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Green Modernity

February 1, 2016


Villa Borghese and the Modern City

Of the many public parks in Rome none is better known than the Villa Borghese which comprises nearly 200 acres to the north of the Spanish Steps. Long the property of the wealthy and noble Borghese family,  the gardens were purchased by the Italian state after the unification of Italy and make public in 1903 and are today a destination for those seeking green space, but also culture. 


Works by Giuseppe Capogrossi at the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna

Many foreign visitors, unaware that the word “Villa” in Italian refers not to a building but to the entire estate, confuse the vast park with the “Casino Nobile” the summer “cottage” created by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the early 17th century to the designs of Flaminio Ponzio e di Giovanni Vasanzio. This elegant building now hosts the Borghese Gallery, one of the most impressive collections of sculpture and paintings in Italy and, indeed, the world.

But the Borghese Gallery is just the first of many cocktails of nature and art I love to sample and a visit to the Borghese this weekend brought me for the first time in years into one of the least known artistic treasure chests, the Gallery Nazionale di Arte Moderna (or GNAM, which in Italian sounds comically like the word for “yummy” and leads to endless puns about culture and sustenance).

The grand white neoclassical building which hosts Rome’s largest collection of modern art was completed as part of the celebration, in 1911, of the 50th anniversary of Italy’s unification. I once caught a memorable concert by Patti Smith on the steps outside, and visited frequently when I taught a course on the Art of Modernity a few years, back but I haven’t been through its gates since then.

Inside you can spend hours admiring works from the 19th and 20th centuries (for the 21st century, apart from temporary installations of living artists, head over to the nearby MAXXI by Zaha Hadid). Nowhere in Rome is the shift from elegant bourgeois world of the 19th century to the turmoil and liberation of the 20th so compellingly visible. From Canova to Capogrossi, with a good showing of international stars of the likes of Monet, Miro, Mondrian but also Pollock, Twombly, and Kounellis.

Outside the museum, after stopping for a coffee at the wonderful if slightly overpriced Caffe’ delle Arti, take a stroll around the eleven foreign academies with their eclectic architecture and frequent cultural events and installations which will be the topic of another blog post.


New work by Alfredo Pirri in the entry hall of GNAM

Readers of this blog will notice what a change of tone this post brings, induced by my desire to focus on what makes Rome a sustainable city and not just on what holds it back. There will still be plenty of space for comments (leave your own below or on Facebook!) and critique.

Roma 2025: Ideas for the New Metropolis

December 19, 2015

IMG_9082 IMG_9087

At MAXXI last night (18 December 2015) 25 projects were unveiled for 25 quadrants of greater Rome. Inspired by the 1978 Roma Interrotta project exhibit which saw 12 international architects address the planning of Rome’s historical center, this initiative, titled Rome 20-25: New Life Cycles for the Metropolis addressed the city at a much larger scale.

12 foreign universities, plus 12 Italian ones were invited to work on a 25 kilometers square, gridded into 10k x 10k squares.  Yes, that adds up to 24, the central square being left vacant, but late in the game Princeton University was brought on board and given this daunting task.

The research presented in the exhibits, like Rome itself, is heterogeneous and more than a little chaotic. During the inaugural talks one of the presenters (Princeton’s Stan Allen?) observed that the exhibit reflected the structure of the city, and crowded with participants from Rome and all over the world, navigating the narrow warren of passages between the tightly packed exhibition stands, was more like a throwback to the Rome of a medieval jubilee. It warrants a closer look when the crowds die down.

Several of the members of the organizing committee (both Francesco Garofalo and Giovanni Caudo) referred to the disruptive nature of the proposals, creating a paradigm shift away from the 20th century approach to urban planning as property development.  All of the projects instead look for systems, treat the city as a quantum rather than linear process, to quote Caudo.

Many of the buzzwords in the presentations are prefaced with “Re” or “Multi.”

They describe strategies for re-enforcing the resilience and resistance of the urban tissue, for re-using existing infrastructure, rethinking, retooling and redesigning more than eradicating and constructing.  They speak of multiplicity and multi-culturalism.

The era of big projects is over.  In its place we see a culture of dispersion, sharing, viral networking, a culture of interconnected villages which has always been part of Rome’s DNA.  The Rome that emerges in this research is about daily life, about the culture of dwelling,  (the “abitare” of University of Camerino), of daily life (the “quotidiano” of Roma Tre).  It is about infrastructure but not the heavy, costly grey infrastructure of the 20th century but a new soft infrastructure (the “green” and “blue” infrastructure and “slow mobility” of University of Napoli Federico II). It is less about forms and figures than it is about substance and systems (the “energy, food and waste” systems of IUAV).

The discussion of center vs. periphery has final been replaced by a recognition of multiple centers and multiple peripheries.

Landscape, for some time, has been recognized not just as a context for the city’s architecture or an occasional anomaly in its development, but as an alternative to the city.  Although Rome was once center of a quasi-global empire whose breadbasket encompassed most of the Mediterranean, at least since its fall it has stood out for the presence of productive agricultural landscape within its city limits, a fact that was highlighted in many of the projects.

Speaking for the Columbia University workshop, Sandro Marpillero noted that the 1978 Roma Interrotta had a devastating effect on American urbanism. It opened the floodgates to  neo-liberal strategies for real-estate speculation dressed in formal historicism (at least when I was practicing architecture in the US this was the case). Collage-city, and thus indirectly Rome,  provided an alibi for just about anything. Let’s hope that this new metropolitan vision, that privileges ecology, participation and systems thinking, will precipitate an urban transformation in a new, healthier direction.


An Architect Explores the World’s Most Resilient City

November 5, 2015


My book Rome Works is done and will be available in paperback and in Ebook formats starting next week.  Here’s what it says on the back cover:

Although Rome has triggered countless books, Rome Works is the first to view the city through the lens of environmental sustainability.

Presenting seven case studies in sustainability from across a range of historical periods, it explores in detail Rome’s impressive history of low-impact urban growth.

Tom Rankin draws on his 20 years of experience as a professor and practitioner of architecture in Rome to examine this tradition from several vantage points. He considers the fabric of the built infrastructure, urban mobility and the ways that Romans have dealt with the challenges posed by transportation, energy use, water supply and waste removal. He also explores the roles that political and economic forces and, most importantly, civic values, have played in shaping Rome’s development.

The seven studies are less finished models of sustainability, the author writes, than complex and messy but instructive laboratories of experimentation and adjustment over time.

As he writes about the systems that allowed Rome to function in the past and those that do so today, Rankin also weaves in stories of his own passionate but at times exasperated relationship with the Eternal City.

Rome Works posits that development in Rome stands at a fork in the road. It can proceed along its current, growth-based trajectory, inspired by the American development model, or it can take an historically-grounded, authentically Roman path toward a greener economy.

If you like the writing in this blog, you’ll love the book.  Read a sample here and follow the links to Amazon to purchase and leave a review if you want.

End of Degrado

July 25, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 7.15.18 AM

It’s an exciting time to be living in Rome (when is that not true?) and the world is watching to see what happens next.  A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the urban blight that reached its greatest depth in recent years, and Mayor Marino’s patient efforts to reverse the trends.  Along with the headlines of the past few months regarding Mafia Capitale, the temptation is great to see Rome as another Cairo, a once-great capital fallen into third world conditions (at least when I was in Cairo in the 80’s that was the scenario; it’s probably much improved like Istanbul today).

On the ground in Rome the perception is quite different.  The “degrado” described in international newspapers today peaked a few years back and signs of improvement, albeit small and slow, are taking its place. The corruption that was visible to anyone involved in city affairs in recent years is being attacked through arrests and firings. Press releases from the city offices announce concrete solutions to problems of public transit, waste management, public safety and decor, and environmental issues which have been unaddressed for years.

It’s still difficult to be optimistic; the visible examples of before/after improvements are rare, and it is still way too common to witness blatant illegality on the city streets (sadly,  also occasionally on the part of public officials). But at least it’s easier to denounce that illegality; whereas the attitude toward civic activism in years past was “it will never change, mind your own business” the message from the city hall is now “we hear you and thank you for your participation.” (Okay, I’ve still never got this answer in writing but I hear the sentiments and respect the intentions)

Organized Legality

June 25, 2015
If one more person asks me what’s up with Rome’s administration, I told myself the other day, I’ll have to finally get back to writing in my blog with my own personal answer.  Let’s call it a hypothesis more than an observation.  Rather than spell out the facts (you can find them with a quick google search) I’ll play the optimist and predict the future.
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But first a general overview.  Two years ago Romans elected a new mayor, Ignazio Marino.  He had made a lot of good promises and despite nominally belonging to the Democratic Party he was politically relatively independent and seemed ready to clean up an already corrupt city. My observations at the time, describing my first meeting with Marino and his promise to “make us all proud” can be found in past posts.
Then not much happened. Rome continued in its slow decine into the new dark ages that anyone who has visited the city recently, much less lived here, has witnessed. Rampant illegality in all areas: pickpockets roaming the subways seemingly immune to the law, street vendors flaunting regulations and evading taxes under the eyes of the tax police, and what’s worse the negative example of (some, certainly not all) public officials and employees violating everything from traffic laws to their own contracts.  Letters to the city offices went unanswered.  Promises were broken (a bike sharing system by March 2014?).
It was really strange to see the gulf between what the administration said and the reality in the street. It seemed that the Mayor really didn’t see the city. Otherwise how was it possible that just outside city hall there were cars double parked on pedestrian crossings around the clock?  How could the Commissioner for “Legality” park his SUV on the sidewalk and not cause a scandal and resign?  The economy continued to stagnate despite the influx of tourist money, and the only thing growing was the following of blogs like Roma Fa Schifo.
And then this spring, ongoing investigations called by the Mayor his first day in office started to bear fruit. Arrests were made, resignations tendered. Again in June a round of arrests thinned out the presence of alleged corruption in city hall.
At this point one would expect the Mayor would be hailed as a hero, praised for his strong actions against the criminal element in the government.  Instead, incredibly, calls were made for his resignation. Even the Prime Minister pulled his support for Marino. Fitch ratings for Rome are going up but the Mayor is receiving threats from within.   What a way to treat a whistle blower!
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Yet in the past few weeks something has started to change.  Traffic laws are being enforced.  The city streets are being repaired and cleaned. Illegal vendors are no longer quite so tolerated.  Rules for the separation of waste are finally being applied systematically.  What’s up? Could it be that the problem wasn’t the lack of action on the part of Marino and his staff but some other element working to sabotage their work?  And now that that element is gone, things are getting done? Just a guess;  we’ll see what happens next.
Here’s the news we want to hear: “A task force of experts, based on meritocracy and accountability, will be brought on board, with the participation of those citizens (thousands!) who have been engaged in community activism, to solve the city’s problems. The years of  inefficiencies and illegality will be relegated to history books and Rome will undergo a revival that it hasn’t seen for decades.”

*title introduced to me by Prof. Avv. Christian Iaione, Coordinatore del LABoratorio per la GOVernance dei beni comuni

Waterlogged Cities

April 27, 2015


Reposting this post from last year: the rain, and an upcoming trip to Venice made it relevant again.


What can Venice teach the world about preparing for climate catastrophe?
Venice vs. Rome.

Italy is battling hydrological emergencies on various fronts.  It seems like half the country is witnessing flood damage and erosion while the other half suffers droughts.  Liguria and Tuscany have seen huge water damage in recent weeks.

Last night in Venice I had dinner with a friend at a fantastic little trattoria called L’anice stellato and as we dined on risotto and granchio we watched the Fondamento (sidewalk) disappear under rising water.  We had boots, so the walk back to the hotel was not impossible.  Wading through 40 centimeters of water, though, I couldn’t help think that this is the future of waterfront cities.  Venice has lived with this for generations and adapts with typical seafaring courage and conviction. The high water is a simple fact of life, like the cold temperatures of a Boston winter.  But for many cities, this is a glimpse of the now inevitable results of climate change.

In Rome schools were called off today because of predictions of rain, a preventive measure to protect the administration from any accusations of lack of preparation.  Better to declare and emergency rather than try to prepare for one.

The closure of Rome today under medium heavy rains is strangely reminiscent of the crowds of protesters (mostly peaceful) that shut down Rome frequently during political demonstrations. Signs of the times in which ecological and economic disasters start to have an impact on our everyday lives. Am I the only one that sees a connection between these events?  Violent weather events like this are on the rise as temperatures rise, results of climate change which are irrefutably connected to emissions from human activity, the same human activity which has concentrated money (and thus power) in the hands of the 1%, a situation which has become intolerable to the masses and resulted in uprisings worldwide.

Of course there is no linear causality but rather a web of connectivity.  Likewise, the unplanned urbanization of our cities has resulted in impervious surfaces which translate heavy rains into flash flooding. If we incorporated green space into our city-building, rains like this would be absorbed and enrich the aquifers, rather than overflowing into rivers.

Wisely the Mayor sent out a call to citizens to avoid driving during the weather emergency.  (Strangely, he also suspended the restrictions on traffic in the historic center, increasing the likelihood of auto related incidents.)

Part of the reason Venice doesn’t shut down in time of flood is that people are far more flexible and resilient without cars (and in Venice, of course, there are no cars.) Our dependence on automobiles traps us in rising floodwaters, blocking emergency vehicles and public transit, effectively shutting down the city in situations where were we on foot, living close enough to our daily needs to walk, we might get wet but still function.  On days of rain emergency in Rome,  I bike to work as usual (actually better than usual because the clogged traffic means that for once I’m not a target of homicidal drivers).  I just bring dry clothes and change when I get to work.

Io Segnalo, and Then?

April 24, 2015


Adding this image long after the original post to show that things are changing.

Adding this image long after the original post to show that things are changing.

A revolution is about to take place in the way citizens of Rome interact with the public administration and it is called “Io Segnalo” (I report). The mind behind the project is Commandante Raffaele Clemente, head of the capital’s Municipal Police (the ones who enforce traffic laws as well as various administrative policies, building codes, public space use, etc. while the Polizia and Carabinieri concentrate on felonies).  The goal is to make it easy for any citizen, including foreign visitors, to register complaints and insert valuable data directly into the city’s crime prevention system.

The list of violations ranges from illegal parking to potholes, from illegal dumping to abandoned vehicles, from public disturbances to tax evasion by vendors. Some complaints will result in immediate interventions, while others will go into a database which will aid the administration in pinpointing problems.

Great, Sustainable Rome fully supports this.

Under one condition. That Commandante Clemente take steps to ensure that the Polizia Municipale do two things:

1.  set a positive example by respecting the law, disciplining any members of the force that commit violations, a rare occurrence of course but still unacceptable.

2.  by acting to apply the laws being violated under their own noses, sotto i propri occhi, every day!

There should be no opposition between “vigili” and “citizens” but rather a mutual respect for those who behave civilly and a common intolerance for uncivil behavior.

Today, per assurdo, a citizen can send hundreds of segnalazioni a day of violations taking place outside the windows of Municipal Police headquarters.  A new system to denounce violations will work better when the violations are the exception to the rule, not the rule.  Right now, it would be like hiring someone to wash dishes in a busy restaurant and then asking the diners to provide a list and description of their dirty plates.

We’re happy to help out to do our part.  All we ask is accountability. Accountability. To be “accountable.”  It’s in the dictionary.

accountable |əˈkountəbəladjective(of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible: government must be accountable to its citizens | parents could be held accountable for their children‘s actions.

Around the Anagrafe


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