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Once in a While, Orvieto

April 16, 2017

Rome is great, especially in the spring, but once in a while I find an excuse to escape to Orvieto, in southern Umbria, one of the closest cities to Rome that has managed to free its historic center from automobiles.

Once was on our honeymoon; although we were directed to Firenze we got a late start and Orvieto seemed a nice town along the way. The last time, a few years ago, was to join a group of study-abroad students for drawing sessions, attracted by great perspectival streets for urban vignettes, and few cars to intimidate the sketcher.

The other day it was for an international conference on Green Infrastructure where I had been invited to present a paper. Since my topic was on cycling initiatives I thought it appropriate to use my folding bike to reach Termini Station and then bike around town in my spare time while there. Knowing Orvieto to be a hill-town, and relatively small, I didn’t expect this to be especially practical. It was more so than I had thought. In this post I will first describe my transit experience, and then a few notes about the town itself.

At Termini I brought the bike into the hip, new, high-quality food court, Mercato Centrale, where I leaned it on a crate of artichokes while I got an excellent café at the bar next to Bonci’s bakery. When they announced the track, the cursed 1B (about 500 meters from the head of the other tracks) I was glad I had my bike. I was there in seconds, folding my bike and storing it safely while I found a window seat.

Upon arriving at Orvieto station, I had no intention to bike up the hill — and no need to — since the town is blessed with a smart people-mover, a funicular.  It was a bit awkward to cram my bike into the crowded car but since I was the last one in and my bike pressed against the door no one else was inconvenienced.

At the top of the hill I unfolded my bike and headed up the main pedestrian street and within a minute was joining friends for a coffee in the heart of medieval Orvieto. In between conference events I zipped around town, careful not to go down hill to far knowing I’d have to come back up. At the end of the day, the coast down to the funicular was so easy that I was tempted to continue all the way down to the rail station, but the light rain and my prepaid funicular ticket convinced me to descend the way I had come up. I made it home with a few changes of transit and no need to open the bike again until I was at the station just down the street from my home.

If I think about the other options: driving my own car and dealing with traffic, tolls, parking would be unthinkable unless I were carrying something heavy, or stopping in remote places on the way. Transit alone without the bike would have been fine—just a bit slower with a lot more walking.

As for Orvieto, I always find it charming and this time gave a little more attention to one of its artistic highlights, Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgement (especiallyThe Damned Cast into Hell). I hadn’t previously noticed the grotesque border paintings, or paid much attention to the portraits of Ovid, Dante and other writers between Signorelli’s dramatic scenes of Heaven and Hell. No one else was in the chapel, and the afternoon light was perfect.

The menacing subject matter continues on the 14th century stone bas reliefs of the facade, where I stopped to consider another version of the Last Judgement, now sadly protected by glass so not so visible.

I booked a ticket on the Underground Orvieto tour that I had heard good things about, and got some advice from the ticket office about where to go to appreciate the walls and the views to the countryside — a short bike ride or a long walk away.

The underground tour was only available in English when I wanted to go and the guide’s English was fairly basic, but the caves were captivating and well-presented. The selection of subterranean spaces we visited in 45 minutes presented a variety of functions, from Etruscan wells to medieval tufo quarries, 18th century pigeon farms and 20th century bomb shelters.

With some time to kill before my train, I stopped near the Duomo for a glass of wine and some local delicacies: pecorino, salami and crusty white bread. When an elderly woman came in to buy bread I applied the “yield-to-locals” policy I always try to instill in my students and guests, letting her make her purchase while I waited. But like most of what I saw in Orvieto, this place was tailored for foreign visitors. A former alimentari turned tourist-outlet, ironically named Bottega Vera, it was well-designed, comfortable, and reasonably priced and the food and wine were great. Like most of Orvieto it seemed to work quite well.  I suspect that after a few days I would yearn for the authentic grit of Rome and its devil-may-care attitude toward its guests. (Except that much of Rome has become even worse in its pandering to mass tourism, without even bothering to provide quality or design.)

Is it too much to ask for a city, big or small, which relies on tourism for its livelihood, to maintain its character and preserve its traditions, while constantly improving so as to better satisfy its long-term customer base? I don’t mean making travel easy or cheap, I don’t mean pandering to mass tourism (in fact I’m fine with shopkeepers ignoring the crass tourists who haven’t made an effort to learn enough to say “buongiorno.”)  I mean keeping a focus on the quality of your core product but always making the experience a little better. I mean sweeping the streets outside the shop, experimenting with ways to reduce waste, using social media to share local knowledge. Resist the temptation to cheapen your brand to sell to tourists who don’t appreciate your product and will probably never come back. Forget that other shops seem to have gone this way and are selling more. Let your competition cater to the trash tourists. Focus on those clients with discerning taste and they will spread the word. Don’t worry about copy-cats. If this catches on, all the better; a more attractive city, by definition, will attract more discerning people who will stay longer and return frequently.



March 23, 2017

Last week I went to a marketplace for a press conference.

The building, the Mercato Metronio in Rome’s San Giovanni neighborhood, a masterpiece by mid century engineer Riccardo Morandi, has seen better days but the discussion was promising. As in, promises were made: Mayor Raggi and Commissioner Adriano Meloni promised to upgrade 15 different markets around the city, not just as venues for sale of food but also as social spaces. The documentation of the existing situation has been complete and now the transformations are ready to begin. The cost is estimated at €4 million.

The challenge is to attract people (who are by now accustomed to supermarkets or Eataly) to local markets.  I see this happening through a number of simple steps.

The first involve the greater urban context:

  • reduce the convenience of using a car in the city, eliminate “free parking” so that the option of hopping in a car for a trip to the supermarket remains a rural, not an urban, phenomena.
  • simultaneously — and in keeping with the first solution—make the walk to the market more pleasurable: removing obstacles (usually cars) from sidewalks and crosswalks
  • provide cycle parking at markets and incentives for innovative startups like Zolle which will use cargo bikes to deliver produce to buyers’ homes.
  • If transit is present at marketplaces, ensure that it functions efficiently, on schedule; when buses are infrequent and crowded people don’t consider them an option to carry groceries.

The marketplace itself should obviously be clean, light, airy and beautiful, like the new Testaccio market for example. Stalls should be open all day, if possible, and it should attract business through social activities such as bars, restaurants, workshops, laboratories, playgrounds, libraries, cinemas. There is no reason a market should be JUST a market and then empty the rest of the day and Sunday

  • Does it have free public seating?
  • Does it have free public wifi?
  • Does it have drinking fountains?
  • Does art play a role? Is design memorable and good?
  • Can deliveries be made without blocking public access?
  • Can sections be closed off while others remain open?
  • There’s a growing business of food tours and workshops. Markets should have industrial kitchens for food demonstrations and cooking lessons (like Eataly does!)

When I think of great markets (like Santa Caterina or Boqueria in Barcelona) I think of great public spaces which have little in common with supermarkets. Rome’s markets can return to being good places to shop and with a little effort become great places to do more than shop.

Against Fairness

February 12, 2017
Campagna Amica market on Via San Teodoro yesterday

Campagna Amica market on Via San Teodoro yesterday

The sudden closure this weekend of Rome’s favorite farmers’ market has led me to think about why efforts to do the right thing sometimes produce the wrong results.

Carlo Ratti, in a short letter entitled Nudi al Concorso*, explains why despite all the byzantine efforts to implement fair and impartial public competitions (for university positions), the results in Italy are almost always less than satisfactory. Instead, in the US — and I’m not saying the US is better, especially not these days— the administration “simply” chooses the candidate who they believe to be best qualified, and it usually works. Because when those who manage a project are personally accountable for the results, they only choose a friend or a relative if they happen to be the best for the job.  Read more…

Barcelona and Rome

February 1, 2017

This week Rome launched an agreement with the Catalan city of Barcelona regarding a series of themes of the digital economy: open data, participation, smart city strategies, transparency, and the digital agenda. Barcelona’s Mayor Francesca Bria met with her Roman counterpart, Virginia Raggi, to discuss what promises to be an important step for both cities. Rome’s Commissioner for Innovation, Flavia Marzano, said the initiative “will help stimulate Rome and restore its place in the international scene.”

For Rome, if it is properly inspired to follow Barcelona’s lead in urban innovation, it could mean bringing Italy’s capital back from the brink of collapse to finally start to count again in contemporary discourse.

Over the years I’ve travelled to Barcelona repeatedly, both independently and accompanying student groups on architectural and urban design workshops and investigating initiatives such as Pobleneu and the Mediatic Building, MACBA/Centro di Cultura Contemporanea, and various experiments such as the occupied former hospital Can Masdeu.

Below are some of the images from those trips. I always find inspiration in Barcelona and return to Rome optimistic that we can get back on track toward sustainable growth in Italy’s capital.

Bridging into the New Year

January 1, 2017

As 2017 begins a series of coincidences have me reflecting on the challenges and opportunities facing Rome in the coming months.

Last night travel writer/guru Rick Steves posted a piece about the importance of bridges (over the walls which our president-elect likes). He asked to use some of my drawings of Rome’s bridges, saying “To celebrate our commitment to tolerance, diversity, empathy, and the value of overcoming fear by understanding people whose life experiences give them different perspectives than you or I might have, I’d like to share Tom’s bridges with you.”  Rick’s audience is huge (his Facebook page alone has half a million followers) so the eyes of many are on Rome’s bridges today.

Every year the city of Rome organizes end of year events, usually with big concerts and fireworks, and this year, in addition to a spectacular event held throughout the night at Circus Maximus, it hosted La Festa di Roma on and around the bridges over the Tiber. Despite an ongoing campaign to discredit and denigrate the administration of Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi, these events seem pretty well-conceived and well-organized. Instead of one big monster event there are many, dispersed throughout the city along its natural urban spine, the Tiber river. They appeal to a wide demographic: creative workshops for kids, dj sets for youth, classical concerts for all ages. One of the organizations I have worked with in recent years, TEVERETERNO, is participating with a walking tour of the William Kentridge public art project Triumphs and Laments and there are collaborations with major arts organizations, coordinated by the City’s Commissioner of Culture (and Vice-Mayor) Luca Bergamo.


These New Years’ events should be a sign of innovative, positive change, but as so often happens they have spurred more negative criticism than support, and I think I understand why.  While the administrators have the right intentions, ambitions and attitudes, they are working with political machinery biased to protect old power structures. Piloting this machine doesn’t mean they can easily dismantle it and rebuild it; even steering it toward a target is hard when the opposition places obstacles in its path. Mayor Raggi is right that it will take a little time to achieve tangible results; the tools available to get there are broken and need to be replaced or repaired.

Talk of transparency and efficiency falls short of the reality: that it is hard to get a response from the administration whose staff is still living in a world of slow, hand-delivered stamped documents. It’s frustrating to want to help when even emails with subject headings like “Rome and American Investments” offering logistical support to reach global benefactors go unanswered!

My frenetic online activity promoting Rome’s bridges to a pretty decent social following received great responses globally. Locally, the offices of Luca Bergamo sent me an unsigned email “please find attached a letter from Mr. Luca Bergamo. We wish you a very happy new year.” with a scanned, stamped, “protocollato” letter saying essentially the same thing.  I like to think that there is an ironic Duchampian intentionality in the conceptual Byzantine quality of this communication, but I fear it may really be the way the administration is forced to operate.

The bureaucracy that has perfected the ambiguous response, the refusal to give a straight answer or apply a simple rule has created an essentially impenetrable wall which any well-meaning citizen finds it impossible to penetrate (and which isolates the well-meaning administrators from the real city).

I hope that 2017 will see this ancient wall bridged, taking advantage of the 21st century distributed communications tools most of use so that we can help Rome become not just magnificent and eternal but perhaps even a little bit normal.

ponti-16 ponti-15 ponti-14 ponti-13 ponti-11 ponti-10 ponti-8 ponti-7 ponti-5 ponti-3 ponti-1


Trastevere Follow-up

December 21, 2016



project rendering by Tyler Kirkpatrick

Following up on the previous post, now that the semester has come to a close, I’d like to share some observations about how students from California approached designing for a complex and difficult site in central Rome.  Some common themes emerged.

  • The first challenge they found on the existing site was the inconsistent design of public space, relentlessly occupied by cars, poorly maintained, unclearly defined. I encouraged them to think specifically about the ground plane, how to keep it accessible, to define it with paving, landscaping, and street furniture to make it clear who had priority where. We removed cars from the surface but put structured parking below their new building(s) for motor vehicles that need for valid reasons to be stored locally. The result in almost all cases is an urban space for people.  Where today pedestrians are humiliated when attempting to cross to Ponte Palatino, most projects proposed workable solutions, either significant traffic calming or separation of motor vehicles from people.

Read more…

Trastevere East, Resolving a Dysfunctional Site

November 11, 2016

This semester I have tasked my students from the Cal Poly Architecture Program with studying a neighborhood of Rome that has always fascinated me, Trastevere East, opposite Ponte Palatino. After years of looking at unwieldy and problematic sites, from Porta Portese to Testaccio to the Fori Imperiali archaeological park, I decided to move back to the historic center, to focus on the dense urban fabric that makes Rome great. I wanted a site that could be read and recognized on the Nolli Plan (the imperial fora were obliterated by Mussolini).
Located at the edge of the Tiber by Porta Ripa Grande, roughly bounded by the Papal walls to the south at Porta Portese, Viale Trastevere to the west, and the river to the north and east.
Historically it has been marked by river ports and the presence of immigrants. It has the feel of a village which is dwarfed strangely by the presence of several large institutions: such as the former San Michele convent, now the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the international ICCROM conservation organization, the ministry of education on Viale Trastevere, hospitals, churches and the Ministry of Health building opposite Ponte Palatino. Our working hypothesis —entirely polemical and admittedly unrealistic— envisions this last ministry moving to a healthier location and its building here being dismantled, at least in part.
This site is typically Roman in so many ways. Although located at the river’s edge, the connection is tenuous at best. Between the village-like streets of Trastevere and the Tiber flows a sea of cars and trucks and other motor-vehicles with few places for people to safely cross. We are in the center of town but encounter things we expect at the city’s margins: a gas station, homeless camps, and long stretches of wide high-speed roadway. Fifteen meters below the city streets the Tiber banks are overgrown, forgotten, peaceful yet slightly menacing, like a room you have always been warned not to enter.
My students analyzed the natural and anthropic systems. They observed both the positive pervasiveness of green, poking up in the cracks and climbing facades, and the invasive presence of motor vehicles, also finding their way through every possible passage and parked on any horizontal surface.
As their projects take form many are proposing radical transformations of the traffic flow, removing cars from Ponte Palatino, moving them under or above street level, in order to re-connect the ancient Via Aurelia with the other side of the Tiber, the Foro Boario and beyond the Roman Forum. This is understandable, since right now the poor pedestrian has little hope of surviving a stroll along this natural pathway. But I’ve encouraged soft solutions based on my conviction that the massive presence of motor-vehicles in cities is destined to fade, as it already has in most European and many American cities. The Lungotevere in Trastevere, unlike the Charles River in Boston, is part of the city fabric and shouldn’t be considered a north-south artery for motor-vehicles (something that needs to be conceived elsewhere). I’m encouraging traffic-calming efforts, more traffic lights with longer pedestrian priorities, speed tables, shared space, all aimed at making it harder, not easier, for cars to get through Trastevere. And vice versa, easier for people.