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 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. 

 

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.

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 …

Anyone who has travelled by train in Italy has probably encountered one of Angiolo Mazzoni’s railways station buildings. Even Termini in Rome, more famous for that extraordinary curved lobby at the front (completed in time for the 1950 Jubilee by a design team featuring Leo Calini, Eugenio Montuori, Massimo Castellazzi, Vasco Fadigati, Achille Pintonello, and Annibale Vitellozzi, with Pier Luigi Nervi acting as the technical architect), was originally designed by Mazzoni. His original plan for the station (in a city exhilarated by the prospect of holding the 1942 world fair that never was) underwent numerous modifications in the late 1930s before getting the final approval. By the time that the war put an end to all works, Mazzoni had overseen the construction of the two long side colonnades, along Via Giolitti and Via Marsala.

The register of Mazzoni’s work for the Ministry of Transport is extraordinary in both scale and inspiration. From Palermo to Venice, Mazzoni became identified with some of the most consistently imaginative modernist architecture of the Fascist era. His designs for the Trento and the Ostia stations in particular reference eloquently the work of an architect that kept experimenting with pure forms in the most fluent and elegant structural compositions. As an architect with strong early attachment to Futurism, Mazzoni understood the creative power of movement and speed, capable of celebrating with combinations of glass, steel, and stone the cult of technological progress and the revolutionary potential of the fast rhythms of modern life.

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Along with his celebrated designs for railway stations, Mazzoni also authored a number of post office buildings, like the one in the ‘new city’ of Sabaudia. In fact, his involvement in the ‘new city’ projects of the Agro Pontino was significant, especially in Latina (formerly Aprilia), where he completed the duo of railway station and post office.

But it was the construction of the new main railway station for Rome that was meant to be his centrepiece – the crowning achievement of a life dedicated to a celebration of modernity through architecture innovation. It was not meant to be. A vocal supporter of the Fascist regime, Mazzoni could not rebuild his reputation and career in postwar Italy, unlike so many other architects who had flourished under both Fascism and the First Republic (Libera, Piacentini, Moretti etc). He spent the last two decades of his life in self-exile in Colombia, awaiting in vain some form of rehabilitation. He died in 1963, long before his work was reassessed and re-appreciated, if always with some degree of unease for his Fascist past. Termini of course still bears his creative signature, even if his name has been overshadowed by the teams that extended and completed the station, with a very different design, in 1950.

I have been working my way through the E42 at the Archive Centrale dello Stato in Rome. One of the many joys of this collection is that it is very well documented and punctuated by numerous drawings, original plans, and photos of models. I have stopped feeling guilty for lacking close focus, a guilt that took away some of the pleasure of shamelessly digressing during my first weeks here. Now I simply amass, camera in hand, €3 apiece, happily ploughing my way through bulky folders, getting excited when encountering an oversized plan that needs careful unfolding and fills up the entire table for four.

The original model for the E42 quarter is a gloriously unreal sight. One can debate the merits or demerits of the architectural style chosen for the quarter. But when I see the aerial photo of the zone in 1953, a haunting monumental waste land, the graveyard of an obsessive illusion, the most spectacular nonfinito of Fascist hubris, I recall the mental image of the model presented to the organisers of the world fair in 1939. By that time, Marcello Piacentini alone was running the show; all his initial collaborating architects had abandoned the ship – Giuseppe Pagano the most embittered of the lot. Still, there is something strikingly attractive and fascinating in glancing over the scaled simulation of such a gigantic project.

I often wonder how even this model would have looked had other designs been selected from the entries to the various competitions for specific buildings – in particular, that for the Palazzo dei Congreessi e Ricevimenti that attracted the highest quality of entries. But this is a matter for another post. Today I found out that the committee in charge of planning matters for the E42 and the associated quarter kept meeting until 13 June 1943. Yes, June 1943 – a year after the fair was meant to have taken place. The agenda for this meeting contained one single item – “Examination of the situation of work in progress”… No record yet of the minutes yet. I am curious to read whatever they were debating in June 1943, beyond perhaps a frustrating post-mortem.

Terragni, Como e i RagazziI have envied this cat since the moment I read about it in Alessandra Coppa’s Giuseppe Terragni: Minimum Architecture. Giuseppe Terragni’s cat bore the most extraordinary name ever given to a cat – Demiurgo -, a creature that has assumed Platonic proportions in my mind, apparently spending hours curled in the architect’s studio, as he worked through day and very often night looking at plans and drawings stretched over a large table, cigarette ‘dangling from his mouth’.

Demiurgo was given narrative voice in a 2006 book whose goal is to acquaint young readers with some of Terragni’s most important architectural works that have changed not only Como but also the flow of Italian and international modernist architecture. I have not read it but, given that the Archivio Terragni continues to leave my calls unanswered, I might as well do so, as it will probably give me a level of intimacy and closeness with his work that I am unlikely to emulate as a researcher.