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Morning Walk in Rome EUR Guided by Deyan Sudjic

July 27, 2012

Last winter I was in Rome for a URBACT info day at the Ministry of Infrastructure and took this the opportunity to walk through EUR. As a matter of fact I was several times before in the eternal city, but never felt like going to see these monumental and ideologically connoted part of the city, probably also due to a genuine and conscious prejudice.

Apart from the crazy building site in front of my hotel, I enjoyed very much a short walk in this neighborhood and I also took some pictures, but I lost most of them. Below you can see the remaining ones.

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Ahead of the visit I read the pages of The Edifice Complex, the great essay by Deyan Sudjic on how the rich and powerful shape the world, in which he describes his own visit to EUR with the background of his profound and lively knowledge in history, art and architecture. I had the chance to meet Deyan Sudjic a couple of times some years ago in Venice, as he was Director of an unforgettable Architecture Biennale and in Milan as he was Editor in chief of Domus, just at the time he was writing this book. I am sure he will forgive me if I quote a rather large part of his text (pp.91-95).

Mussolini’s new extension to Rome, known as the Esposizione Universale di Roma, or EUR, as E 42 was renamed, was built for an expo planned for 1942 to mark the twentieth anniversary of his seizure of power. The original intention was to construct a series of buildings that would be used during the fair as exhibition and event spaces, before being turned over as the nucleus of a large scale expansion of the city southward toward Ostia and the see. The war intervened and the expo was abandoned, but enough of the site was developed to leave a powerful taste of what an authoritarian city that used a modern vocabulary would look like.

The plan was a compromise between Italian architectural modernizers and traditionalists, with the balance of power shifting toward the traditionalists as time went on. It became the focus of conflict between sharply different visions of what the new Rome should be, provoking what was to be the final and fatal break between the regime and Giuseppe Pagano. The loyal Fascist  who had been involved with the early stages of the planning of EUR denounced Piacentini, who took charge with a brief to create a more formal, classical character for the plan. The break did not affect Pagano’s devotion to the Fascist cause, untill he went to fight in Mussolini’s army in Albania.

Despite Pagano’s doubts, EUR is considerably more sophisticated as a piece of urbanism than Speer’s Berlin would have been. The ever competitive Hitler declared the plan “a meaningless copy without any import”. Piacentini had indeed seen Speer’s drawings for Berlin before he set about regularizing those aspects of EUR judged to bee too freely expressive or, as Fascists put it, “Hebrew”. However, EUR is planned on a grid rather than a single monument axis. A number of landmark structures establish the area in the landscape, the most prominent of which is the Palace of Italian Civilization, the so-called Square Colosseum. The structure is visible all the way from the Villa Borghese in the center of the city. With its six layers of Roman arches stacked one above the other, it sits on top of the hill on the southern edge of EUR. There are 150 steps, untroubled by any sign of handrail, leading to the entrance. It looks like a travertine mountain and feels as daunting to climb as if you were ascending a stepped pyramid in Mexico.

At the summit, these days you will discover that the Palace of Italian Civilization is closed for repairs. Carved in stone across the top of the cube, back and front, is the legend ” A people of poets and artists, of heroes and saints, of thinkers, scientists, navigators and migrants.” An inner stone cube with floor-to-ceiling arched windows is wrapped in an outer stone skin, pierced by matching arched openings. The forms could not be simpler. This is as much a stage set as it is architecture, and yet the tension between solid and void gives it a real presence.

The Square Colosseum forms the end of one of the grid of avenues running north-south; at the other is Adalberto Libera’s Congress Hall, less obviously classical in its inspiration, with its flattened dome rising over a white stone box. […]

The gridded plan of EUR avoid the monomaniacal quality of Speer’s Berlin. It has a suburban dispersed quality, more like Milton Keynes or Orange County. Libera’s building and the Square Colosseum conduct a civilized dialogue with each other. The two most prominent buildings of EUR avoid the central axis, which is marked by an obelisk looted from Egypt. They are designed as part of a composition with a third major element that appears on the skyline, the domed church on the southern edge of the complex.

Most of the center of EUR is made of monumental blocks of offices, incorporating colonnades at ground level, designed to accommodate shops and cafés, and arranged around landscaped squares. In most places that have as little pedestrian traffic as EUR, it’s a gesture that would have resulted in nothing more than abandoned storefronts, revealing the unbridgeable gap between architectural aspirations and commercial realities. But Italy’s embrace of street life has breathed some life into the area. Even so, in many parts of EUR, the ground floors are all but abandoned, with activity concentrated on the piano nobile above, almost as if this were Venice. Piacentini’s plan subjugated individual buildings to the demands of the overall urban composition. The block next to Libera’s Congress Hall has four sides, each with a different character. On one side it forms part of a square; on the next the block becomes an arcade, while the third side is a sweeping crescent. It’s an arrangements that leaves all of them vulnerable to the problems of conflicting geometries at the points where different elements meet.

There is a stench of stale urine as you shelter from the rain in the sweeping colonnades, cut out of the base of the building blocks. The squalor is poignantly framed by the most exquisite materials that Mussolini’s architects could find: turned granite columns, carefully laid cobblestones, pale pink plastered vaults, lit by generously proportioned glass-globe lamps. White marbles frame the doors and the windows. Evidence of tramps sleeping out, sheltering from the weather, haunts some corners. Loudspeakers dangle from cables in the vaults, as if in memory of a long ago harangue from the Duce.

[…] The banality of the later additions from the 1960s that radiate outward from the edges of EUR has the curious effect of making the original buildings look simultaneously both ancient and much more modern than they really are, af if reinforcing Mussolini’s original intentions. […]

On a quiet Saturday morning, EUR has an ordinariness that seems to deny its sinister origins. It was meant to glorify fascism; as it turned out, however, the area has become a dignified if neglected suburb with an unusually urbane character. EUR has effortlessly outlasted the comic-opera regime that gave birth to it and shrugged off its ideological purpose. To live and work here poses no obvious threat to the health of present-day Italian democracy.

These words provide a very detailed description of the area. I would only like to add that, some more years after Deyan Sudjic visit, last January the Square Colosseum was still close for renovation.  And for those who appreciate Dejan’s works like I do there is a beautiful editorial on London’s Olympic transformation in the current issue of Domusweb

For the few ‘Italian only’ readers in 2011 the Edifice Complex has been published by Laterza.

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