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R13: Lessons

Over the past fifteen weeks, I have come to the realization that the power of architecture lies in its ability to situate. Good works of architecture allow us to realize something productive about the world, or the building itself, or even ourselves. Architecture becomes meaningful when it opens our eyes to all three simultaneously; when the architecture becomes a tool through which we gain a greater understanding of ourselves in this world. Architecture has the power to work with existing conditions and make us aware of them, without overpowering them. It situates us in history, culture, place, and time; hopefully in a way that respects each of them. Observing or experiencing the play of these contexts with one another is where architecture performs. Where a building creates something other. Where the life of the city is found and lived.

Shifting Perspective

R12: Rome Unravelled

The question was asked, what works behind the scenes to make a city perform as such? I would respond that in a city like Rome, nothing.  Disneyland is the place of magic that it is because it has a whole city underneath it that supports its functions, hiding them from the public eye. In Rome everything is exposed for one to perceive. The city is a sensory experience. Try to imagine this city’s streets without the smells of pizza, produce, trash, and perfume. The buildings wouldn’t look the same without pipes, conduits, scaffolding, or people in the windows. The city resonates with sounds of water fountains, traffic, birds and dialogue. Rome is felt in the stone beneath your feet and the air in your lungs, not in what is hidden from your experience of it.

Playing by the light of the moon

R11: A gate that moves

The weight of the gate is apparent to you even before try you move it, a simple piece of concrete resting on a massive metal hinge. You want to open it but don’t know how. A weighty piece of brass on top of it shows a brightly polished patch above a weathered patina, evidence of where hands have contacted this gate before yours. You wiggle it every which way trying to get something to move but it won’t budge. Examining it again, a bright stainless steel piece catches your eye where it has scribed a perfect arc on a brass plate. The fading mark on that plate tells you that the handle rotates clockwise. You reach for it with your left hand, but quickly realize that you must use your right hand, otherwise your hand will get pinned against the adjacent wall. You lower your left hand, stretch you right arm across your body, and place your right palm against the polished brass. A perfect fit against the brightly polished surface. The metal-on-metal joints of the handle mechanism force you to put some effort into rotating it. The handle rotates slightly inside of your hand as you bend your wrist to maneuver it. The sound of your strained effort is projected to your ear by the scraping of metal against itself. By now you have realized that the gate is in control. What you thought would have been a simple trip through a gate has turned into an experience of confusion, discovery, and awareness. You hesitate, waiting for it to speak to you. You ask the gate, ‘Which way do you move?’ Your eye is drawn across it, to the stepped form that hangs off of it. Projecting away from you, nearly touching another one that comes off of the wall next to it, telling you that you must pull the gate towards you. You remove your hand from the handle, realizing you would lock the gate again if you tried to pull it towards you, undoing all your hard work. You softly place your hand on the cold concrete, hesitant, wondering if the gate is going to test you once again. You begin to pull it open but realize you must grip it stronger; it is made of concrete after all. The gate took advantage of your doubt, making you forget it was a piece of heavy concrete. You finally pull the gate open, again the sound of metal on metal as the hinge rotates; the sound mirroring your effort. You pass through the new opening, pondering; a moment ago you had thought that you would be the one moving the gate, not the other way around.

R10: Venice Inverted

Venice is Venice and not anywhere else because of the way its buildings meet the ground. Hundreds of thousands of wooden piles support Venice in the lagoon, creating a relationship between the city and the water that makes Venice what it is. The water forces Venetians and visitors to be aware of their surroundings, making them cautious of where they step and how they move through the city. The buildings accommodate the water, allowing people to enter them with boats, constantly adjusting to the shifts of the tide. Some buildings, and even Venice itself, seem to float in the water but this is deceptive. Venice is actually ‘grounded’ to a sandy substrate below the water’s surface by those hundreds of thousands of wooden piles. This underwater forest allows Venice to maintain its relationship with the water that makes it what it is.

R9: How Siena is not Rome

A typical pedestrian experience in Rome

Walking through the streets of Rome and Siena are two completely different experiences. In Rome, where streets occasionally serve as sidewalks, a pedestrian is a toy. An object that a driver tries to avoid as little as possible; swerving, dodging, braking at the last second in their attempt to navigate this chaos called Rome. In Siena, on the other hand, the sidewalks are occasionally used as streets; cars are nearly impossible to spot among the crowds of people. In fact, the car is now a toy. An object powerless to force its way through the crowd; at the mercy of the crowd. These experiences greatly influence the way one moves through, and therefore, views and interacts with the city. Rome traps you in its chaos, forces you to survive as an active character in its game. Siena allows one to follow their own course, to meander through the medieval streets, without fear of game over.

A typical pedestrian experience in Siena

R8: Translated performance

Good architectural translation can come about in a variety of ways. A new project can look back toward precedents and re-imagine their significance in a new context, such as the Prato della Valle in Padua. A good architectural translation can also occur when architecture adapts over time to suit the needs of its context; a translator that must take something that is given and express meaning in it for a new audience. Rome, a city that appears frozen in time architecturally, allows us to observe many examples of these translations; from a palazzo becoming a museum, to a theatre becoming housing. The performative value of the work becomes something other than was intended, refiguring itself to a new context. The fragments of the column in this image once were used to support a structure near Piazza Navona (a space that evolved from a roman racetrack). The fragments stand today, by themselves in an unknown piazza where they serve as a landmark for the people around it. Reserving space among the cars to create a place where old men meet on Sundays to play cards.

R7: History Active

History is made active when two pasts meet, interact, and respond to each other in the present. This can be a simple moment, a child playing in a fountain. Neither the child nor the fountain is likely to remember the situation, but each brings their respective pasts to that one moment in time. Or it can be a more complex instance, a tired, regretful homeless man resting on the steps of a church, thinking about what to do next. He doesn’t care whether the church was built by Borromini or Bernini, only where his next meal is going to come from.

Architecture can, and often does, outlive these moments; setting the stage or even encouraging a boundless number and variety of situations such as these. But architecture also has the power to actively draw from and relate us to history. The image on the left shows a family trying to find their way through Rome on a map. Behind them, a clothing store. Above the doorway to that very clothing shop, an inscription on a stone lintel that reads MACELLERIA. A butcher’s shop. A careful eye may notice this and picture the space once again as meat shop; the smell of raw meat, the laugh of the butcher as he serves a client; moments from a different day, imagined from a piece of stone.

R6: What do maps tell us?

Maps show us possibilities, the worlds of past, present, and future. After a week of examining different maps we can see their power to show us what has been, what is, and what can become. The Nolli Map of 1748 ‘accurately’ depicts the Rome of that time. By examining this map we can see the evolution and changes of the city, comparing what was to what is. In 1762, Giovanni Battista Piranesi finished his Campo Marzio Plan, a projection of what ancient Rome could have been. The Lanciani Map of 1901 shows the historical layers of Rome, simultaneously ancient, modern, and proposed.

One can use a map to plan a route from point A to point B, to create a possible route through the city. But this is only a possibility, often the city changes our plans. Forcing us to move in different ways. Tricking us and making us lost once again. Leaving us to use the map again to ‘find’ our way.

This image shows us a different view of Rome. A starry sky with discernable landmarks, vastness in between. As we wander through the darkness, we connect the points. Creating our own story among the stars of Rome.

The possible worlds of Rome

Pieces of Assisi

Clips of a day in Assisi