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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Occupying and the New Monuments: DPU summerLab at Porto Fluviale, Rome

By Giorgio Talocci, on 24 September 2012

“The future is but the obsolete in reverse” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lance, 1952)

This post – whose title recalls Robert Smithson’s seminal essay Entropy and the New Monuments – tells the experience of the DPU summerLab in Rome, and of its landing into the reality of what we called the Occupation City. 

The New Monuments, Smithson says, are no longer for remembering and learning about the past but rather for helping forgetting a future which is dissolving because of Entropy and Obsolescence. Rome is a city of Old and New (or renewed) Monuments whose role has always been to drive a trend, either visible or hidden, formal or informal, in the urban development of their time. As last year’s strolling exploration, we navigated through these Monuments and the images of the city they wanted to portray when built, and through what they represent today. We started from Corviale, the swan song of the Modernist utopia and its monumental re-signification through the informal occupation of its one kilometre long fifth floor, originally supposed to host never-implemented services and shops. We passed on the Tiber River, through its monumental banks and bridges and its population of gypsies in provisional shanty towns. And by the Roman Walls and the non-catholic cemetery which has colonised their back. And we entered the Campo Boario, neoclassic Monument to the industrial production (of meat), abandoned by the Municipality and become a living collection of people – now Kurdish and Italians but once also Palestinians, Gypsies, Ukrainians – and the stories of how they landed there.

Part of Corviale's fifth floor and its informal housing.


A conversation with the leader of the Kurdish Community in Campo Boario.

Campo Boario and its open and multicultural square constituted a paradigmatic space for our investigation in Porto Fluviale, the squat-occupation we have been working with, today undergoing a process of opening up toward the surroundings exactly through the transformation of its central courtyard in a public square.

The galaxy of squat-occupations is a network of New Monuments, buildings whose re-significations through the (anti-entropic and anti-obsolescing) act of occupying have become the spatial manifestations of the current housing crisis in Rome. Porto Fluviale is one of those. Abandoned many years ago after serving as deposit for weapons and then for uniforms for armed forces, the building, still property of the Ministry of Defence, has been occupied in 2003 by the Coordinamento Cittadino Lotta per la Casa (one of the Social Movements leading the Struggle for Housing in Rome), in its endeavour to concentrate the Struggle on the restitution of otherwise idle and abandoned publicly-owned fragments of the city to the use of the citizens. Both the words use and citizen though are at stake in the political vision of the Movement, and the project of the new piazza challenges both concepts.

The entrance toward the courtyard (photo by Gamar Markarian)

The courtyard of Porto Fluviale (picture by Maria Rocco)

So far, the courtyard has been the centre of the community life and the spatial element that more than anything else has helped fostering throughout the years a sense of collectiveness and everyday life sharing. The day 80 families (about 250 people) from different nationalities – mainly Italians, Ecuadorians, Moroccans, Peruvians, but many more – broke into the building from one of the main gates, Porto Fluviale started undergoing a deep transformation. Its three floors got transformed into houses facing both internal and external side of the C-shaped building, with the dark distribution corridors marked by the rails once used to move the materials around the floors and to the service-lifts. The housing units search for the light vertically, thanks to the widespread use of self-made mezzanines built to reach the level of the big windows whose basis is at 2.50 meters, so to have the possibility of a view toward the outside or the courtyard.

The inner distribution corridor.

The space of a housing unit from the mezzanine.

In spite of the constant risk of eviction (the building is part of a plan through which the Municipality is trying to sell out a number of former barracks to private developers) the community have recently voted to keep the main gate open during the day so to let the people from the surroundings feel free to enter. The process started a couple of years ago opening a tearoom on the ground floor, and went on with the transformation of many spaces, that were once residential and now have become an assembly room, a bicycle workshop, guest rooms (where a group of participant was kindly hosted) and new rooms for skill-sharing activities.

All the talks and the interaction between the community and the participants to the workshop have been driven by the idea of this new space, focus of both worries (in terms of security) and dreams (a finally redeemed image) for its inhabitants. What mostly struck us, in the assembly, was a sentence that sounded more or less like this: “we don’t want to open all the gates and make the new square become a place of passage and circulation like all the other squares around the city: this would simply replicate the current experience of the city, whose public spaces are meant for the capitalistic consumption”. The new square sets aside any capitalistic logic and wants to be the place where to experiment new activities and ways of exchanging and paying back the services that the community will offer. The square is meant to be the place where new alternative lessons can be taught and more lessons have yet to be learnt, where pro-active citizens can meet and exchange their experiences, where the use-value of space takes again over the exchange one.

A moment of the assembly.

The participants’ works helped unpacking, de-codifying and portraying the neo-marxist vision come out from the initial assembly with the inhabitants and their leadership. They highlighted hidden potentialities of the new square, possible ways of portraying its many identities and stories, latent contradictions intrinsic to a project of a piazza that is open to everyone but chiefly to whom is willing to enter: what if the space opens all its three main gates and its sides become totally permeable as already happening for the tearoom? How to open a gate to show something that is other without the risk of losing this otherness itself? How does openness combine with the need for security? And which declension can the term security acquire in the transition toward a post-capitalistic urban space?

The final presentation of the works.

In spite of these open questions, in Porto Fluviale the DPU summerLab has met a community with a complex past and witnessed its will to write a different future. Through the act of occupying the otherwise obsolete Monument Porto Fluviale, its community has inverted the entropic process it was undergoing. Porto Fluviale represents a re-use of a Monument, re-use that though goes beyond a simple notion of renovation or change of use, of retrofitting to accommodate new functions. The piazza calls for a use that is totally new, crafted outside the logic of the capitalistic development and then yet to be discovered. A use made possible through means of occupation, that though, today, leads to question the appropriateness of the verb occupying itself, as remarked by one of the participants to the workshop. Spaces such as Porto Fluviale had their inception through the act of occupying but their raison d’etre nowadays lies in the even more political action of producing space: should we stop saying ‘Porto Fluviale Occupation’ and naming it simpy for its current essence ‘Piazza del Porto Fluviale’?

Many thanks to our local collaborators, Francesco Careri and Laboratorio Arti Civiche – whose preliminary work and constant insights made our workshop possible and cheerful – and warm greetings to all the inhabitants of Porto Fluviale, thanks for such a delightful week together.

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