Placemaking in Rome – the Eternal City
In my last blog it was the brash buzz of the adrenaline-filled Big Apple which fuelled my inspiration; this time it’s the grandeur and historic splendour of the Eternal City. Admittedly quite a vivid contrast in so many ways, the Old World versus the New, coupled with a very different tempo and temperament.
Visiting Rome, for whatever reason, be it for business or for pleasure, always fascinates me. Rome may be the ultimate tourist destination and it is certainly geared up to cope with the multitude of visitors from across the globe. I was in tourist-mode this time, which gave me plenty of time to wonder around its labyrinthine streets and alleyways. Of course, the place-maker in me couldn’t ignore centuries of incredible placemaking in Rome jammed into the 14 square kilometres – the jostling of architecture and buildings from the ancient world, through medieval, Renaissance and baroque, all the way to 20th century brutalism.
It is quite amazing to see how the city centre has retained so much of its original format even in the 21st century. So much history has passed over those cobbled streets and alleyways that all the walls in Rome probably don’t just talk, they positively shout! One thing I noticed that doesn’t call out in Rome, as it does in another cities, is large brands blotting the landscape with their bland uniform shopfronts. To operate in Rome, they and everyone else must fit in with the centuries-old Roman street facades and forms – the 21st century must adjust to the ancient world.
Beyond the obvious tourist attractions Rome is famous for, this adjustment of modernity to its historic roots enriches the city in a myriad of ways. The mosaic of small individual traders and the wide range of street theatre. This also extends to the multifarious variety of security police/military folk patrolling the streets, the ordinary yet effortlessly stylish Romans meeting over espressos, to motley crews of street vendors and restaurant touts plying their offers of a variety of local delicacies. They all provide a colourful and endlessly fascinating aspect to the character of the city, as well as making it such a pleasure for visitors to just walk around and enjoy the atmosphere. All these elements underpin my view that people and place are indivisible and intertwined.
Taking a look at Rome’s streetscape, I can’t help but admire how it is interwoven with ingenuity in terms of the design of buildings and how they are used to their best advantage. Take the Spanish Steps for instance, there are numerous examples of rooftop places which allow people to view this famous piece of the city, as well as the hustle and bustle which goes on and around this site. As I walked along the narrow streets, naturally I was really curious about what goes on behind those imposing walls and forbidding doors. In most cases these buildings have appealing courtyards with gardens or even mini squares, hidden behind these great anonymous facades. For me, this adds to an underlying sense of mystery which pervades the Eternal City.
Clearly most modern business operates outside Rome’s Centro Storico, where most of its more modern buildings are situated. One notable location being the EUR district, south of the city centre, which originally started as an architectural vanity project for Mussolini in the mid-1930s. It was in the 1950s when Roman planning authorities took the then very pioneering decision to transform EUR into the city’s out-of-town business district. Decades before many other major cities developed theirs; such as London Docklands and La Défense near Paris. Therefore, the unfinished Fascist-era buildings were completed during the 1950s and 1960s, comprising of office and government buildings, set in large gardens and parks; including sport’s arenas for the 1960 Olympic Games, held in Rome. The centre piece of this area is the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana. I have always marvelled at this building, which one cannot miss when one travels in from Leonardo da Vinci airport, especially at night when its floodlighting articulates the alluring mystery that is Rome’s.
Apart from the enormous Euroma2 shopping mall, the Roman skyline is now dominated by the tallest building in the city and one of the highest residential towers in Italy, the spectacular Eurosky.
It has a somewhat controversial context given that Rome is generally a low-rise city dominated by the height restriction set by the 138m-high Dome of St. Peter’s. At 155m, the Eurosky flouts this ‘unwritten’ rule, especially with its unusually designed jutting solar panels. However, Rome’s tallest skyscraper does claim to be “wholly eco-sustainable”, in addition to its remarkable solar panels, there are biofuel power systems and even channels to deliver rainwater to plants and flowers.
It is hugely gratifying to see that Rome has maintained its historic legacy and the respect it holds for its wide-ranging mix of architecture and buildings. However, this is not to the detriment of providing a modern and engaging experience for both residents and visitors.