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.

An already extraordinary trip to the secret life of the Fori Imperiali in the heart of Rome took a fascinatingly bizarre turn when we started descending the steep staircase to the basement  of the medieval Torre dei Conti, at the corner of Via Cavour and Via dei Fori Imperiali.

The 13th-century medieval tower had its fair share of an eventful life. For centuries occupying a vintage position overlooking the decaying area of the ancient forum, by the nineteenth century it had been engulfed by the dense urban tissue of the Quartieire Alessandrino, covering almost the entirety of the ancient Fori Imperiali. After Rome became the capital of the Italian Kingdom, a new avenue was carved from the railway station to the Forum, named after the Piedmontese prime minister of unification Camillo Cavour. Via Cavour expired awkwardly close to the tower and for decades urban planners debated how to connect it to the area of the Forum. Meanwhile, the first wave of serious excavations in the area, under the aegis of the archaeologist Corrado Ricci, also brought to the table the issue of connecting Piazza Venezia with the Colosseo, implicating the question of the connection with Via Cavour.

But it was under the Fascist regime that the area was transformed beyond recognition. Extensive excavations in the area of the Forum obliterated the residential quarters that had grown around and above its remains, literally paving the way for the opening of the Via dell’Impero in October 1932. Finally, Via Cavour acquired a meaningful conclusion at its junction with the avenue. Meanwhile, in 1933 a large triangular plot of land on both sides of Via Cavour – incorporating the Torre dei Conti at its westernmost tip – was earmarked for the most ambitious new project of the Fascist era in Rome – the construction of the Palazzo del Littorio. An architectural competition took place in 1934, followed by the clearing of many remaining structures in anticipation of the execution of the winning project.

Inexplicably, while the competition produced a shortlist and a second round, the location the Via dell’Impero was abandoned in favour of a new one in the Aventine quarter. The tower now stood at the tip of an incongruously empty plane. Apparently in 1934 Mussolini had formally handed it over to the Arditi, a nationalist para-military organisation that had its origins in the effervescent days of D’Annunzio’s chaotic adventure in Fiume but by the 1930s had been ‘normalised’ and integrated into the formal Fascist apparatus.

I know very little about the Arditi. Until yesterday I also knew nothing about a certain Alessandro Parisi, head of the organisation until his death in a car accident in 1938. But descending into the basement room of the tower was like entering a prohibited, eerie inner sanctum. Parisi’s body is apparently there, inside a Roman sarcophagus. An austere wooden cross covers most of one of the walls. The floor is covered with mosaics that were inspired by motifs and symbols of the Knights of St John. The room itself, dimly lit by through small openings just below the vaulted ceiling, must have incorporated remains of the old Fori Imperiali. Airless, full of unexpected shadows, dotted with the most intricate spider web formations. And somewhere there, maybe, hidden well inside the sarcophagus, the decaying body of Alessandro Parisi.

We made up all sorts of stories about the basement – about Parisi and his Arditi and their secret meetings in front of the cross and the rituals of a para-military organisation and the distorted echoes that could have filled up the room in its bizarre heyday. But Signor Parisi must have kept his secrets safe enough. I found his obituary in the Arditi newspaper – four full pages of praise for his personality and military virtue. And a photo – the only photo I could find on the internet. There is a file for him in the State Archives that I may ask to see one of these days; but I am sure that nothing in it will dispel that strange intuition that there was much, much more of Alessandro Parisi and his Arditi comrades invested in that basement hall than any document, however unguarded, could possibly betray or confirm.