Tag: Memory

Roma 12 – Lived, Perceived, and Conceived Space

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012

3_Museo Vaticano

Route: walk to the column of Marcus Aurelius, through the Jewish quarter and Parione/Ponte neighbourhoods, then home.

Reflection.

When concluding any major life event it is customary to sit back and reflect on the experience as a whole. To zoom out and give perspective. What have I learned? What will I remember most? What can I take away from this experience? I began this project with a discussion of expectations, met and unmet. Now we end with a discussion of experience, lived, perceived, and conceived.

Henri Lefebvre was a contemporary and part time fan of the Situationists. Also Marxist, also Parisian. He is famous for his writings on spatial architectonics which are where I draw most of today’s material from. Fancy words aside, his theories are extremely relatable and relevant to every architectural practice. I will try my best to apply them to our dozen days in the eternal city.

Perceived

Perceived space is defined as the socio/political sphere of thought surrounding a space/object/place. An official representation. The Taj Mahal without any people in front of it. The intent behind the Roman planning principles or the architects who created St. Peter’s Cathedral. “Public opinion.” It is not a real space, because space requires a body in it to be created. It is the space of myth, of story, of representation, of spectacle.

Conceived

A personal perception made up of the spoken and written word of other members of society and your personal dissemination of them.

Lived

Experience. A mental image informed by your own experience, constantly in flux. My conception of the Coliseum made up of a series of perceptions of Rome were brought to light in the lived experience and active creation of monumental space. My empty conception of every other monument shaped a new perception based on lived experience to create my own, non-monumental space. Enough wordplay.

Monumentality

“A monumental work, like a musical one, does not have a “signified” (or ‘signifieds’); rather, it has a horizon of meaning: which now one, now another meaning comes momentarily to the fore” — Henri Lefebvre, Spatial Architectonics, XIV

To conclude, of memory and monument, there exists now, in my memories, a personal horizon of meaning made up of a layered multiplicity of lived, perceived, and conceived spaces and experiences. A condensation of meanings, a background conversation between the deeply personal and the highly perceptual. Disappointment when a friend shows me a picture of herself in front of what appears to be Trevi Fountain, only to remember she just returned from Las Vegas. Something raw and romanticized about the real thing that we spend our travelling lives chasing. About origins and learning that everything leads back to Rome… Perhaps even my future. Fleeting moments of happiness that you try to capture, but like butterflies in a jar, won’t last the way you want them to. The most we can ask is that we look back and feel them flying out towards us.

“The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content.”
Cities & Desire

“Memory is redundant: it repeats signs to that the city can begin to exist.”
Cities & Signs

“…the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place. It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old post cards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.”
Cities & Memory
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Roma 11 – Cartography & Urban Plan

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012

Image (24)

Route: bus to Piazza Navona, then to Allan Ceen’s house/Piranesi museum near Campo dei Fiore. Walk up Via di Ripetta up through Villa Borghese. A search for the pond, to no avail. End up at Galleria Borghese. Lunch in Ludovisi, then over to Macro Contemporary Art Gallery. Metro from Barberini to Ottaviano to spend one last sunset beneath Bernini’s collonades in St. Peter’s Square, then south down Via della Lungara to Santa Maria in Trastevere for dinner and drinks. Walk home.

Today we took the most expanseful walk through the neighbourhoods of Rome and visited one of Daniel’s friends Allan Ceen to see a large collection of original Piranesi prints and to learn about the history of mapping in Rome. The successive urban plans of the city can be summarized as three eras that shape the current plan of Rome:

  • The main axis we travelled on the first day from Piazza del Popolo (1st Rome, Imperial, Constantine),
  • Roads winding down the seven hills and connecting also seven main churches: St. Peters, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Croce, San Sebastiano, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Paolo, and San Lorenzo (2nd Rome, Papal, Sixtus V),
  • The axis created by Mussolini leading up to St. Peter’s Square (3rd Rome, Imperial, Mussolini).

It was interesting to look back on these from an urban planning perspective when so far my whole experience of the city had been in serendipitous drifts. Now comes the realization that they cannot happen isolated from somebody else’s intent. I began to wonder what it would look like if each of these Popes and Emperors left a trace paper map of what they saw the city at and to lay them on top of each other. The result would likely be something experiential, because cartography technique and conception of space improved over time, and also look something really close to what Rome actually looks like today, a strata of streets laid one on top of another, gradually turning and twisting into present form.

It would so happen that we were about to visit a professor whose lifetime of work involves looking at one of the most accurate maps of the City of Rome to date. If Sir John Soane had a map room, if would probably look like Professor Ceen’s first floor gallery to his home. Littered with prints and maps, most of which were unobstructed by plastic sheets or glass cases as in museums. According to Ceen, a 1748 map called La Pianta Grande di Roma (the Grand Plan of Rome) created by Nolli rivals Google Maps for accuracy in city plan. You can take a look at it put together interactively in high res here on the UOregon website, where you can turn on and off features like fountains, city walls, and the river. No easy task, as the map originally was etched into six copper plates that put together, span 6×8 feet. We got to see the fully scanned and printed version of this map in extreme detail, along with other mapping projects by Piranesi.

La Pianta Grande di Roma, Nolli.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a Venetian architect who was extremely skilled at etching the real and imagined histories of Rome during the same lifetime as Nolli. The most interesting part of his work, to me and my memory project, were his imagined maps of the city based off of Nolli’s La Pianta Grande, but also on another map called Forma Urbis. 

Forma Urbis is a lost wall that used to stand in the Vespusian Forum that held a huge etching of Rome. As with most things in the city, it fell into ruin, it’s 157 slabs of marble crumbling into 1186 fragments. Once reunited in a small percentage in the 16th century, they are now likely sitting in boxes in an unknown collection, known only to a few of their real worth. Ceen had a great idea that was rejected by the City to compile and project the Forma Urbis onto a wall in the original Forum in digital form, which reminded me of an art competition we entered at work for at my intern position with Operative Agency.

Piranesi even had the imagination to use these fragments to imagine buildings where no archaeological evidence exists to tell us what they looked like. He would take foundation poches and turn them into full fledged building, city neighbourhood and villa plans. What if we were to take these projections and throw them into modern day Rome as well? What if they were to be constructed digitally and contextually?

Piranesi’s Grand Plan, based off of Nolli’s. Note the etchings of ancient buildings that adorn the sides.

Pieces of the Forma Urbis, as drawn by Piranesi at 1:1 scale

More fragments of the Forma Urbis.

Ceen’s proposal for an overlap in modern and ancient technologies in the practice of topography to create a meaningful diagloue is not unheard of. New GPS and satellite imagery are giving us the vision of a world we have never before seen, but also of one that is constantly outdated. With all this new open source technology, we have the ability to contribute to maps as community members; to use them to greater advantage not just on apps, but also to solve problems and in case of emergencies.

Without modern GPS, my memory and live experience of any kind of travel would seem much more fuzzy, out of reach. I have been using http://www.mapmyrun.com to map all our walks through Rome, and through the process, learned that not all the places we visit exist on every version of every map, even Google. And even then, Google Maps cannot create accidents. Some of these places remain locked in our memories, like fragments of a wall once shattered and lost, something to hold onto.

Roma 7 | Derive & Psychogeography

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

Route: Metro line A to Spagna station, lounging and sketching on the Spanish Steps. Walked down Via dei Condotti to revisit and sketch Ara Pacis Augustae. Wandered down to Piazza Navona for tartufo, dinner, drinks, and a soccer game near the Piazza, journey home.

Thesis.

To Drift: not the avoidance of commerce and spectacle in the Situationist sense, but more of the “organized spontaneity” and play amongst the romantic ruins and organic development of Rome’s historic urban core between and within monumental spaces. i.e. getting lost on purpose. Detournement through the deconstruction of classical axes and critical confrontation with the monumental sources of Western spectacle. Serendipity. A singular reading of movement in a city by memory.

Today was a Sunday, the holy day of rest. Consequently we slept in, caught up on some sketching, and enjoyed dinner and drinks in the evening. Because we did not take a purposeful trip through the city, today’s entry will be more of an explanation of the derive and the psychogeography of Rome. For those of you unfamiliar, the term derive is French/Italian for drift. It comes from a group of theorists called the Situationists, whose work I have been interested in since learning about it in a first year art course.

Drifts involve taking walks through a city (or any place, really), uninfluenced by where you have to be, or where, or in complete defiance of road signs, topographic contours, and touristic monuments… Basically everything that Rome is made of. It’s purpose is to have no purpose but to follow the pulse and the signs of the city, and turning where you please. They require a certain degree of letting go. In doing so, the original derives carried out in Paris by Guy Debord and his associates were designed to purposefully subvert the urban planning precedents imposed upon the city of the artists by Baron Haussman and his boulevards, as well as the mind-numbing commercialism and mass gentrification overtaking Paris. They are based on the principle that a city has it’s own in-between spaces formed by informal collections of turns and physical realities that subconsciously influence the way we experience an urban space. They are also at once extremely personal:

“The primarily urban character of the drift, in its element in the great industrially transformed cities — those centres of possibilities and meanings — could be expressed in Marx’s phrase: ‘Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.’ 
— Guy Debord, as quoted in The Situationist City by Simon Sadler

I think I am interested in certain aspects of drifts because they, like life, are uncertain and unplanned. For someone who always has to have such a big grasp on concepts, on my life trajectory, on the future, the appeal of the drift comes from it’s voidness of productivity: exactly the opposite of everything I aim for in life. I yearn for them; the new lived experience untainted by expectation, direction, and desire for growth. They are a reminder that some things simply are, and to be there, to simply be, can be one of the most difficult challenges. And I love challenges.

The term “Situationists” derives (haha) from their desire “to create ‘situations’ as opposed to what they saw as Lefebvre’s more passive stance of experiencing ‘moments’ when they happened to arise.” (David Harvey, from The Situationist City).

“Sartre argued that life is a series of given situations which affect the individual’s consciousness and will, and which must be in turn negotiated by that individual. Situationism now presupposed that it was possible for people to synthesize or manage these situations as an act of self-empowerment.”
— Simon Sadler, the Situationist City

Debord also used the words “collective ambiance” to describe them. And thus we arrive at the heart of all my projects, this blog, 100 Days of Summer, and finally, Derive a Roma. To actively seek out moments of self-empowerment in the heart of a planned city and planned life

Drifts allow us to allow ourselves to stop and stare at these kinds of details without even knowing what purpose they serve. Just the knowledge that they make you feel happy, spark your interest, enrich your journey.

In Rome, the main factors that influence the urban morphology are:

  • The 165 curving roads put into place by Pope Sixtus V with gradual bends to lessen the steepness of Rome’s seven hills.
  • The intent of axis-node planning methodology that makes you anticipate a journey or a monument around the corner.
  • A complete lack of grid.
  • How the people look standing in the doorways, sitting on the steps, staring you straight in the eye.
  • The ratio of cobblestone to sidewalk.
  • The physical and phenomenal layers of history.

Which can yield the following result in a derive, as we did many times in the city:

  • The joy of finding a famous monument when you meant to go somewhere else.
  • The disappointment of walking 6km when you meant to go somewhere else.
  • Everything you learn in between.
  • The leisure to travel down an alleyway into private property, glimpsing into a walled garden life.
  • Pleasure at the material transitions between pavement, cobblestone, and sidewalk. Brick and concrete. Ruin and complete.
  • Smaller piazzas and piazzettas that are as lively as the main ones.
  • The discovery that the best Italian food is made in the Jewish quarter.
  • The ability to find your way home on ancient streets late at night, drunk, reading every single sign in Italian out loud like a Global Positioning Shelley system.
  • The construction of a myth in your memory, of an experienced urban movement, reminiscient of others in Europe, a wall, a road, a road sign, an empty symbol engraved. A desire to re-read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities on the way to Venice. Reading the Da Vinci code instead.
  • Avoidance of tourists and hecklers.
  • Renouncement of hardened cynicism to Western history.
  • Time spent sitting on the steps of a fountain, happy to be here, grateful for this moment.
  • Living in the moment.
  • Wide eyes and a closed camera. When I see people bewildered by an experience, I stare. I like to think that others feel this way when they see me. Far, far from home, but we’re so happy:

Roma 1 | Memory and Monument

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
A sketch of an abandoned capital in the Roman Forum

A sketch of an abandoned capital in the Roman Forum

Route: home to Piazza del Popolo. After visiting 2/3 of the churches along the piazza, took Via del Corso down to the Roman Forum, stopping at the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and Trajan’s Forum along the way. After strolling through the ancient forums, the Coliseum, then home.

This is a Memory Project.

Being my first full-fledged “travelling” experience, I had only the smallest inkling of what I would learn in Rome, in terms of both history and life skills. I think that travelling is a time that we most want to remember but yet we most want to live in the moment. They are some of the times we have the biggest fear of forgetting. An inherent paradox. Memory is a funny thing.

So what if I did not take my picture in front of that monument: does it mean it did not happen? What if I decide not to or forget to document a smile, a shop window, a moment? What if Venice should succumb to sea level rise and my children cannot see it in 20 years? What if I am standing on a place where someone died, someone was born, something was built… but cannot tell? Is it something to be afraid of? A city experienced through the lens of your own eyes is different from that of your camera. It is amazing how differently you walk and experience a place when you are not looking for the perfect frame or at your GPS on your iPhone.

When you walk the streets of Rome, you feel 2000 years of history beneath your feet. But you also feel a city that is forever standing in it’s own shadow, void of modernity, fighting not to put new shoes on. I think that memory is the best way to start this dialogue because, not only is this a test to see how my experience reads a month after the fact, but Rome is a city of memory, not history. I say this because the way we typically think about history — that is, as a chronologically linear series of recorded events — is not only untrue, but is completely stratified and fault lined in Rome. We study Rome because of it’s history, but the experience of Rome is that of a collective memory more than a shared history.

“The memorial function isn’t really central in what buildings do, at least if one means their ability to record an affect, after the actuality of which the building preserves the memory has disappeared. This conscious striving for permanence is the main subject here, as well as some cases of permanence unsought, where accident makes a particular structure the last or nearly the last of its type. When its proper use is discontinued and half forgotten, the building remains to remind the serious student, who learns to read the signs it preserves, of vanished customs or ways of life.” — Robert Harbison, Memory

Beginning with Pope Sixtus the V, Rome was intended to be a built on the principle of axis and node (also known as cardo et demancus). These nodes take on various forms: piazzas, churches, obelisks, fountains. They can all be called monuments, not just because of scale or size, but because of their purpose.

Monument. noun.
a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event.
• a statue or other structure placed by or over a grave in memory of the dead.
• a building, structure, or site that is of historical importance or interest: the amphitheater is one of the many Greek monuments in Sicily.
• an outstanding, enduring, and memorable example of something: recordings that are a monument to the art of playing the piano.

We are most concerned with the last definition. Monuments that litter the city date from different eras, have experienced hundreds of years of changing rule, and subsequently have achieved a level of reinterpretation with the passage of time that Henri Lefebvre calls the changing “horizon of meaning”. These changing horizons have more to do with memory and the desire to be remembered/fear of being forgotten than it does to do with history and the so-called “fact”. More to do with a version of history presented then interpreted.

Rome is filled with monuments and a yearning for monumentality. So much so that after two weeks in Rome, I found myself saying “I’m sick of seeing monuments to dead people.” By the time I got to London three and a half weeks later I refused to enter Westminister Abbey. And I had never been to London before! That aside, Rome is also filled with empty memory. Fragments of walls and ancient structures protruding from an unassuming 17th century building’s first floor restaurant.

Tombstones of forgotten people used as walls in a church.

I found myself wondering, during our first walk through the city, how could one grow up in a city like this where your grade three history school field trip is to a fascist monument built by Mussolini to a dead Italian King that interrupts a thousand year old pilgrimage path to the 2000 year old forum? How do you take it all in? And not feel it’s weight? Or rather, some might wonder, how do you walk those steps without worrying that because of you, a tourist, because of them, their rulers, this part of an ancient civilization might not exist next year? My grade three history field trip was to the Royal Tyrell Dinosaur Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, which is even more ancient than Rome. But you cannot walk along the streets in Drumheller and see dinosaur bones under your feet.

The most precious picture of my brother and I that I have ever seen: on a family trip to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta.

Our first day in Rome we took the traditional path beginning at the city gate at Piazza del Popolo, down Via del Corso to the Roman Forum. And we did indeed see school field trips to Mussolini’s Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II on the way. These are the foundations (metaphorically and literally) to monumentality.

Piazza del Popolo

Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II

Foro Romano, the Roman Forum

Our 10 km walk about the city terminated at the Colosseum, one of Rome’s most famous monuments, thank you Russell Crowe.

At the Colosseum, I experienced for the first time, the closing of the gap between my perception of a space fuelled by pictures and Hollywood reproductions and the experienced reality of a place as it stands today. None of what we saw in Rome leading up to that moment I had known about, and in that regard, it was exciting. I could let my mind drift without harbouring preconceived notions of the first of many churches, how the Gap would look housed in an old fascist-era building, or the presence of real Egyptian obelisks in the middle of a public square in Europe. I was all taking it all in, learning.

The Colosseum both exceeded my expectations and disappointed me. In fact it exceeded my expectations was precisely because it disappointed me. Built in the year 80 AD, I don’t know how I could have expected some glamorous Hollywood recreation. Maybe I thought parts of it would have been restored to how it was at it’s peak operation. In reality, more than half of the remaining existing stairs were closed off because they more resembled ramps due to erosion and wear. But it surprised me for two reasons:

  1. It is just There. In the middle of the city, for the past 1932 years, it has just been sitting there. It was not forgotten and rebuilt over like much of the surrounding forum around it. Cars zooming by. Rain falling on an open stadium.
  2. It allowed me to let go of my expectations of a place and to accept the experience for what it really was. This is the Coliseum. And I am standing on it. And grateful to be here.

“As we write so we build; to keep record of that which matters to us.” — Alain de Botton, the Architecture of Happiness