Tag: Travel

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 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 5 & 6 | Modernism and Modernity

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Montemartini detail Sketch

Montemartini detail Sketch

Route: metro to Statione Flaminio, took the mini tram to see Renzo Piano’s Auditorio de Musica and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI contemporary art gallery just north of the City Walls. Walked back to Villa Borghese (Rome’s Stanley Park), and visited Galleria d’arte Moderna in the park, Rome’s biggest modern art museum. Walked to Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis memorial to Augustus, gelato and wine in the afternoon shade, shopping in Trastevere, walked along the Tiber back to Piazza Navona for dinner. Tried to get back to Statione Barberini, got us lost. Stumbled upon Trevi Fountain at night. Serendipity.

Route: Metro line B to Pyramide, walk along Via Ostiense to Montemartini Art Centre, walk back, Metro line B to Metro line A, Metro line A to Flaminio, walk about Villa Borghese, read for two hours, then walked to Statione Spagna to get home.

Juxtaposition and Success

Friday and Saturday were a study of modernity in the city of ancients, as we visited some starchitecture within and around the city, and I read and summarized a 53 page reading on Modernism in Italy. What follows are my findings from the two journeys.

In sum. Romans have long pushed back against modernism because they are proud of their past, and the whole premise of modernism is rejection of the past and it’s associated values. I would also like to speculate that the strong presence of religion has also played a part in slowing the adoption of modernity into the city itself. But the rejection of modernism does not mean a rejection of modernity necessarily. In terms of transportation, conservation, and a history of reuse, Rome is in many ways much more modern and contemporary than most Canadian cities. Conservation of buildings and renovation over the building of new has a lot to do with the success of surviving artifacts and preservation of the historical fabric of Rome. Condominums atop of a 2000 year old theatre (Theatre of Marcellus, see Day 3)! Subsequently, modern architecture has had to work around this surviving fabric, literally at times.

Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica

During the construction of Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica, ancient ruins were discovered while digging for the foundations; a problem commonly “run into” for new building projects, especially Roman metro lines. In the case of Piano’s auditorium, they were preserved and turned into a featured dig roped off as part of the buildings themselves. The three buildings also reference the form of ancient outdoor Roman ampitheatres, as they all approach on a large outdoor seating space. MAXXI we visited another day when it was open, but we visited three other galleries over the two days that are excellent examples of the juxtaposition of old and new that are all extremely successful.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Situated in the middle of old Borghese private property, the National Modern Art Gallery looks nothing like MAXXI, it’s other contemporary. Although it was built in 1911 at the height of modernism, it uses a neoclassical facade that fits in with the look and feel of the rest of the Villa, and is approached by a large descent that equals the ascent, giving it an imposing quality. It’s modernistic aspect comes from the most comprehensive collection of Italian modernist art in Italy housed inside.

The art itself is worth discussing in the “Modernism” section of these chronicles, because, like the building and other modernist architecture in Italy, it takes on new forms, new materials, and tries to struggle free from the holds of history and antiquity that steep and surround them. Marble sculptures in the vein of ancient and renaissance classics began to writhe and pull towards Rodin, set in a gallery with a broken mirrored floor. Experimentations with material and scale stand painfully beside the reminder of an arched doorway, rejecting the monochrome abstractions housed behind.

Why it works: because of the struggle that Italian modernists faced in both architecture and art, this museum stands as a testament and storehouse of a unique and complicated history.

Approach to the gallery.

Mirrored floor.

Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Augustae

One of my favourite spaces in Rome: Meier’s signature white concrete planes set beside a classical church facade and the ancient rotunda of Augustus’ Memorial. The straight planes were a welcome relief after having spent a week drawing column after column after column.

Inside, materiality felt consistent with the monument to peace that it housed, and it was extremely cool. Air conditioning! Ara Pacis refers to the era of peace brought about by Augustus, also known as Emperor Caesar. The monument to peace was discovered in the Augustus memorial (the brown rotunda), and placed outside for public visitation before it was determined that deterioration was inevitable and a building must be commissioned nearby to house the artifact.

Why it works: because it is a peaceful jewel of modernism that houses a jewel of ancient peace. It is non-confrontational but serenely bold. The colour palette breaks with Rome only insofar as it is white, carte blanche, tabula rasa.

Montemartini Art Centre

Again, located on the outskirts of the city, this time on the South side. Entry #6 in my travel book’s list of “Top Ten Beyond the City Walls” describes “Rome’s very first power station has been transformed into a remarkable showcase for Greek and Roman statues – parts of the Musei Capinolini collection…The effect is extraordinary, playing the monolithic might of modern technology off against the noble, human vulnerability of these ancient masterpieces.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The permanent exhibition, called Le Macchine e Gli Dei or “The Machines and the Gods” tells the narrative of the development of two kinds of power in Roman society: power through art and representation of important figures, and powering a city with resources. Against the stark contrast of black cast iron stand fragments of torsos, limbs, asses, all in white marble, shocked to find themselves surrounded by such heavy industry.

Why it works: because it is absolutely beautiful, surreal, and perfectly frozen in time.

Modernism failed in Italy for two reasons.

  1. It was mired by context and did not fit in with the palettes, forms, and shapes of the past.
  2. It was taken up by Fascism.

CIAM, the Congres Internationale d’Architecture Moderne formed by Corbusier and co. in the early 20th century, condemned Italian modernism for not breaking with the past. But with a history as strong as the Roman Empire, what reason did Italy have to reject it’s proud past? With the resurgence of powerful leadership under Mussolini, what choice did they have to really have in pursuit of a new world order? Rome especially found it’s out in the form of “The International Style” and in the proliferation of suburban low-income housing projects that Modernism became so famous for. Even today, commercialism remains the plague of Roman suburbs, leaving the historical centre clean and free from the apparent class divisions that Modernism claimed to want to solve.

One of the main goals of Team X following the dissolution of CIAM was equitable social housing for the masses. Although we passed through one of these suburbs, Garbatella, on our way to the EUR on the following Monday, we did not study them. It would appear that the suburbs are for the second-time traveller to visit and the full-time citizen to live in. They do, however, provide an interesting foil for exploring the historic core, to help define what a Roman Drift really means…

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