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.

 

A few steps away from Libera’s and De Renzi’s signature post office on Via Marmorata, on the edge of the Testaccio working class district that was designed and largely built in the last years of the 19th century, Innocenzo Sabbatini collaborated with his namesake Costantini under the auspices of the ICP to produce a couple of ‘super blocs’. I did not know of this aspect of his late work (1930-31), nor that he had even built something in Testaccio. Sabbatini never fails to confound me. I stood under the building picture above, looking at it, thinking ‘could it be?’, searching frantically on the iPad to find any reference to his in relation to Testaccio. Unlike my ever-more-frustrating search for traces of his Trionfale V, the Internet search threw up a long list of encouraging finds, until I came across this article from ArchiDiap (http://www.archidiap.com/opera/case-icp-a-testaccio-2/) that confirmed the first impressions. Sabbatini left his traces gloriously on Testaccio, along the incongruous Via Marmorata that switches so spectacularly from the pyramid of Gaius Cestius to the austere Ostiense station, to the 1933 post office, then to vintage neo-classical palazzine, and finally to the distinct, fascinating layer of ICP eclectic mega-structures …

I came across this building by the ICP architect Innocenzo Sabbatini a few years ago (2011 to be precise), while going through a bulky file on Rome at the Rome State Archives. Back in those dates, researchers were able to photograph any document they wanted without any charge (alas, not any more), so I took a photo and simply filed it away. At the time I was working on finally finishing my never-ending (happy update: now ended and published) book of Fascist Rome, so Sabbatini was a rather peripheral and shadowy figure in the glistening world of the Piacentinis, Paganos, Terragnis, and the like. Sabbatini was a memorable stunt in my world. His building, though memorable, could not really complete with the Danteum, the Palazzo del Littorio or the Casa delle Armi.

Fast forward two years. On a blistering hot afternoon of June, I arrived in Rome to attend an extraordinary conference on architecture in Rome, organised by the Biblioteca Hertziana and the German Historical Institute in Rome. I had the unenviable task of speaking about Armando Brasini – an architect I never liked, even if his grandiose (and usually failed and forgotten) plans did detain me disproportionately in my own research. But Sabbatini was one of the stars of the show; his name was dropped in every other paper. I became aware of his significant register of construction dotting the periphery of Rome. Locations I had barely heard of before – and never visited to photograph – danced around the conference room. Sabbatic, it seemed, did matter. And yet, the books I was reading and the documents I had amassed made scant reference to him. No matter. I carried on estranged from him. I did, however, felt the need to expand the section of my book dealing with the ICP building project. I also spent an entire afternoon in Garbatella, walking by and photographing his ‘alberghi suburban’. One step closer. Not close enough.

It was during my 100 days in Rome, as a fellow of the British School of Rome, that Sabbatini chose to make a spectacular, forceful, and addictive entry. Through the eyes of others, I saw him differently – as a genius designer of popular housing, working in the late 1920s with breath-taking assiduousness to produce an extraordinary subset of buildings, each of which looked unlike any other he had designed previously or built afterwards, and yet each almost unmistakably his, beaming with the most irreverent ideas, reflecting his creative, expansive, inquisitive mind. Garbatella, San Lorenzo, Testaccio, Trionfale – these were the new locations that I had to train myself to recognise on the map of Rome.

All of this strange pursuit – an aside of my research here – has really come down to this building – the fated ‘casa economica’ constructed under the aegis of the ICP in Trionfale, on the north-west of the Vatican complex, in 1927. Trionfale V, it was called. A haunting image this, showing a completed building with a unique capacity for synthesis, capturing a moment of maturity for the so-called ‘Roman school’. The prolific Sabbatini concocted this building while working on a myriad other projects in Garbatella and elsewhere. His fruitful association with the ICP came to a rather unceremonious finale in 1929-31, essentially putting an end to his architectural legacy in Rome.

Trionfale V then … Google has a handful of photographs and plans of it. Books mention it as built in 1927 with no other information. Some authors are a little bit more helpful – it must be close to Circonvallazione Clodia, with this facade looking ‘towards’ Piazzale Clodio. No mention of demolition or damage. And yet, I can find no trace of it. Google Earth cameras and Apple Maps Flyover drones seem to have missed it too. Was it demolished? There is a suspiciously empty area around the Piazzale; but I have found no reference to its current status as ‘demolished’. Is it living a secret life camouflaged under subsequent accretions, to the point that it has become unrecognisable? Books are parsimonious when it comes to information about its precise location. Trionfale IV has got an address; ditto for other major buildings by Sabbatini. Not so Trionfale V – its topographical signature remains bewilderingly elliptical – “on Circonvallazione Clodia”. Twenty blocks or so. Not very helpful.

So, while I am chasing the ghosts of ‘mediterraneita’ during my residence in Rome and reading about the E42 competitions, I also have been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) obsessing about Innocenzo Sabbatini and his nefarious Trionfale V pretty much since my arrival here. It is now just over a month; I have visited and photographed about twelve of his buildings in Rome. But Trionfale V has eluded me. Maybe this is some kind of belated revenge for the three fleeting mentions that he gets in my book.