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Greece crawls to the fabled referendum. I heard many times from government officials, indeed from the prime minister himself, that this is a ‘historic’ moment. It may well be; but I know that this ‘history’ is often unkind to its suitors. In a few hours, a people is asked to choose, through a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no’, between two paths that are in theory very different but also terrifyingly unknown.
I finally made peace with myself about my decision not to travel to Greece for the referendum. For days, I agonised about my responsibility as a citizen with strong views, on the one hand, and my dubious position as someone who has spent the last two decades living abroad, shielded from the everyday realities of life in Greece, on the other. Against all my rational cosmopolitanism, meticulously built over most of my adult life spent elsewhere, I discover that there is a strong residue of affinity for the country in which I grew up and whose passport I still travel with. It is my ‘history’ – one that I did not necessarily wish for or do not cherish but one that is like “[t]he intolerable shirt of flame / Which human power cannot remove.”
I never understood this referendum, not in the way that it was framed. There is no equivalence between the Yes and the No. Yes means agreement on a concrete set of measures, on a series of documents with impenetrable titles in English. In the beginning, these documents were meant to be ‘proposals’ on the table. Terrible, vindictive, inhuman, you name it – but they were there. I could read them (I did not, like those irritating, incontinent ’Terms and Conditions’ internet boxes that we are asked to tick in agreement and we do, dutifully, without caring for what they say). No, on the other hand, says nothing about the day after. I more or less know what awaits Greece if Yes wins – and it is a future that depresses me, even from the luxurious position of someone who will not be directly affected by whatever harsh measures will follow. But I know nothing of what will happen if the majority vote in favour of No. Should I take at face value what the prime minister and finance minister are saying? That a new, better agreement will come after a No vote in a couple of days and the banks will re-open bursting with €20 notes and the ‘creditors’ will rush to the table, humiliated and repentant, to offer a deal that is fairer? I could (I don’t). But this is beside the point. What No may bring has become an article of faith for either camp. I watched too much Greek TV in the past few days to realise this.
Since that first day, of course, the ‘proposals’ are no longer on the table, rightly or wrongly. Greece should have been given at least a lifeline from the ECB – but it was not. Life is not a moral tale. Those who have the power wield it, often very insensitively. The ‘proposals’ – withdrawn. The bailout – expired. The banks – closed. The negotiations – frozen. The collegiality and willingness to collaborate between the two sides – exhausted. The referendum’s question should have been restated as “would you have accepted the ‘proposals’ you will never read if they were still on the table but they are not?”, which of course is a rather tenuous basis on which to consult the people, reminding them at the same time that their vote holds so much significance for the future. Instead, the Greek government pressed on with the referendum (absolutely their very honourable right) and campaigned for a No vote from the first moment (again, their political privilege).
I would have accepted a government that, after a long negotiation, would have refused to sign an agreement presented to them that they found unacceptable. It is, what, five months since the elections that gave this same government a very strong mandate to change course. I would have been far happier if this government had alerted their interlocutors, weeks earlier, that they planned to consult the Greek people if they felt that the ‘proposals’ on offer were unacceptable, with the luxury of time and without the Damocles sword of a soon-to-expire deal that kept the banks running and the state just about working and the economy crawling. But no. The government negotiated with schizophrenic incongruousness and no sense of self-critique whatsoever. I wonder – if the ‘proposals’ that were forged after so many weeks of wrangling, so many Eurogroup meetings, so many trips and conference calls, are so terrible, what does this say also about the negotiating strategy of the Greek team?
Could it be that the ‘creditors’ are wholly to blame for this shipwreck? Maybe. But a big part of me has always wondered whether this strange Greek exceptionalism, of the most against us and us alone, says something very dark about this country’s inability to engage with the concept of compromise itself, as a journey of dialogue, of mutual concessions, and very often of accepting a sub-optimal (for both sides) conclusion. I know it sounds very noble and moving to say that certain principles are non-negotiable and worthy of a fight with potentially terrible consequences. I am no hero – not a very honourable stance but one that remains my prerogative as well. I do not like staring at a dark abyss with the sole consolation coming from the wishful thinking of those who, rightly or wrongly, in spite or because of their efforts, brought me on the precipice.
A referendum should signal a rational political process, with arguments for and against, with time to reflect, with a sensible and real basis to debate, with theoretically equivalent positions in terms of cause and effect. I want to know what happens is Yes or No wins. As things stand, unless I take the musings of the Greek finance minister at face value (and I don’t, I am sorry), I know nothing about what means or follows No. I do not understand how he thinks with such certitude that a better deal will ensue almost immediately after the rejection of the ‘proposals’ that are no longer an option anyway. I cannot comprehend how he reassures everyone that banks will re-open next week. I do not know from where he draws the conviction that the ‘creditors’ have been bluffing all the time and will acquiesce in the end. He may be right. But I do not fancy crossing a motorway believing that all these drivers will slow down and let me walk to the other side. I simply trust neither myself nor the others. And when the odds seem so overwhelmingly against me, I walk away.
I could not vote No. There is no agency in that No, only the momentary illusion of popular sanction and the political cowardice of those seeking it. The dilemma is false, manipulative, expired before it was even artificially posed. The presumed message from a No vote, symbolic rather than political, has no afterlife. It can only empower a political class to continue to behave even more erratically, irresponsibly, incongruously. It can only vindicate a strategy that has so far been ludicrously irrational and muddled, not to mention ineffective. I wish I could believe even for a moment that No means beginning to construct ‘a new European home’, bringing relief to a tortured and tired people, shining even a dim light over so many lives consumed by the fire of austerity. I wish, but I don’t. I perfectly understand why so many people desperately cling to it, for the alternative is the familiar flat line of the dying. But this is not enough for me. No means nothing beyond a stillborn carnival of merriment before the stark morning after.
And yet, two negations do not make an affirmation in this case. I could not cast a vote with Yes written on it. To vote Yes would be to sanction a monumental failure of political will and strategy, depending on what side one is referring to. No one really wants to vote Yes. Yes is asphyxiating and lifeless and repulsive. Who can even feign a drop of excitement for such a victory? In its own way, Yes too means nothing for it guarantees nothing worth hoping or fighting for. It is a desperate affirmation of something that no one could possibly believe in, let alone desire. It is a sad, frightened whimper, not an angry and passionate cry.
It has then come down to this – a battle of faiths for a dubious promise of an afterlife that neither can deliver. This referendum never aimed to foster debate and allow time for calm reflection but presented its own cynical ultimatum to the people. It asks questions that it can never answer, even as it pretends to offer an avalanche of ‘historic’ agency. This is a counterfeit “choice of pyre or pyre”. Thank-you but I shall pass.

Well into the last two weeks of my sojourn in Rome, I was allowed access to the archive of the Istituto Case Popolari, the main builder and provider of social housing in Italy since the beginning of the twentieth century.

The archive is now administered by ATER (Azienda Territoriale per l'Edilizia Residenziale del Comune di Roma), ICP's successor organisation that still holds the fort in relation to Rome's social housing provision and maintenance. It is not open to the public but, after quite a bit of effort, I found out that the door was not fully locked.

The historical collection contains plans and designs chronicling the activity of the ICP across the capital, as well as documents in relation to its architectural and social activities. It is housed in more than seven different locations across the city, making the process of finding and accessing information a very demanding task in itself.

I found myself knocking on the proverbial door of ATER via my unexpected affair with Innocenzo Sabbatini. Sabbatini was a central figure during the 'golden years' of the ICP, his uniquely eclectic creative work spanning the 1920s until his departure from the ICP in 1931. Sabbatini signed quite a few designs; but he also formed part of the collective subject that was the Technical Office of the ICP, headed by his relative Innocenzo Costantini. Especially between 1925 and 1930, the Technical Office produced an unusually large number of highly original designs, with a clear trajectory towards more refinement, bolder experimentation, fruitful dialogue with modern forms and materials, progressive 'stripping down' of traditional forms that produced ever-surprising new hybrids – sometimes across the different facades of the very same building.

The ICP of course continued its activities in the 1930s. Still, there is a clear sense of rupture at some point in the early years of the decade. I am not suggesting that this has something to do with Sabbatini's bizarre departure, when the Technical Office was on the top of its design and management game – because I do not know. The move, however, to more 'economic' and'rapid' housing from 1932 onwards, combined with the displacement of social housing in the distant periphery of the capital, was obvious. Changes in the design and production ethos of the ICP in the 1930s probably have a lot to do with the very different political and social context in which it operated at the time. The growing pace of demolitions in the historic centre and Mussolini's obsession with the destruction of the visible shanty towns (baracche) put undue pressure on the resources of the ICP – a pressure that did not exist to anywhere near the same degree in the previous decade.

Sabbatini left the ICP with a real bang. He submitted his resignation in early 1929 but stayed until 1931, with the agreement of the Institute, in order to complete the projects he had already heading. His last plan, a new social housing complex in the Trionfale district of Rome, was his fitting swansong: a design of bewildering but fascinating complexity, borrowing liberally from his previous work in the same quarter but also in Garbatella, to produce a new kind of mega-complex, with a decidedly stripped-down design sensibility but still ample evidence of his flair and attention to historical contextual detail. The design ended up in the drawer of paper architecture, like so many of the most interesting projects of the Fascist period.


With the invaluable help of the ATER archivist Piergiacomo Alimonti, and the kind permission of the Direzione Generale ATER, I was able to locate the designs for the project. I also came across a wealth of information about other social housing projects and the decision-making context in which they were conceived, produced, and realised (or not). Time has run out of course. But everything about this story – from the accidental question about the 'Casa Economica' in Trionfale by Adam Furman (Rome Prize winner for 2014-15 at the British School of Rome), the urban safaris trying to locate it, the moment of the accidental discovery (albeit covered by scaffolding, now thankfully removed), the communication with ATER, the kind response of Dr Nicoletta Stasio from the Direzione Generale, the hours of searching through the resources of the Ufficio Patrimonio etc etc – shouts serendipity.

So, this could be the beginning. Rome, a city on which I have spent years of my research life, holds up quite a few more surprises. As I pack my bags from the British School at Rome, I feel that I have one more excuse to come back, again and again and again.

 

 

I am currently reading a book about Ernesto Rogers’ concept of ‘continuity’ in Italian modernist architecture. I have to confess that I have always held an instinctive aversion to any discourse based on ‘tradition’. For me the way that ‘tradition’ is used as a shorthand for nationally rooted cultural canon is dubious, belonging to the same regressive arsenal of nationalist myths that stifle transnational hybridity. To talk of ‘tradition’ in the period that I am researching (interwar years) and in the context in which I am conducting my research (modernist architecture and urban planning) almost invariably meant imitative adherence to this canon of national rootedness and rejection of an open mind in relation to the international experience.

Or so I thought. Encountering Rogers’ understanding of tradition – as a dynamic force that is as far removed from a “passive emulation of the past”, pointing instead to a continuity, rooted in space, time, and ambient that constantly renews and innovates – is very different from the formalist ‘tradition’ of Ugo Ojetti or from the regressive ruralist nostalgia of Il Selvaggio group. Rogers spoke of tradition as “the concurrent presence of experiences – the validation of permanent emergent phenomena and the energies of mutations; these two work together to produce new effects that are infinitely active”. His modernist church was broad and inclusive, forgiving to theorised eclecticism. As editor of Casabella (to the title of which he added his key term 'Continuità'), he disagreed with collaborators who perceived the role of modernism in architecture solely as that of a permanent avant garde. For him, the historical function of modernism as intransigent and combative avant garde was largely exhausted in the 1920s and 1930s – the 'heroic phase' of modernism. The 'grand masters' – Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright – paved the way in his opinion for a more inclusive, more aware in cultural and ambiental terms, rallying cry for promoting a modernist sensibility that was not exhausted in particular styles but had a profound 'ethical' orientation. Between the prospect of open conflict ('crisis' – not in the Tafurian sense of the word but as an ongoing modernist polemica between contradictory and essentially irreconcilable programmatic positions) and a plural unity ('continuity' as the antidote to 'crisis' and a force of pluralistic inclusion), Rogers opted decidedly for the latter.

Rogers tread the most delicate of paths – between memory and innovation, between experience and expectations of renewal, between history and universality. His 'tradition' had very little in common with the same appellation used by the culturalisti that he, like so many other modernists of his generation, fought so consistently and vigorously against in the interwar years. Still, in defending the inclusive and dynamic nature that he attributed to his 'tradition', Rogers performed a similar kind of awkward dance in the 1950s that his Italian rationalists comrades had attempted in the 1920s and 1930s. I recall the desperate attempt of the authors of Gruppo 7 in the 1920s to insert their brand of modernism in an abstracted national genealogy that stretched back to the classical tradition; or even the embrace of the 'Mediterranean' designation by Giuseppe Terragni, Luigi Piccinato, and by the authors of the 1933 Programma di Architettura published in the first issue of Quadrante.

The attempt to plot razionalismo onto a national, in fact even anti-international horizon proved fatally self-defeating in the 1930s. In their pursuit of cultural hegemony within Fascist Italy, rationalists lost emphatically to the far more legible visual language of the 'new tradition' codified and promoted by Marcello Piacentini. Inevitably, the rationalists' claim to represent pure 'tradition' was barely credible in the eyes of the self-appointed curators of italianità. Meanwhile, even Edoardo Persico rejected the discursive acrobatics of 'mediterraneità' as hollow talk without programmatic substance that could amount to a genuinely Italian path to modernism. But Rogers chose to confront history neither as a fetish nor as an oppressive shadow, neither as an absolute faith nor as a profound rupture. His 'tradition' and quest for 'continuity' transcended the bruising polarities of the 1930s, recruited in the pursuit of constant innovation, albeit 'rooted', in the spiritual and ethical sense of the word, in a wide range of cultural inheritances and fascinating ambiental specificities.

Maybe 'tradition' is not the right word; one does not need to be a Futurist to feel distinctly uncomfortable with a notion of tradition that is anchored on past time and imposes formal prerequisites into the future. Maybe 'continuity' is misleading as well without its spiritual qualification and its embrace of constant innovation and open-endedness. But Rogers wishes to address the widest possible audience and strategically transcend the earlier tradition-modernism cultural fault line. No matter. His premise is more akin to a radical continuity, in which an abstracted 'tradition' becomes ingredient of a new creative matrix that constantly inspires a deeper creative impegno for the postwar modernist architect. After the bitter polemiche of the 1930s and the danger of their reproduction in the 1950s, he gave expression to the desire for a more measured and calm critical reflection on the range of possibilities for a new wave of modernist architecture.

 

I am in the ‘Sabbatini zone’ again. Yesterday the focus shifted to the area around Piazza Bologna, with the highlight being of course the exquisite S. Ippolito II/ ‘Casa del Sole’. As the daylight was fast ebbing away, the pursuit of a few more Sabbatini buildings in the area delivered meagre or at best highly dubious results. 

The problem is the map. Sabbatini entered his most productive phase of his entire professional life in 1925-30, planting his realised fantasies in the most improbable locations of Rome – Testaccio, Piazza d’Armi, Garbatella, Trionfale, Trastevere. But the city compass is exasperating. I honestly love diagrams. Their ability to condense the essence of time and three-dimensional space into a map is a triumph of meaningful abstraction. But navigating the cityscape with approximate tools is utterly frustrating. Is this really the best we can do?

Well, no. Here comes the inevitable hubris of the well-intentioned yet naive disciple. Is it possible to map accurately the locations of Sabbatini’s surviving ICP legacy? Having done so, is it possible to turn the map into an interactive resource? Finally, can it be done in a week (self-imposed deadline)?

Sabbatini invaded my life in the most unlikely circumstances since my arrival in Rome. Whether this turns out to be a temporary affair, anchored firmly on my time at the British School at Rome, or evolves into a meaningful research project, one way or another, is an open question. For the moment, I enjoy the immense and rare gratification of thinking about, researching, and experiencing in person the object of enquiry. 

Updates to follow, of course. 

 

As it turned out, it was probably the most eventful talk I have ever given. But Flowboard at least worked like a breeze. Although exhausted after a punitive day (also featuring me speaking in Italian for an hour, ad lib), I enjoyed it. My last talk at the British School at Rome, methinks, definitely memorable!

View on Flowboard – Presentation Software for iPad and Mac

Even in Rome warm and gloriously sunny Sundays in November come with parsimony. I decided to spend the afternoon playing ‘spot the potential Sabbatini’ in his home turf of the Trionfale quarter. I snapped and snapped and snapped.

No Trionfale V of course. No Casa Economica with the crazy abstracted pediment. It is an illusion after all. Gone. The stuff of legends. The ridiculous first-world obsession of an academic spending three months in Rome while on paid sabbatical.

And yet… Even the hardest of urban explorers needs a break. As I was sipping the millionth delicious cappuccino at a nearby caffe and was browsing through the photos I had taken so carelessly during the day, I saw this:
Trionfale: a suspicious little building

A crazy moment of intuition? Simple despair for a month-long search that had delivered nothing? Grabs the iPad, you fool. Fly over the 3D map. Just check. Maybe. Just maybe.

And I flew over.
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And I zoomed in expectantly.
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And I rotated a bit.
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And for a mere moment, or ten, I felt like an excited child who discovered that their favourite toy that they thought had been lost forever was simply hiding, timidly, conspiratorially, among the other, less loved ones. Trionfale V. And yet, it exists, in the most perfect state, currently under restoration, to be revealed in the coming days. I shall be there.

 

The grand opening of the Via del Mare, the Via dell’Impero (both 1932), and the Via dei Trionfi (1934) created a triumphal tetragon at the heart of the ancient city. Piazza Venezia, the Colosseo, the Circo Massimo, and the Piazza Bocca della Verità became nodes, each with a very special function, that connected the spaces and monuments along the way and consecrated the powerful ideological myth of Fascism’s privileged relation with

There was a problem, however, that both urban planners and regime officials at the time recognised: however powerful the imagery and the vistas, the opened spaces lacked a ‘Fascist’ legibility. This is why in 1933-34 the Fascist regime decided to use the plot opposite the Basilica of Maxentius for its own sacred space, the Palazzo del Littorio – national party headquarters, Mussolini’s office, museum of the Fascist Revolution, Sanctuary of the Fascist ‘martyrs’.

The plan was abandoned in 1936, in spite of the most exciting competition with over a hundred submissions. It would be impossible, it seemed at that point, to build such an important modern building among so many fateful cadavers of the glorious past. The Palazzo del Littorio began its anti-climactic exile further and further away from the historic centre.

Still, the desire to anchor the Fascist era on the space of the ancient city never ceased to produce new ideas. As the focus of the Fascist regime’s transformative energy moved towards the Circo Massimo (excavations started in 1934), the plot of land between its easternmost tip and the Baths of Caracalla seemed equally privileged and far less problematic.

In 1935 a competition was announced for a new auditorium. Since the beginning of the century Rome had the most bizarre music hall, built atop the ruins of the Mausoleum of Augustus. However, the approaching celebrations of the Bimillenario Augusteo (in 1937-38, marking 2000 years from the birth of the emperor that transformed Rome and the Roman Empire) meant that the Mausoleum woulld be restored at the heart of a new piazza. The old auditorium was to be demolished, along withH hundreds of houses surrounding the mausoleum.

The area opposite the tip of the Circo Massimo, across the Torre di Frangipane, was chosen as the location for the new building. The competition, overshadowed by that of the Palazzo del Littorio (both the first in 1934 and the second-degree in 1936) and the invasion of Ethiopia, produced a series of prizes but no winning project; shortly afterwards the whole idea was abandoned.

The zone of Circo Massimo

It is true that, after the competition frenzy of the of the early 1930s, the format of the official competition started to run out of creative juice. In hindsight, the 1935 concorso for the auditorium marked the beginning of a downward spiral that was littered either by abandoned ideas or competition fields increasingly short of inspiration and high on sycophantic uniformity. But the 1935 competition for the auditorium attracted a distinguished field of architects and above all produced a rich register of extraordinary designs. Along the established names of Libera and De Renzi (riding the wave of success after the facade of the 1932 Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution and their post office on Via Marmorata), there were designs by teams that would play a more prominent role in the architectural history of the 1930s in Italy – Nervi, Vietti, the Farielo-Muratori-Quaroni and the Cancelotti-Scalpelli teams.

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The abandoned plot of land initially destined for the auditorium did not remain empty for long, however. In 1937 it received the most symbolic trophy of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, the obelisk of Axum. A few years later, a new competition, this time for the ministry of East Africa, produced a collaborative winning project by Cafiero and Ridoldi that would be completed after the Second World War. By that time, the destructive illusion of an Italian East Africa had perished, along with the Fascist regime. The building was given to the UN and became the headquarters of the Food Agency. But the stolen obelisk remained there until 2005, when it was finally returned, after decades of lengthy negotiations, to its original location in Ethiopia.

There is a first time for everything. I remember arriving in Rome, through an at the time wholly undesired accident caused by randomly splitting overnight trains at some junction along the Adriatic. I was on my way to Paris and then to Dublin, in one of those crazy InterRail university escapades, only to find myself deposited at Roma Tiburtina. A day later, sitting on the steps in front of the Pantheon and feasting on Italian gelato, there was one of those rare cosmic ‘click’ sensations, followed by a jolt, and then that feeling that everything is falling with the most comforting precision in its predetermined place.

I do not remember my first trip to EUR, the model exhibition city built for the 1942 world fair that never took place. I know I visited it in 1996, for some reason that must have made perfect sense back then but looks entirely inexplicably to me now. No matter. A photo of the Palazzo dei Congressi has been lying in one of the drawers of my adolescent desk in Athens since then. Every now and then I open the drawer and am reminded of its existence. No personal memory associated with it – just the fading evidence that I had been there.

Today, after many, many visits to EUR, I finally went inside, into the crazy atrium and the empty long corridors that run along the sides of the building and up the staircase onto the terrace. The most memorable first time – against a brooding sky, the rain that had been falling almost incessantly for the past twenty-four hours glowing against the enormous marble surfaces, the folly of EUR witnessed from the vantage point of a Futurist stracielo. And that ‘click’ and that momentary jolt and that sense of finally settling an account long overdue.