Firstly I want to say that there are a lot of architects in Italy. Official figures suggest there are close to 100,000 of them here. Basically, that's a figure that accounts for 25% of all architects in Europe, conveying just how competitive and widespread the profession is in this country.
As for those in Rome, I feel like every second person I meet is either an architect, or someone in the process of completing their architectural degree.
That said, being an architect in Italy can be a bit of a dog's life, so I don't envy them at all. Endless tales of customers (both private and government) who don't pay (until years after the fact if ever), having to deal with organised crime and corruption in a bid to secure lucrative tenders, and a society that often balks at new, challenging or experimental architecture makes it an environment where one often has to look further afield for job satisfaction and paying clientele (think elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East, and increasingly, China).
So much of what is written about Italian architecture focuses on the romantic, classical architecture that dominate its cities, particularly those traditional Grand Tour cities like Florence, Rome and Venice. But occasionally, domestic architecture in this country has allowed architects to indulge their sense of daring, imagination and utopian ideaology (including the Coppedè quarter of Rome).
A population boom in the post war period Rome (1950s-1960s) saw the city grow haphazardly, with a range of unplanned suburbs sprawling out, particularly to the city's east and west; 'suburbs' or makeshift urban environments whose lack of planning added great strain to the city's infrastructure and overcrowding issues. Millenia old Rome was simply not prepared for so many people. and the problems that surfaced as Rome's population boomed, continue today.
Interestingly, one of the approaches to the overcrowding that was already taking place in the 1960s was to build an epic, 'self contained' community, capable of housing some 8,000 inhabitants on the city's outskirts. The Corviale was built with the aspiration that the complex would be something of a utopian ideal, where residents could live in a community which had all of its services at the ready. The interesting part of this approach was not so much the idea of relocating 8,000 people to an unserviced peripheral area, as this was happening throughout the western world at the time, but more importantly, into one building which ran almost one kilometre in length. Yes. The Corviale runs almost a full kilometre in length. That would be something like the equivalent of a 250 storey building if it was standing upright.
B-type cities around the world commonly compete for the temporary honor of hosting the World's Tallest Buildings, but few I imagine would be keen to challenge on length. What's mistifying is how the architects and planners (chiefly Mario Fiorentino) could have thought such a project would contribute anything positive other than a roof and some walls to the lives of its inhabitants. The truth probably lies more in the idea that this was a social experiment, rather than a true desire to meet the needs of such a huge chunck of residents.
Public housing projects, especially those that are built on strata prototypes have traditionally been socially challenging places, the obvious consequence of stacking so many people on top of each other. Europe is home to a handful of these elongated buildings; in Vienna, the 1920-1930s built Karl Marx-Hof stretches a full kilometre, but rarely rises above 6 floors in height, but more commonly other buildings adopt the brutalist approach into which the Corviale seemingly sits, including Faloweic in Gdansk and Park Hill in Sheffield in the UK. These conurbations are as infamous to locals as the Corviale.
The Corviale, a set of twin buildings that span almost a kilometre a piece, are eleven floors high, home to some 7,000 inhabitants, who, enclosed in this building, remain shut off from the surrounding areas of the city, on whose periphery they remain. Elements of the building are reportedly unfinished, despite having been built in the 1970s, but these are not the complex's only failings. The absurdity is that people are also squatting in the unfinished parts of the building.
On paper and in theory I can see how the idea, as flawed as it was, was a concession to the imagination and daring of architecture. However, as cities around the world revisit their ideas of social housing, moving away from the failed brutalism concept towards a more resident friendly model, it surprises me that in 2011, not enough is being done to remedy past failures.
As you pass by the building, there is a sense of amazement that overcomes you, in a kind of creepy and foreboding kind of way. Imagine living in that kind of battery hen environment. Suburbs are often made up of long stretches of individual buldings, blocks, houses that are attached or semi attached, but generally they have their own entries, their own boundaries, something which the monolithic Corviale doesn't have. Instead, The Corviale, is relentlessly repetitive, color coded in part, but for the most part, its a seemingly endless labyrinth.
Transitioning of the Corviale's residents into more suitable living quarters should be a key priority for the city of Rome, as should the preservation of the building, both for aesthetic and cautionary reasons. The preservation and re-use of the building shouldn't be too challenging... But the movement of at least 6000 people into something more appropriate will be a huge undertaking in a city like this. Rome is a city where rentals, even in the city's peripheral areas are often prohibitive, forcing people not only to share apartments, but commonly to share bedrooms in a system of posto-letto, in which, you pay a few hundred euro each month for a bed in a a room with at least one other room mate.
With a number of proposals already floating around for the transition, and 100,000 professionals at the ready to take on a meaty project, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Corviale and its residents.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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