Wasteland: Reimagining the architecture or the settlement after (private) property

You said, “We should look out further”, I guess it wouldn’t hurt us
We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops

—Courtney Barnett, Depreston, 2014.


In the English medieval village the waste was the land beyond the cultivated fields and the common pastures, often covered by forest, which was open to foraging, hunting, and gathering. The wave of enclosures since the 15th century that allowed privatization of land began with the appropriation of the waste by individual landowners. Since then, the waste has been rendered as the ‘wasteland’—the image of abandonment, lack of productivity, uselessness—and as such it has become the main target for ‘improvement.’ In the history of land use, the term ‘improvement’ has become one of the most powerful devices aimed at submitting land to private ownership. From the vantage point of the landowner, improvement meant to make land productive not just for subsistence, but for the creation of surplus production. Land improvement thus became the beginning of both modern urbanization and capitalism since it destroyed forms of subsistence and commoning of land resources in order to force a regime of private ownership—the basis of our modern civilization.

The wasteland as land waiting for improvement is thus the embodiment of the privatization of land; as such, it represents the very ground zero of our own modern idea of land use in which everything has to be made productive for the sake of profit. It is possible to argue that such an idea of wasteland as land awaiting improvement in order to become profitable is at the core of both modern agriculture and urban design. Whether it is city or countryside, land has to be improved so that development can take place, surplus can be extracted and profit can be expected. If today visions of land and urban regeneration promise a future of growth and development, their real objective is the extraction of profit and thus the enclosing and the privatization of resources. This year, the Advanced Studio seeks to find alternatives to the current regime of public/private land property that are based on practices of commoning. Rather than idealize commoning as a ‘happy-together’ situation, we’ll understand it as a relational practice rooted in conflict, in which use is never regulated by the universalizing force of ‘law’ but instead dependent on customs and agreements. A fundamental aspect of commoning is that it aims at the subsistence of a community, rather than profit. Of course, within the present urban condition, subsistence in the form of complete community self-sufficiency may be impossible in the near future. What we mean by community subsistence is that even if there are profit-driven activities, revenues are redistributed among the commoners. As Massimo De Angelis as remarked, ‘commoning’ should be understood in the same terms of capitalism: as a system of relationships. Yet while capitalism is a system geared towards exploitation and profit, commoning aims to the care of the community for the sake of its well-being. In both cases what matters is their relational nature, the fact that both are webs of actions mediated by conflicts, ideologies, and aspirations.

For centuries architecture, urban design, and planning have been mobilized in order to remove any form of commoning and enforce a fixed regime of land ownership as the ultimate form of both city and rural land. From land subdivision, to settlement, to the distribution of infrastructure, to the architecture of the house, everything has been driven by the impetus of privatization in which every dweller has to become an ‘owner.’ It is possible to argue that both urbanization and domestic space are nothing else than the realization of space as the diagram of ‘lawful’ property. Today we are witnessing the nemesis of this historical process that started centuries ago. All the ‘crises’ that are haunting us at the moment—nationalism, racism, destruction of resources, finacialization of life—are the product of the imposition of lawful property. Property is not appropriation sic et simpliciter. Property is defined by a legal apparatus enforced by the state that gives people the right to use or benefit from something they own. If someone has the right to own something, it means that the use of that thing by others is not possible without the owner’s consent. As Nicholas Blomley puts it, “Property’s ‘bundle’ of rights includes the power to exclude others, to use, and to transfer. Such rights are enforceable, whether by custom or the law.” Even if today property takes a myriad of forms, both material and immaterial, we maintain that the most important form of property is still land. The research of the Studio will depart from a rigorous understanding of the political economy of both property and commoning to then seek to apply the tenets of common law into concrete case studies. The object of both research and project will be the settlement form, a figure that brings together the three main items of urbanization: land, housing, and infrastructure. Each project will focus on an existing settlement and imagine its gradual transformation from a subdivision of individual properties to a common space where sharing and solidarity rule the ethos of the community. Our goal is to imagine scenarios in which a gradual process of commoning can take place by addressing quotidian actions, habits, and rituals. Ultimately, this is a studio about architecture in which architectural form is understood both as index and potential enabler of social relationships.


Building on the work of last year’s Studio, we will continue to focus on the Roman Agro, the region that surrounds the city of Rome. The form of the Agro is defined towards the west by the Tyrrhenian coastline, and towards the east by an arch of volcanic mountains that embrace the flat area of the Agro creating a landscape theatre of sorts. Despite its clearly discernible topographic form, which has defined the landscape of Rome for millennia, the Agro is a vast suburban area where growth over the last century has been propelled mostly by appropriation and building speculation. This tendency continues, and its impact on the territory has been devastating. In spite of its strong rural character, the Agro has become a landscape of houses served by ill-planned infrastructure, devoid of any form of civic or common space. In ancient Rome, the Agro was called ager romanus (from which the word Agro is derived): the agricultural territory that surrounded Rome and supplied the city with its aliments. Since its formation as a large and powerful center of power, the city of Rome has always been characterized by a mainly service-based economy; therefore, its functioning was heavily dependent on its surrounding ‘country-side.’ The Agro was thus the first instance of the Roman Empire’s strategy of colonization—a strategy that saw the center dominate its periphery by systematically exploiting the latter’s resources. As such the colonization of the Agro can be considered one of the first laboratories of a process that would become the fundamental impetus of modern capitalistic civilization: urbanization as colonization. With the fall of the Empire in the 5th century, the Agro suffered a major economic crisis, and for centuries it existed as a no-man’s-land occasionally punctuated by small villages and fortified towns from which feudal lords would control their immediate surroundings. It was only between the 16th and 18th centuries that a new wave of colonization of the Agro was advanced by landowners with the building of their suburban villas, such as Villa D’Este in Tivoli, or Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati. The ideological function of these villas was twofold: to celebrate the landowners’ control of the land and to elevate the rustic landscape of the countryside to the rank of a civilized territory. Yet despite the efforts to colonize and embellish the Agro, this territory remained largely in a state of decay until the early 20th century; the Roman poet, Gioacchino Belli called the Agro ‘er deserto’ (the desert).

The life of the Agro radically changed after Rome became the capital of Italy in the late 19th century. The new Italian government encouraged landowners to initiate vast projects of land reclamation. Yet the major and more effective colonization of the Agro was achieved neither through agriculture nor through industry, but by means of an intensive process of building speculation. To avoid a concentration of the working class in the new capital city, the Italian government consciously decided not to make Rome an industrial center. In the economic vacuum left by the lack of both rural and industrial production, the building industry became one of the major economic activities in Rome, and its impact on the city—and especially on the Agro—has been decisive. With few exceptions, the history of urban planning in Rome in the 20th century can be summarized as a process of facilitation for landowners to profit from their territorial assets by transforming the land use of vast areas of the Agro from rural to residential and tertiary. The urbanization of the Agro was a triangulation made of few powerful landowners, a multitude of developers, and a class of condescending politicians; these three actors accomplished what journalist and activist Antonio Cederna called the ‘Sack of Rome’ for the sake of profit. The Agro today is the Roman ‘hinterland,’ the region where the majority of the city’s inhabitants live. Poorly served by public transportation and marked by a chronic lack of public space—meaning, collective spaces that are more than a default space-in-between-buildings—this part of the city is again in a state of abandonment, left by the city administrators to its own agonizing fate. To put it bluntly: the Roman Agro is not a good place for living.


One of the most problematic types of settlements in the Roman Agro is the toponimo, a subdivision made of single-family houses and ‘palazzinas’ often built illegally. The ‘original sin’ of the toponimi is that they were built on land on which the regional masterplan did not allow building; landowners sold and bought plots in these areas with the certainty that sooner or later the state would legalize these settlements—most of which support a middle class and lower middle class of homeowners. And indeed the state has systematically legalized a posteriori these ‘illegal settlements’ (thus encouraging their proliferation) but never built any substantial form of infrastructure. Private properties in the toponimi are well-kept but beyond them there is hardly any form of public or shared space. The layout of these settlements is not guided by any plan if not the brutal logic of allotment which often has to negotiate its form with a very complex topography made of steep ridges and valleys. Their form is reminiscent of islands whose perimeter is often clearly defined against the open landscape.

The most urgent problem of these settlements is the lack of basic infrastructures such as public transport and services like schools and other civic amenities. Yet their most crucial issues is how these settlements and the communities that inhabit them are entrenched in their logic of private property, completely severed from any possibility of sharing. This logic has produced a poisoned subjectivity driven by fear, resentment, and individualism. Yet an unclear future is looming large on the horizon of these settlements; this condition demands a radical reconsideration of what can happen to these settlements both in the near and distant future when new generations and different kinds of communities will live in these places. Perhaps it is confronting this type of urban form that we should ask ourselves which way of living together can take place. As Brenna Bhandar argues, there is an urgent need to grasp other ways of relating to land, those ways that have been obscured and repressed through the imposition of land property.

After carefully analyzing the Agro and studying the political economy of property and commoning, each student or group of students will work on a specific toponimo and propose a strategy of gradual transformation based on the sharing of spaces and resources. This gradual transformation is meant to instigate change at different scales from the settlement form to the domestic realm. A crucial principle of this project is that no large private capital should be involved in this transformation. Our project aims not toward ‘improvement’ per se, but to allow future inhabitants to live these settlements in a way that is radically different from how they are lived in today. This means that we should avoid the usual ‘tropes’ of urban renewal that have become the purpose of much urban design produced today.

The transformation of toponimi from subdivisions to commoning communities will entail new buildings but also adaptations, demolitions, additions, and subtractions from small to large scale—from the scale of the settlement to the architecture of the house or the allotment. In short, each project will offer a possible reinvention of the settlement form from the present regime of land use to a situation in which land will be used in common and ownership will be limited to the minimum indispensable. A crucial issue that the studio will confront is the agency of urban and architectural form in enabling processes of commoning. As we have said earlier, like capital the common is not a ‘thing’ but a system of relationships. Yet in order to function these relationships are often enabled if not solicited by the physical spaces in which they take place. The question posed by the studio is what kind of urban figure can embody the possibility of commoning not as an episodic gesture, but as a stable form of settling. In other words, what spatial principle of settling can challenge the urban subdivision of private and public space and of land tenure in which confrontation and negotiation among communities are not subsumed within a totalizing urban framework, but acknowledged as principle of coexistence. The urban figure we’ll assume as a starting point is the ‘island,’ a clearly bounded space which is simultaneously defined and open to its surrounding territory. The island can be a place where alternate rules, protocols, and rituals of living together can be tested and constantly adjusted without resorting to some universal law. In this way the figure of the island is a call to think of an urban form with values no longer tied to economic optimization but to political decision. Crucial to the concept of the island is the idea of boundary not as an enclosure but as a threshold that allows communities to physicalize forms of land tenure and rules of access. The studio will travel to Rome and will engage with extensive field-work on site studying the city and countryside, looking at the most salient historical episodes by extensively walking and driving through the Roman landscape. We will also meet people and colleagues—architects, planners, activists—who are and have been working on the same territory and will share with them insights and observations.


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Ruivenkamp, Guido, and Andy Hilton (editors). Perspectives on Commoning: Autonomist Principles and Practices. London: ZED Books, 2017.

Rodger, Christopher, and Eleanor Straughton, Angus Winchester, Margherita Pieraccini. Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present. New York: Earthscan – Routledge, 2011.

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