Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Urbanism in Purgatory (Piazza Rucellai in Florence)

Rome, November 26, 2014

Some open spaces in the city are voids left by the structures around them. Others are figural spaces defined by the surrounding buildings. But there are some urban spaces that seem to fall outside of these alternatives. That seems to be the case of Piazza Rucellai, a small triangular open space in the historic center of Florence.

Piazza Rucellai is defined primarily by Palazzo Rucellai, the canonical building designed by Leon Battista Alberti, one of the preeminent architects and theoreticians of the Renaissance. At Palazzo Rucellai, Alberti's job involved the unification of a number of existing houses into a singular scheme, with a central courtyard and a rigorously composed classical façade. It also included a three-bay open loggia across the street, Via della Vigna Nuova, and perpendicular to the palazzo. This most unusual positioning of the two structures defines a 90-degree angle carving a deeper space in front of the palazzo. And certainly the new façade required quite a bit more perspective than what the width of the street could provide. Then, the buildings along another street coming at an acute angle--curiously named Via del Purgatorio--provide the hypotenuse completing the triangular space.

I must confess that I particularly like these kinds of design operations, as they 1) define open space with geometric precision, 2) maintain the discrete entity of the buildings, and 3) engage the whole thing within the fabric of the city. All done in a most unaffected way, almost as if it were easy.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Roma: The Orientation of Maps

Rome, September 20, 2014

Giambattista Nolli oriented his celebrated 1748 map of Rome with north up, a modern, carefully chosen cartographic convention, one that we still use today. It has the Tiber running more or less vertically towards the left side of the plate, the bulk of the city in the center, and the Vatican on the top-left corner.

Nolli owed greatly to a 1551 map by Leonardo Bufalini. But Bufalini had oriented his map with east up, following an earlier convention dating to the Middle Ages (see note.) In this map, the Tiber runs horizontally on the bottom half of the image, with the Vatican on the bottom-left corner. Among the 19 plats of his "Pianta Grande di Roma", Nolli actually included a reproduction of Bufalini’s plan, redrawn and reoriented with north up.

In 1774 Giovanni Battista Piranesi published his “Pianta di Roma e del Campo Marzo” with north down. Why? Piranesi had worked with Nolli in the 1748 publication--the “Piccola Pianta” is signed “Piranesi e Nolli incisero”--so he is quite deliberate in choosing a different orientation. One possible explanation is that he was going back to an experiential reading of the map, following the pilgrimage route from the north, entering the city through Porta del Popolo at the bottom of the drawing and proceeding up.

Note: for a more general discussion of the orientation of maps see an earlier blog entry:

(With thanks to old and new friends, Nick De Pace, Ezio Genovesi and Allan Ceen, for their guidance as I begin to to learn about Rome and its maps.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Apennine Urbanism (2)

Rome, August 29, 2014

Walking the narrow streets of Castelvecchio Calvisio--the small town on the Apennine Mountains of Abruzzo--one is immediately struck by the proliferation of stone stairs rhythmically projecting out from the façade of the buildings. They reveal a distinctive fabric of shops and warehouses at ground level and housing on top. The stairs run parallel to the street, cantilevering from the outer stone walls. The fabric is mostly two stories high, but extremely dense, with many portions of the private upper level arching over the public passageways. As far as I can tell, each stair gives access to an individual dwelling, strengthening the use of the street and creating a matrix akin to what Team 10 architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson or Candilis, Josic, Woods liked to call carpet housing or mat buildings (yes, only just a number of centuries before the Golden Lane project or the Berlin Free University.)

Even more surprising is the curious configuration of the stairs, narrow at the bottom and wider at the top, as if they had been shaved just above human height. The purpose of this ground level reduction is to allow passage, particularly along themain street at the center of the village, where the cuts seem to literally trace the outline of a loaded donkey.