celebrating “Italianness” would prohibit public talking and smoking – extremely popular Italian pastimes.

The Progression of the Fascist Architectural Type

After a visit to the fascist planned areas of Garbatella and the EUR, I was struck by how different the two areas were. After reading an article about the planning of Garbatella by Antonella De Michelis I started to have a better understanding about why Garbatella differs so much from the other examples of fascist architecture.

Garbatella was built to house the industrial workers that would be supporting the maritime industry that was being planned for Rome. 1 Much of what shaped the look of Garbatella is attributed to the time period of its design, its being planned on the principles of the Garden City from Ebenezer Howard and also its location in far southern Rome. 2 The urban planners of the 1930’s, in contrast, were fully engrossed in the distinct style of the fascist party when they laid out the EUR. There are many other factors at play as well, like the completely different uses each neighborhood had: Garbatella was constructed for the Roman working class, whereas EUR was planned as the location for the 1942 world’s fair. While walking through the EUR and Garbatella one is struck with the evolution of the fascist party, from the early 1920’s to the late 1930’s, the movement toward expressing fascist power though architecture and planning progressed to monumental heights at the point when the EUR was planned.

Using the Garden City as the plan for designing a neighborhood is one of the main reasons that Garbetella diverges from the typical fascist style.  The planners of Garbatella took key ideas of the Garden City and adapted the British model into a distinctly Roman model, using ideas when they worked and changing others to suit the needs of a Roman community. 4 The success of the plan at creating a strong community and elevating the status of the inhabitants is attributed to the design and the layout.  The inhabitants lived in well-lit and ventilated spaces with access to gardens and could mingle with other members of the community in the shared/communal spaces and the public parks and piazzas. 5 The neighborhood expanded quickly to accommodate the rising need for housing.  De Michelis discusses how the population increases led to larger housing blocks being built, the scale did not mean that the attention to detail was lost and the original, adapted Roman take on the Garden City was kept intact effectively creating a healthy and desirable place to live, arguing that Garbatella took on a distinctive Roman character different from that of the fascists who created it. 6 Despite physical changes to the area and the transformation of the way the inhabitants lived, the spirit of the people and the neighborhood remained intact. 7 The later architectural style of the fascist party stands today as a clear and powerful symbol of a period most Italians wish to forget, while Garbatella is still a quaint desirable place to live without as strong a connection to the fascist period.

1 De Michelis, Antonella. "The garden suburb of the Garbatella, 1920-1929: Defining community and identity through planning in post-war Rome." Planning Perspectives 24, no. 4 (October 2009): 509-20.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

We Are Tradition

A distinctly Italian characteristic discovered by exploring the city of Rome is the amount of historical buildings. It is very easy to imagine what the country may have looked like hundreds, or in some places even thousands, of years ago. The abundance of classical, renaissance, and baroque architecture takes you back in time. The narrow streets, fountains, and of course historical significance of the objects surrounding you can make you forget what year it is. Yet while you’re sent back in time frequent reminders speed by like a new Fiat, tour bus, or what seems to be hundreds of mopeds. Then suddenly you remember that is it 2013 and these buildings are hundreds of years old. The question then arises: where are all the modern buildings? Yes of course we know of the contemporary architectural masterpieces like the MAXXI, the Ara Pacis Museum, and the Auditorium. But where are the real contemporary buildings? Where are the places that everyday people use every day, not monumental space frames?

It seems like Italian Architecture is somewhat trapped in a state of mind or has a fixed perception of what architecture should look like. Yes granted many of the buildings here in Rome are very old and that limits the opportunity for contemporary design ideas to be expressed. Yet many of the buildings that seem to be at least old enough to have been designed with a contemporary approach still seem to reflect the historical context. This raises another question: what is Italian architecture? Or how should context be defined and used in contemporary design? Many designers relate their designs back to local context but at what point is it okay to start do create a new context?

I recently heard that context is tradition and that made me think about design. Italy seems to try very hard to relate its tradition to it past glory and connect that with architecture. Walking around the city of Rome it is hard to find architecture that will give you an idea of what this culture’s modern traditions are and how people live today not hundreds of years ago. But to my surprise the other day I think I found an example in Rome that does  just that. After a class walk to Garbatella we stopped at an incredible building in a redeveloping area of Rome to see the new crown jewel of the area: Eatly. A huge converted old air terminal has become the mecca for all food lovers in Rome. As we walked up to the building it appeared clearly different from traditional Italian architecture. The only forms that seemed to relate to the context were the intersecting barrel vaults, but the scale was overly dramatic. The form fit its old use as an air terminal and yet it still feels extremely different. The material combination of glass and steel has more in common with designs in Germany not Italy. The huge structural trusses and glass connections were so beautiful.

As we entered Eatly we saw five different levels that run the full length of the building and gave the place a feel of horizontality. The inside felt open because of all the glazing, high floor planes, and white exposed structure. The architecture was amazing but the most important part of the space was the tradition or “food”. The spaces were laid out for designated items such as for wine, local goods, beer, meat market, fish market, restaurants, and even a cafe on the top floor. All of these spaces felt very personal and private. The well-known love that the Italian culture has with food could be felt in this building. It made me think about the conquest for contemporary Italian architecture. The search for context through tradition. This also made me think about contemporary Italian designer Franco Albini and his definition of context which is “we are tradition”. I can see what he meant in this building of Eataly. People are tradition themselves. Because the building serves the function of the people it is respecting context. The relation to classical or baroque design doesn’t mean a building is fitting tradition because the most important context for “tradition” is the people in the present not history. Eataly does that. The designer understood that the people of present and their traditions should be the context for the building. “We are tradition” should be the main context in contemporary architecture because as we see the Eataly building is an Italian building.Image

Garbatella as Example of Regionalism

I have always been bothered by the copy/paste architecture so commonly found in many American suburban developments. Why must so many affordable housing projects ignore the very environment and region they inhabit? After all a large part of architecture deals with the way a building responds and communicates with its surroundings. Although the idea of regionalism is not a new one by any means somehow many designers have forgotten it and completely ignore the context of the very buildings they are creating.

There are however architects who recognize the importance of creating in a way that integrates local culture, community, and regional vernacular into their projects. These projects not only successful responses to their environments, but actually help to enrich the lives of those who inhabit them. The Garbatella neighborhood located just outside of central Rome, give us an excellent example of how affordable housing can be created in a way that responds to a specific regional identity. Originally started as a response to Rome’s housing crisis during the early 20th century, Garbatella offered individuals the comforts and aesthetics unique to a specific way of Roman life.

One of the primary elements that led to Garbatella’s success was the way in which details were placed at the forefront of the project. This attention to detail can be described at a Barocchetto stye that utilized local craftsmen and artisans to create various building elements out of local tufa stone. You see here an example of not only utilization of local materials, but a strong involvement from the local community. It is perhaps this involvement that allows for the Garbatella to foster a strong sense of unity amongst those who inhabit it, and help to connect the project to a particular place. If the details of the Garbatella had simply been drawn up and ordered from a random location, the palazzina and villino designs would not have maintained the “local” identity that is present today. Any project that can create jobs within a local area is also a plus.

Another element that helped foster the Garbatella neighborhoods success at maintaining a regional identity was the creation of superblocks. These super blocks contain local services to the residents of the neighborhood. Places such as barbers, beauticians, baths, and stores provide nearby and convenient services for the entire neighborhood, thus fostering a greater sense of local community. This form of mixed use urban planning has existed for a while, yet it hasn’t been until recently that American designers have begun to rediscover it. The Garbatella neighborhood was planned to also allow abundant access to green spaces and natural light. This is particularly critical when dealing with ideas of personal comfort within dense urban spaces. These types of mixed use facilities finally help to promote class integration which is highly important when dealing with creating a sense of community.


While designers are slowly beginning to create more mixed use facilities today, we can all learn an important lesson on regionalism from the Garbatella neighborhood. Creating places where people can have access to light, green spaces, services, and finally a form of architecture that ties them to a particular place can create stronger communities and more enjoyable living environments for individuals.

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis and Temporal Consideration

The origins of Piazzale Augusto Imperatore in a Fascist master plan, and its being carved out of a thick and dense part of the city, raises an interesting design question for Museo dell’Ara Pacis: since not only the location of the altar and the precedent of having a building to house it were Mussolini’s decisions but also even the fact that a piazza is there to house it in the first place, when does the contextual argument stop being spatial and start being temporal? One of the main criticisms for Richard Meier’s museum (while deliberately ignoring larger political issues that may be at play) is that, stylistically, it is an extracontextual construction; the palette is too cold, the decoration too spare, et cetera. But is it not perhaps also the case that, stylistically and functionally, it is being considered entirely within the wrong context?

Victor Morpurgo’s design for the Ara Pacis enclosure

Invoking some willful reductionism: there really isn’t that much of a difference between the original, designed by Vittorio Morpurgo, and the current: both are, essentially, glass boxes that serve to enclose the altar and protect it from the elements. Of course, the program is simple, but the spaces don’t have to be. The problem may lay in the choice of architect: Italian Fascist architecture is noted for its lack of adornment, ostentatiousness, and rational principles (there are some brilliant examples bordering Piazzale Augusto Imperatore). Richard Meier’s architecture is similarly noted for its lack of adornment, ostentatiousness, and rational principles.

The real contextual problem isn’t the colors, or the fact that it is Spartan in adornment, or that it lacks pomp and grandiosity – it is that, although Meier was commissioned by then-Mayor of Rome and liberal Francesco Rutelli, he proceeded to build another Fascist building in the center of Rome. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with fascist architecture; many fascist works are in fact well-receivedi, e.g. the buildings of Giuseppe Terragni famously championed by Peter Eisenman. However, maybe the temporal association isn’t the greatest for a major Roman monument?

Richard Meier’s design for the Ara Pacis enclosure

On the other hand, it may be the perfect association – after all, the altar is only there because Mussolini moved it. He aligned himself with Augustus, another man of power who had considerable influence on the Roman fabbrica della cittàii, who had the altar created in the first place specifically to celebrate the peace that war brought. Similarly, Italy’s engagement in World War II was in part influenced by imperial ambitions of the fascist regime, which sought to restore a “Roman Empire” in the Mediterranean region. Presumably, this would also bring peace, or at least respite from what is remembered as the most dramatic war in modern history. Whether Italian military ambitions were justified or not, it would be remiss to not address this important period of Italian history.

It is a little absurd to suggest that Meier had in mind the idea to generate controversy with a major landmark design as a sort of performance art masquerading as architecture in order to frame the entire debacle as commentary on Italians’ relationship with their past, but it is an interesting thing to consider. After all, there is room enough in the world for argument.

iAlthough always with an amusing rush to explain that “While this reviewer disagrees with fascist policy…”

iiAugustus is famously the emperor that “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”

A Quick Trip to Napoli- Isola di Capri- Mount Vesuvius

Traveling is one of my favorite things to do and this semester’s abroad opportunity has given us all that chance. A few of us took a weekend trip to Napoli; where you can find the best pizza in the world, Isola di Capri, and Mount Vesuvius.

We started off our adventure with an early train ride to Napoli, checked into our hostel, and then headed to the docks to board a ferry to take us to Isola di Capri. Its jagged edges rise from the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Bay of Napoli. The ferry ride was awesome with an open deck and great views of the Almafi coast; it was a beautiful sunny day.  The island finally arrives in the distance with the two jagged peaks, and as we dock the dark blue water is clearer than I’ve ever seen. Small sail boats and larger yachts fill the docks and as we de-board the ferry with the small town surrounding. The island consists of Capri Town and Anacapri up the cliffs.


By taking a bus up the smallest steepest switchback street you arrive in Anacapri and we make our way down a winding vine covered street with painted white shops to the Villa San Michele. It boasts a beautiful garden with loggia and balconies that lookout over Capri Town and the sea; the view is spectacular. Afterwards, we wander over to the Church of San Michele Arcangelo to see the mosaic floor depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It’s a beautiful little church with the mosaic covering the whole floor. On a bus again we make our way to the other side of the island and take a funicular down the side of the mountain to Capri Town. They have white pebble shores with beautiful views and the though the water is cold, we stick our feet in. After some required tourist shopping (they are known for their coral and painted tiles) we hang out on the docks watching boats come and go while the sun sets before boarding our hydrofoil back to Napoli.


For dinner upon recommendation we go to Pizzeria da Michele, that boasts the best pizza in the world. After a wait with locals we finally get a table and a choice of pizza margherita or pizza marinara. The food is wonderful and the location is noted for being where they filmed part of Eat, Pray, Love with Julia Roberts!

Day two involves taking a train, bus, and walk up the steep mountain side of Mount Vesuvius, notoriously known for destroying the ancient city of Pompeii. At the top we are above many clouds and have a wonderful lookout over Napoli to the north, and Sorrento to the South, with Capri in the distance and the sea meeting the sky in a perfect line. The last bit of the journey is a 500 meter walk to the crest of the crater which I must admit was a steep trek. Part of the volcano smokes a little which is a good reminder of what we are actually standing on.


It has been a great adventure and we agree we can mark these off our bucket lists!

Garbatella as a Contemporary Model

Rome is known as the Eternal City because it boldly displays the layers of its history, layers of stone and concrete that tell a story of imperial conquest and regression, years of supremacy and lost years of darkness. It is a fault zone where the earth is shifted and peeled away to display the history of one of the most widespread and well-known civilizations on earth. Its people have perfected the art of capturing the spirit of a time and preserving it through some means for future generations. In some cases, like the Coliseum and the fields of ruins at Ostia Antica, the technique is to scrub, sterilize, and freeze a monument, turning it into a destination, charging admission to preserve it in a suspended state of disrepair. In other cases, such as the ruin of the Mausoleum of Augustus and the Pantheon, these monuments survive thousands of years through the denial of obsolescence. Subsequent generations transform the carcass of monumentality into something more useful to fill a pressing need: a pagan temple into a Catholic church, or a tomb into the home of the symphonic orchestra. They are thus saved from destruction until some imperial power—Mussolini yielding the pickaxe of liberation or the Historical Society with its World Heritage Site stamp of approval—sweeps through, clears out the excess, and informs the public that this carcass is hereafter immortal. Every monument is a glimpse at another layer of history that was swept over by time and the needs of newer generations.

Monuments are not limited to the concrete and stone of the ancients, however. The Eternal City’s knack for architectural expression has continued through the centuries, with each era having its own explicit aesthetic and form. Newer monuments include Baroque churches, Renaissance palazzos, and even Fascist government complexes. One contemporary example of history frozen in time is the neighborhood of Garbatella, just southeast of Rome’s historical center. Its original plan was loosely based on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept and rooted firmly in the Roman tradition. Its first conception as an affordable, working-class neighborhood did not suffer even when Mussolini’s sventramenti uprooted vast swatches of humanity, swelling the already large number of homeless poor. The ICP, or Instituto per le Case Popolari, went to work with the intention to create affordable but beautiful homes for the masses. The resultant style, called Barocchetto, was defined by “craftsmanship [which] transformed low-cost materials such as local volcanic tufa, brick and concrete into ornamental design features”1.

The Institute looked to the Roman peasant tradition to inform Garbatella’s aesthetic: intricately sculpted animal downspouts, plaster in warm earthy colors like red, beige, and yellow, and beautiful masonry detail work give the neighborhood a homey, comfortable, and very welcoming atmosphere which “humanized the ‘house for the modest classes’”2. Howard’s Garden City principles were not ignored, either. The neighborhood lies along the natural topography, working with rather than against it to result in gently sloped, curving streets. Greenery overhangs the narrower streets, and even on a rainy day the smells of flowers drifts on the air, their colors peeking from every windowsill and balcony.

Even multi-family buildings never rise more than three or four stories above the ground, keeping the entire neighborhood at a friendly human and pedestrian scale. The Italian sensitivity to community was incorporated in the plan at the local as well as the urban scale; “a core aspect of ICP housing was its shared spaces, which included roof-top terraces, courtyards and laundry facilities as well as social amenities such as schools”3. Shared community spaces like cafes and theaters were located around small central piazzas. The ICP was able to successfully and clearly define “the Garbatella as a Roman neighborhood, and one sensitive to the heritage and social identity of its residents”4. Even in the present day, Garbatella is considered a beautiful and sought-after place to live.

The success of the ICP in constructing buildings “at low cost but not at the expense of the quality of construction, inhabitants’ living standards or attention to architectural detail”5 throws a bit of a pall over the American response to its own middle-class housing crisis after the second World War. Mile upon mile of suburban cookie-cutter homes, variations on three or four different floorplans, each with a perfectly manicured patch of yard, have spawned a storm of criticism in the media, and for good reason. Though these quickly-constructed and affordable homes filled a need, one wonders if they could have been created with a touch more finesse. It is a bit sickening to think that they might also capture the spirit of a time: the late American 20th century, an era of mass production, assembly lines and corporate profiteering, a mentality of isolation and privacy. Perhaps one of the greatest shortcomings of these planners and designers was the absence of community, the lost idea of a neighborhood with its own character unique to its people and its location. Places like Garbatella remind us that designers have a responsibility to the people to provide more than just four walls and a roof, but also a place to live and interact, a place that elicits pride, one that can be called home long after the children are grown and gone. Perhaps it is time for American designers to revisit the idea of “affordable housing,” looking to neighborhoods like Garbatella that do not sacrifice heritage and regionalism in the name of speed or profit.

Works Cited

1 De Michelis, Antonella. “The Garden Suburb of the Garbatella.” Rome Study Center, University of California 2009. pg. 510

2 pg. 514

3 pg. 510

4 pg. 518

5 pg. 510