Earlier this year, the Italian Ministry of Infrastructure, backed by European Union recovery funds, announced a public design tender calling for urban regeneration projects that improve “the quality of living.” It was a well-timed opportunity for Roman authorities to confront the city’s housing crisis, in which market-rate prices are exorbitant and public housing is in desperately short supply.
Luca Montuori, the urban planning counselor for the City Council, teamed up with local architecture schools on three housing schemes that were all awarded funds. Two proposals are of particular interest: the renovation of Porto Fluviale (River Harbor), a multicultural squat in central Rome; and the rehabilitation of a 1980s public housing complex in Tor Bella Monaca, the city’s poorest neighborhood.
About 10,000 people occupy some of Rome’s many abandoned buildings. In 2003, a crowd of about 200 broke through the gates of a derelict, military warehouse, owned by the Ministry of Defense. This block-long, C-shaped building has been squatted ever since. Today it’s home to 56 families of 13 nationalities, mainly South Americans, North Africans, and Italians. Somewhat remarkably, the residents there have overcome cultural and religious differences to self-organize the building as a collective. They have restored the structure, constructing homes for each family on the upper floors, with common spaces on the ground floor, and a large interior courtyard. Notwithstanding the constant threats of eviction, the squat has opened its doors to the neighborhood and offered a range of social services and cultural activities.
Porto Fluviale is located near the railroad in the Ostiense district, a rapidly gentrifying industrial zone that is now one of the capital’s trendiest districts. As a rare squat in central Rome, it stands as a symbol of a grass-roots housing movement that has, for now, defeated property speculation. Ironically, the building is also one of the area’s main tourist attractions. A decade ago, Blu, a famous street artist, painted over the austere grey façade, transforming 50 windows across three floors into gleaming eyes, in an assortment of massive rainbow-colored faces that peer out onto the street and allude to the multicultural community inside. On a lateral wall, the artist drew a giant ship teeming with property developers under attack by squatters.
A floating boat hangs over the building’s entrance, a fitting symbol for the collective and the product of a summer school residence organized by the Laboratorio Arti Civiche (Laboratory of Civic Arts). Directed by Francesco Careri at the Roma Tre University architecture school, the lab has worked with the collective for years, assisting it in opening up to the neighborhood, while students study self-organizing forms of communal living. Careri and Fabrizio Finucci, a colleague, led Roma Tre’s team, devising an adaptive-reuse proposal, Porto Fluviale RecHouse. Working with the City Council and other local partners, the objective is to renovate the building and provide legal housing for its inhabitants, while preserving Porto Fluviale’s unique identity and relationship with the neighborhood. Roma Tre’s long affiliation with the residents helped facilitate a participatory planning process and co-design collaboration.
The construction team has set up a rotation scheme for residents so that families can remain on site for the duration of the work.The simple designs echo the residents’ self-built units on the upper floors that favor flexible configurations, with mezzanines for additional space. Sliding doors divide bedrooms of varying sizes, with high, loft-like ceilings, that open onto long corridors, once used for distributing goods. Remnants of the building’s industrial past have been preserved, including the original Hennebique reinforced-concrete structure, large industrial windows, exposed concrete beams on the ceiling, and machinery tracks on the floor. A new permeable facade connects to the neighborhood as large glass windows replace street level shutters to reveal some of the collective’s activities: artisan studios, circus and dance workshops, as well as a bicycle workshop that connects to new bicycle lanes. The interior courtyard provides a rare public piazza for the local community. In addition to a playground and sports facilities, it will also host services for the elderly, a center for women victims of violence, digital workshops, and a Roma Tre 24/7 study room. And the terrace, equipped with new photovoltaic panels, will become a roof garden.
The RecHouse proposal was awarded 11 million euros for a scheme, co-designed with the residents of the collective, that accomplishes several things: it saves and reuses a historic building, provides low-cost housing for residents who need it, and contributes to the social cohesion of the neighborhood. As a result, RecHouse was cited as one of the 15 best proposals. One hopes it serves as a viable model for many of Rome’s abandoned buildings and an example of inventive forms of communal living, ever more necessary in this post-pandemic age.
Tor Bella Monaca
Tor Bella Monaca (“Tower of the Beautiful Nun”) lies on the eastern outskirts of Rome, 20 kilometers from the city center. Sadly, the district’s poetic name is misleading. The neighborhood is fractured by a highway and dominated by grey, 15-story cement towers that loom over decaying low-rise prefabricated units.
And yet the housing complex in Tor Bella Monaca was constructed in more optimistic times. In the early 1980s, Mayor Luigi Petroselli saw the creation of one of the largest public housing complexes in Italy as a solution to Rome’s housing crisis and rising numbers of illegal settlements in the eastern suburbs. Like other projects at the time, it was planned as an autonomous neighborhood, but it was built too quickly, and basic services were never installed. Residents today continue to live in these poorly constructed and operated buildings. The huge complex is home to 30,000 of the city’s poorest residents and is infiltrated by the local mafia.
Fortunately, like many of Rome’s poor neighborhoods, community activism has found ways of compensating for government neglect. Carlo Cellamare, a professor of Urban Planning at La Sapienza University and director of LabSU, a multidisciplinary urban studies laboratory, calls contemporary Rome a “città fai-da-te” (“do-it-yourself city”). At Tor Bella Monaca, resourceful residents have restored some dignity to the neighborhood by renovating public spaces and green areas. They have helped revitalize the community by retaking abandoned structures, to advance social and cultural initiatives in areas often controlled by local drug dealers. Women run many of the most enterprising ventures, including Cubo Libro (Book Cube), a small, self-managed “public” library and meeting place, where books cram every corner of a once-abandoned, cube-shaped building, and La Casa di Alice (Alice’s House), founded by a group of mothers who occupied and restored a derelict building, provides a safe place for children to study and play.
LabSU, set up in 2015, has dedicated considerable research to Tor Bella Monaca’s residents and everyday life in the neighborhood. It collaborates with grass-root organizations to develop regeneration projects, mediating with public authorities to obtain support and funding. Projects include the refurbishment of the Casa di Alice, a “memory in movement” program that encourages citizens to take pride in the neighborhood’s history, and an educational initiative to qualify a local school, expand activities, improve the library, and renovate the surrounding piazza.
Luca Montuori assembled a different team for Tor Bella Monaca, which was led by Eliana Cangelli, a professor of technological design at La Sapienza. The scheme focuses on the massive R5 housing complex, made up of three C-shaped buildings, each with its own internal courtyard. Their aim is to improve living conditions through a sustainable makeover of R5’s central building. It’s a crucial intervention in a building where living conditions are tough: electricity and water filtration service is poor, building insulation often nonexistent, and rising sewers are commonplace.
Resident safety is another priority. Secure public spaces are scarce now, so the dark, deserted courtyard favored by drug dealers will be remodeled as a green zone, with gardens and playgrounds, connecting to the countryside through pedestrian paths. The plan will reactivate the ground floors with services and stores and provide accommodation for the disabled and co-housing for the young. It will also improve safe access into and out of the building on the main road and add lawns and bicycle lanes.
Cangelli and her team had one month to produce a design that was awarded 15 million euros (the City Council will add 14 million). Because of the tight deadline, they could not coordinate a participatory process with residents and local organizations, or work with LabSU as a mediator. While the scheme will certainly improve living conditions, it risks being perceived as a top-down initiative that could struggle to gain the trust of residents, who have no confidence in the public authorities that have neglected them for decades. “It’s a design for an ideal world, but the reality here is very different,” said Maria Vittoria Molinari, President of the Neighbourhood Committee. “A green courtyard and bicycle paths will not resolve much.” Residents are more concerned about who will manage the new locatations and public spaces, as well as criminal infiltration and social unrest.
Last month Rome voted left in the local elections. This could be an auspicious development for both Porto Fluviale and Tor Bella Monaca. The City Council will soon need to run a tender process for the execution of the final projects. Whatever the outcome, the innovative work of architecture school laboratories could prove essential to the success of these schemes and those developed in the future.
Featured image: Porto Fluviale with Circus Workshop. Infographic collage by Leroy S.P.Q.R.DAM (2021).