Rome: Politics and Architecture

Zaha Hadid's MAXXI In Rome, politics and architecture are always deeply interwoven. Yet as Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, and other ambitious buildings, reach completion, Peter Kelly finds that the city’s architects have been thrown into deeper uncertainty by a radical change in administration. Luca Galofaro, the 44-year-old founder of Rome-based architects IAN+ talks with dismay about running a practice in the Italian capital: ‘Projects in Rome just stop. For months… years at a time. The bureaucracy is crazy. You can’t hold on to staff for the duration of a project because for long periods there’s just not enough work to do.’ Like many of his contemporaries, his office is on the outskirts of Rome, exploiting the cheaper rent of neglected areas and a spacious converted building that can accommodate fluctuating staff levels. His prognosis for Roman architects seems hopeless. Yet on his laptop are renderings showing ideas with huge ambition and imagination: hollowing out vast historic buildings in the city centre and filling them with dense stacks of accommodation; a scheme for a museo-lab superstructure in Rome, and a huge, arcing, skeletal office tower. Some are genuine proposals, others are intellectual exercises, but the distinction is not clear. [caption id="attachment_2432" align="alignnone" width="425" caption="Artwork by Stalker Lab"]Artwork by Stalker Lab[/caption] This mix of creative productivity and frustrated stagnation is typical of young architects in Rome. The most extreme, and most internationally-known example is Stalker Lab. A loose collective of architects and artists that emerged in the mid-Nineties, it organised epic walks tracing the outer reaches of Rome’s ever-expanding outskirts and documented them through writing and photography. Led by founding member Lorenzo Romito, it has continued to pursue an overtly political agenda, squatting in disused buildings, working with the immigrant communities and encouraging outsiders to engage with the city through art and building, but eschewing offers to design buildings themselves. labics-city-2 [caption id="attachment_2436" align="alignnone" width="425" caption="Borderline Metropolis by Labics"]Borderline Metropolis by Labics[/caption] Roman architects are, in many ways, forced into pursuing such a theoretical agenda by the long-term frustrations of the city’s political scene and this has only been intensified by recent political upheaval. If you thought the economic downturn has made life difficult for architects in London, New York or any other major city in the world, spare a thought for those in Rome. Italy’s capital city is experiencing the downturn against a backdrop of a labyrinthine bureaucracy, administrative transformation, and a major corruption scandal that, together, have resulted in near-paralysis for the architecture community. This is even without the eternal problem of building in Rome’s ancient city centre, which is fiercely protected by conservationists. In recent years much has been made of Rome’s renaissance as an architecturally vibrant city: 15 unbroken years of left-wing administration, led first by Francesco Rutelli and then by Walter Veltroni, announced a seemingly endless round of architectural competitions for public projects. Programmes for the creation of 100 new piazzas, new churches for the millennium and a system that required developers to incorporate public projects into their schemes were instigated. [caption id="attachment_2437" align="alignnone" width="425" caption="Model of the new Congress Centre by Massimiliano Fuksas"]Model of the new Congress Centre by Massimiliano Fuksas[/caption] Beguiling renderings and models of projects by architects like Rem Koolhaas and Massimiliano Fuksas appeared and so did cranes as major projects for the ‘eternal city’ by Renzo Piano, Richard Meier and Zaha Hadid gradually reached completion. These developments brought hope: while the pace of construction remained agonisingly slow, there was a perception that Rome was entering a new phase of modernity. Then, in April last year, everything changed. The city elections brought a new regime, led by Mayor Gianni Alemanno. The left-wing parties of Italy had imploded under charges of corruption (which had previously been thought to be the domain of the right). Rutelli – briefly returning for a term while Veltroni ran for national office – was replaced with Alemanno, described by The Independent’s Italian correspondent as a ‘former street-fighting neo-fascist’. It quickly became apparent that Mayor Alemanno was no lover of modern architecture. Once he took office, all projects that had not started construction – and even some that had – were suspended. Architectural competitions were halted. Veltroni’s General Master Plan, which called for the creation and densification of new ‘centres’ on the periphery of the city, has also been frozen. Most famously, Alemanno announced during the election campaign that he would have Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Museum, which only opened in 2006, demolished if he came to power. A seemingly modest building designed to display ancient Roman Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) on the banks of the generally neglected River Tiber, it is nevertheless situated within the city walls and was a badge of honour for Veltroni who saw himself as a patron of modern architecture and pushed through its inauguration, 11 years after Rutelli directly commissioned Meier without an open competition. Its continued existence, therefore, became a major political issue. In particular, the election of Mayor Alemanno has left a raft of major building projects in stasis. Most, although not all, are concerned with the development of Rome’s periphery: areas that lack the rich heritage or tight street plan of the historic centre and are characterized by industrial buildings or the 1930s constructions of Mussolini. One of the largest is the master plan for the vast site of the old Mercati Generali in the area of Ostiense, a district just south west of the ancient city walls. [caption id="attachment_2438" align="alignnone" width="439" caption="OMA's proposed redevelopment of the Mercati Generali"]OMA's proposed redevelopment of the Mercati Generali[/caption] Run-down for sure, the area has an appealingly shambolic, disorganized feel and is dominated by the industrial landmarks of its huge Italgas gasometers; unsurprisingly, the district has become a haven for artists and young architects including Stalker Lab, MaO and Labics. The master plan, drawn up by OMA, proposed a cultural and commercial area: a theatre, cinema, restaurants, a central market plaza and retail spaces, but the site is now bordered by a metal fence that shows no signs of coming down in the near future. There were also significant plans for reviving the city’s infrastructure; in the east of the capital, the crumbling Tiburtina Station was due to be redeveloped by ABDR architects, to become Rome’s main rail hub. In the south of the city, in the 1930s-built EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) district, there were plans for an aquarium underneath the EUR artificial lake, and two new skyscrapers with a luxury residential block by Renzo Piano. These plans are now all under review by the new administration. A major congress centre by Studio Fuksas, known as ‘the cloud’ is almost certain to go ahead, primarily because the cost of halting it would be greater than its completion. In the 12 months since Alemanno took charge, not a single new project has been announced. If this climate of profound of uncertainty was not enough, a scandal involving some hugely prominent architectural practices adds another layer of crisis. Marco Casamonti, founding member of one of the country’s most successful firms, Archea Associati, was arrested in December 2008 for illegally falsifying a public competition for a project in Florence. The scandal, which is currently under judicial review, implicates some of the leading figures in a generation of Italian architects that have become a dominant force over the last decade. If Casamonti is found guilty the effect will be tumultuous and cause further re-evaluation among the architecture profession. Zaha Hadid's MAXXI It is a peculiar result of the slow  progress of architectural projects in Rome, that some of the grandest results of the Rutteli-Veltroni era are reaching completion just at this time of crisis. The great emblem of the previous administration was, and remains, the MAXXI. Indeed, an administrative body, DARC, was established by the city government to promote contemporary art and architecture, with particular attention given to bringing the building to completion. Zaha Hadid’s sinuous, snaking complex of galleries is now reaching completion in the north west of the city. Hadid’s design won over the competition jury with its efforts to integrate one of the few areas in Rome that is rich with modern architecture. zha_maxxi_cp_js_4111 Located in the Flaminio district in the north-west outskirts of Rome, an area typified in particular by 1930s housing projects, the MAXXI is on the Guido Reni, a road that, to the east, leads to Piano’s Auditorium, Parco della Musica, which was completed in 2002. To the west is the River Tiber where a footbridge designed by Buro Happold is currently under construction. This will connect directly with Rome’s 1960 Olympic site, a stunning complex, which was designed by Pier Luigi Nervi who updated the structures built by Mussolini in preparation for the aborted 1944 Games. zha_maxxi_cp_js_4273 The MAXXI is the most ambitious building to be constructed in the Italian capital since the Olympics. It nestles up against and wraps around a set of army barracks from the Mussolini era, which are also to be used to display the collection. The sheer scale of the project is overwhelming, and inside there are moments of remarkable drama as the extended, contorted rectangular forms intersect. The building has its problems: the urbanistic concept is difficult to read from the inside; it is also near-impossible to imagine how the work will be displayed in such a complex environment (the first exhibition is due to open in 2010), and the ambition of its structure is let down by some awkward metal columns at its south entrance. Yet, its unrepentant modernity is unique in Rome. [caption id="attachment_2442" align="alignnone" width="425" caption="The Macro by Decq Cornette"]The Macro by Decq Cornette[/caption] Also nearing completion is the MACRO modern art museum, designed by the Parisian Decq Cornette architects, which joins King Roselli’s Lateran University library and Piano’s auditorium as the most remarkable projects completed in Rome in recent times. Designed largely by established, internationally renowned architects, these buildings will come to be seen as emblems of a specific era – less concentrated but almost as distinctive and identifiable as Mussolini’s EUR. Perhaps more poignant, though, are the smaller projects by young practices such as Andrea Stipa’s futuristic cinema interior, hidden within historic buildings to the south east of the city centre or the beautiful Corten walkway designed by Nemesi Studio for the ancient, monumental Mercati Traianei Museum also within the city walls. These projects show how the ancient and modern can co-exist in interesting ways: it will be truly unfortunate if such emerging and talented architects don’t get the chance to pursue these possibilities. [caption id="attachment_2443" align="alignnone" width="302" caption="The Lateran University Library extension by King Roselli"]The Lateran University Library extension by King Roselli[/caption] Even before the change in administrations, such opportunities were rare enough. The British School at Rome is currently running a series of exhibitions entitled London-Rome: Work in Progress: sequentially presenting the current work of young architects in the British and Italian capitals, and the comparison is telling. The London practices, including Carmody Groarke, Witherford Watson Mann and 6a Architects have, over the last 10 years, built up varied portfolios of completed projects. Their Roman counterparts, such as Ma0, Andrea Stipa, and N!Studio have realized projects but there is a noticeable difference in quantity, scale and the frequency they are able to work in their home city. According to Stipa, the English practices, despite being younger on the whole, have a head start of ‘about 10 years. What they achieve at 35, we do at 45.’ In the absence of construction projects, many of the younger generation are now turning their critical attention to what went wrong, focusing even more of the failures of left-wing administration than the predictable antipathy of the right. Francesco Garofalo, an architect, critic and university tutor who often worked closely with the previous administration and advised on architectural competitions, feels that there was a failure of determination and coherence about the 15-year rash of architectural programmes and proposals. ‘We ended up with an accumulation of projects without a vision: there was no ethos behind it,’ he says. This provides an interesting contrast with Rome’s mayor of the late 1970s, Giulio Carlo Argan, who was an art historian and commissioned the renowned Roma Interrotta exhibition, which was brought to the Venice Architecture Biennale of 1978. In that instance there was a Mayor with a decided vision, although little was actually constructed under his leadership. When it comes to Rutelli and Veltroni, it is certainly true that schemes such as the 100 Piazzas yielded pitifully few results, and schemes that did, such as the building of new churches, had little relevance to the fabric of the city. Garofalo sees the overall ineffectiveness of DARC, which is now being gradually wound down, as being due to Veltroni’s failure to distinguish between art and architecture, and between curation and bureaucracy. Even the city’s General Master Plan was let down by a failure to carry through the original vision to the layers of bureaucracy and developers. Alberto Lacavoni of Ma0 points out that the notion of creating new, peripheral centres merely became a licence to build enormous shopping malls such as Porta di Roma, (one of the largest in Europe) in Rome’s north-western suburbs. ‘The administration was too weak, incapable of managing the process: developers are too powerful in Rome,’ he says. Most of these architects will, of course, continue to propose, design and build projects wherever possible, but without the potential of continuous architectural competitions in their home city, the development of ideas and the refinement of these critiques will become an ever-more important part of their practice. Exhibitions such as London-Rome, and events such as the Venice Architecture Biennale become increasingly essential outlets for experimentation and arenas for discussion with architects outside Italy. Architects in Rome have become used to the need for imagination, flexibility and, often, individual activism to get by. Romito, who has determinedly pursued this path with Stalker Lab for more than 10 years, denies that he is anti-architecture but argues that the fundamentals of Roman society and its administration must change before it is worth building a thing. His critique of the city’s attitude to immigration and its failure to make outsiders a part of any future vision is stinging, but when asked if he would  build elsewhere his reply is revealing: ‘Rome is my city, I love it here.’ Without political support, however, he sees the educational culture as key to city’s future. Romito’s main ambition now is to establish a counter-cultural university, where alternative ideas about Rome can be pursued and encouraged.

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