I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
I couldn’t live like that, no siree!
I couldn’t do the things the way those people do.
I couldn’t live there if you paid me to.
—Talking Heads, Big Country, 1978
This advanced studio is part of a study on the relationship between territory and its processes of colonization, appropriation, and distribution. The main focus of this research is how these processes have influenced the way in which territories manifest themselves as physical constructs, as artifacts.
The word territory comes from the Latin territorium, which means land around a town, but its declension refers also to concepts such as domain or district (Cicero defined territorium as the zone of influence of a community). The word gave origin to tèrritor which address who possess the land, but also terrere, which means to frighten, to terrorize. As David Delany has argued, a territory can be understood as a bounded meaningful social place, the ‘meaning’ of which implicates the operation of social relational power. Yet this social relational power is often hidden by the way we accept as ‘given’ things such as topography, ownership of land, distribution of infrastructure, and the partitioning of land in public and private space. In order to demystify a territory, one has to closely read its form, taking the latter as a Rosetta Stone that can reveal how the land has been appropriated, constructed and unequally distributed. This is why a territorial project is not just about design, but also the act of carefully reading the anatomy of a territory in order to uncover its existing power relationships and project an alternative scenario.
This year the advanced studio focuses on a controversial territory par excellence: 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 in the manner of a theatre. 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 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 space. Facing this situation, the question we ask is: what kind of civic space is possible within a territory that has been shaped by colonization, exploitation, and mere economic interests for centuries? The studio will focus on the South-East sector of the Agro, which is the most problematic area of this territory, but also that which holds the most potential for transformation due to its powerful landscape features.
The Roman Agro
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 city, Rome had 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 in which a center dominates its periphery by systematically exploiting the latter’s resource. Through the 7th century BCE, the Agro was an archipelago of no less than thirty towns and a myriad of hamlets with different ethnic communities. The rise of Rome subsumed this archipelago within a centralizing urban system. This process did not happen peacefully: it was the result of violent appropriation, which led Rome to evolve in a permanent state of war. This permanent war was not just a war of conquest but also a civil war, or better, a class war that an increasingly powerful elite waged against an increasingly impoverished urban and rural proletariat. As Strabo noted in Geography, in his time (the book was completed in 7 BCE) many important towns and centers located in the Agro that pre-dated Rome no longer existed. This was due to the fact that with the rise of the Empire cultivation of the land was increasingly centralized and directed by powerful landowners who made use of the most prized loot of Roman conquests: slaves. The gentrification of the Agro forced the native population to abandon this territory, and by the 1st century AD the entire Agro was a mosaic of large estates controlled by luxurious villas, the retreat of the wealthy who would do business in the city while enjoying otium (leisure) in the countryside. It is here that the myth of the ‘countryside’ was born as the pastoral idyll (affordable only to the rich), masking the intensive exploitation of rural resources for the sake of an overgrown metropolis. Though Rome was certainly not the first Empire, it was one of the first to develop itself in modern terms by systematically and extensively urbanizing rural land and subordinating it to the power of the center. 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 immediately surrounding land.
The Popes that strived to establish the Catholic Church as territorial state attempted to colonize the Agro by founding farms (the domus cultae) and encouraging monastic orders to settle in the most impervious places of this increasingly hostile and threatening landscape of abandonment. Yet it was only between the 16th and 18th century 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. Unlike the feudal town or the monastic compound, the villas were theatrical celebrations of countryside life: sequences of gardens and belvederes intensely interacted with the surrounding landscape, making the latter the absolute protagonist of the architectural intervention. Their ideological function 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 trough 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 colonization of the Agro was often made possible by establishing new settlements known as ‘Borgate,’ which in the early 1930’s became the new proletarian slums of the city. Far from being ‘spontaneous’ settlements as they have often been perceived, the Borgate were camp-like settlements meant to forcefully re-house those people evicted from the city-center urban renewals (the ‘sventramenti’). The Borgate of the Agro shows the other side of Fascist urbanism, less concerned with monumentality and celebration and more focused on displacing the urban proletarians to the outside of the city. From this moment onwards, the Agro becomes the ‘periferia,’ an endless proliferation of residential settlements devoid of any spatial order that does not serve building speculation. The urbanization of the Agro was even more accelerated in the second half of the 20th century when a triangulation made of few powerful landowners, a multitude of developers, and a class of condescending politicians accomplished what journalist and activist Antonio Cederna called the ‘Sack of Rome’ for the sake of profit. What this process has left on the ground is a wasteland of residential settlements occasionally punctuated by tertiary and retail districts (emphatically defined by the 2008 regulatory plan new centralities). The Agro today is the Roman ‘hinterland;’ the region where the majority of the city inhabitants live. Poorly served by public transportation and possessing a chronic lack of public space that is not just 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.
With few notable exceptions, the Agro has lacked a project that goes beyond mere speculation or some occasional preservation of archeological remains. The Agro remains rich in natural and historical heritage, including stunning episodes such as the Appia Park, a strip of the ‘original’ Roman countryside that runs from the city center to the outer limit of the Agro. In the history of the Roman Agro the making of the Appia Park stands out as the only moment of civic resistance against urban speculation, and its continuing existence is due to an active group of grassroots leaders that forced the Municipality of Rome not to let developers build along the Appian Way, or Via Appia Antica. However, although the Park today appears as a vast open space that gives a sense of structure and orientation to the surrounding settlements, most of its areas are inaccessible and remain private property.
The delusional way in which Rome has continually celebrated its own past is a major ideological obstacle in a coming-to-terms with the results of such a past. In spite of its reputation and glory, from its very origin Rome and its surrounding territory has always been a dysfunctional city, whose colonial modus operandi has taken numerous forms from violent conquest, to gentrification, to displacement and building speculation. The current political and urban impasses that afflict the Roman Agro cast a long shadow back in history and are the final nemesis of this ongoing process of colonization.
Towards a Project for the Agro
The goal of the studio is to conceive an urban strategy that, though not redefining the situation in total—a mission almost impossible—can at least plant seeds for a different scenario. The studio will depart from the rather assumption that what the Roman Agro lacks is a dignified form of public space. We are aware of how public space is a rather controversial entity, which throughout history has acted more as the vessel of private interests than as a true manifestation of a public sphere. Moreover, the history of public space in Rome is a prime example of how public and private interests have historically been deeply entangled more for the sake of the ‘private’ than for the ‘public’ good. Yet the question of a space of public appearance that is not immediately commodified remains an urgent and largely unanswered question.
Our urban imagination is saturated by the cynicism through which every bit of collective life is immediately sold and bought as commodity: any instance of ‘public’ is immediately viewed with suspicion. In recent years new social movements that have tried to contest the hegemony of late capitalism have addressed the ‘common’ against the legal framework that relies on the distinction of public vs. private. Unlike the ‘public,’ which is often produced and owned by the state, the common refers to that which is immanent in the cooperation of a multitude of producers. As such, as the product of collaboration and social exchange, the common is often appropriated ‘for free’ by capital. For this reason the common can truly exist as a self-valorizing reality only if those who participate in it can acquire a space that is able to gradually become autonomous from financial exploitation.
Therefore the studio will seek to imagine what sort of institutional arrangements and architectural forms can give tangible resolution to places that become more than just public amenities but offer a ‘space for action’ in which to reclaim the fullness of the vita activa, a condition that is radically denied to the inhabitants of the Roman Agro (and not only to them). The goal of these public spaces is to become specific points of orientation within the expanded field of the Roman Agro while offering possibilities of collective congregation and organization. The project for the Roman Agro will result in a constellation of places in which it should be possible to challenge traditional distinctions—such as city vs. countryside, public vs. private, residential vs. productive space—that still afflict our urban imagination. We will critically dig into the urban history of Rome and its territory to find useful archetypes that can be appropriated for goals that are different from those for which they were conceived. The goal of the studio is to form a tentative taxonomy of architectural ‘public forms’ that can inform a coherent project for such a difficult territory like the Roman Agro.
Organization of the Studio
The first part of the semester (leading up to the field trip) will be spent investigating specific archetypes of ‘public architecture’ that are relevant within the history of Rome and its territory. These archetypes include sanctuaries, basilicas, markets, orchards, villas, sacred spaces, and monasteries which can reveal the relationship between architecture and strategies of land appropriation. We will carefully re-consider how the architecture of these archetypes was motivated by rituals and practices that enable a complex and at times conflictual society to find forms of coexistence. The study of these precedents will provide us with a cross-section of the urban history of Rome and thus a conceptual background to the Roman Agro project. This research into historical precedents will be supported by a series of seminars on the history of Rome and the Roman Agro from antiquity to the present. This full immersion in history will not be just an exercise in ‘learning from’ but also a cautionary memento in order to avoid any nostalgic, ‘historicist,’ or picturesque outlook. Unlike the countless artists and architects (many of them from the USA) that have toured Rome and its ‘Campagna’ in search of inspiration, we’ll shed no tears for what—after all—has always been a colonial city. This part of the studio will be a preparation for the field trip, the itinerary of which will be bespoke to the findings gathered in our preliminary research.
During second part of the studio (after the field-trip), students or pairs of students will develop a project for which they will also design not only an architectural response, but also a specific functional and institutional brief. We consider the making of the brief and the selection of the appropriate site as a fundamental act of architecture. Given the issues raised in the first part of the studio, each student will take a position by proposing a specific site and a program that can respond to both the reality of the Roman Agro and current debates about public/common spaces. Program should address the idea of public space in non-obvious terms (not just building) by establishing a relationship between a specific urban form, new forms of cooperation, and collective life. A key issue in the design of these public spaces will be the issue of ritual. Today we think of ritual as something that pertains to the sphere of the sacred, or formalized civic life. Yet ancient cultures had a much wider understanding of ritual, which for many of them consisted in a conscious process of ‘ritualization of life,’ a commitment to shape every moment of one’s existence. The ambition of the studio is to coordinate the different sites within a coherent framework. Each student should be able to find her/his own way to the project. Even though this is a site-specific project, profoundly rooted in the history of a place, it is also an opportunity for the student to develop a personal agenda, which ultimately should be the goal of the last advanced studio.