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 fa├žade 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 the main street at the center of the village, where the cuts seem to literally trace the outline of a loaded donkey.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Apennine Urbanism (1)

Rome, August 27, 2014

The urban structure of settlements on mountains and hills typically follow the “lay of the land”. Take for example the towns in the Baronia de Carapelle on the Abruzzo region of Italy. Built on the slopes of the Apennines, the architecture of these towns--Santo Stefano, Calascio, Castel del Monte--follow the contour lines of the mountain, with long roads slowly climbing up at shallow angles and stairs negotiating the changes of level at steeper angles.

The approach to Castelvecchio Calvisio, also part of the Baronia, appears to suggest a similar urban structure, with the newer architecture of the south-facing part of the town following the topography of the terrain and a zigzagging road with hairpin turns going up. But at the top, the medieval core of Castelvecchio reveals a completely unexpected geometry: an orthogonal arrangement of narrow streets within a tight oval perimeter. It has a main street running east-west following the long axis of the oval and perpendicular streets running north-south at small intervals. From above it looks as something like the fossil of some enormous turtle-like creature. Although uncompromising in plan, the straight geometry of the streets is allowed to curve from the center to the edge on top of the convex form of the land.

Where does the surprising geometry of Castelvecchio Calvision come from? That I don't know, but I'm sure that there is a fascinating story there...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Roma: the Severan Marble Plan

Rome, August 26, 2014

When the Giambattista Nolli completed his monumental “Pianta Grande di Roma” (better known as the “Nolli Map”) in 1748, he was adding his name to a long list of extraordinary mapmakers of Rome that, throughout the long history of the city, labored to survey and depict Rome in all its topographical and architectural complexity.

More than fifteen centuries earlier, the “Forma Urbis Romae” made one of the first attempts, if not the first, to map the imperial city. Produced during the last years of Septimius Severus rule (203-211 CE,) it depicted floor plans of every building and monument within the central part of the city. It was gigantic: 60 feet wide by 45 feet high, carved on 150 marble slabs assembled on a wall of the Templum Pacis (now the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano) in the Imperial Fora.

By the Middle Ages, the Severan Plan had all but disappeared, turned into raw construction material. During the Renaissance, broken fragments of the marble slabs began to reappear and since the first discoveries in 1562, fragments have continued to emerge, most recently in 2001. Over the years, this extraordinary puzzle was the subject of several reconstructions. When the pieces were transferred to public ownership and moved to the Capitoline Museum in 1741, the museum curator Pietro Forrier undertook the first systematic project of assembly and exhibition of the map. With the assistance of--who else?--Giambattista Nolli.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Roma: Via dell’Arco della Ciambella

Rome, August 24, 2014

Via dell’Arco della Ciambella is a one-block street buried in the middle of Rome’s Historic Center, roughly midway between the Piazza della Rotonda and the Largo di Torre Argentina. It is rather unremarkable, except for two massive brick walls jutting out from the north side. If you look carefully behind the front of the buildings along the street, you will notice that they are part of a single circular wall, the remnants of the central drum of Rome’s first Thermae, the Baths of Agrippa.

Built towards the end of the first century BC during the rule of Augustus, the baths were part of a highly articulated composition of religious and civic structures that  included the Pantheon (rebuilt by Hadrian at the beginning of the second century AD) some 200 m to the north, and the Temple of Minerva Calcidica, now buried under Santa Maria sopra Minerva around the corner. By the Middle Ages, that grand composition had been replaced by a dense residential fabric of more-or-less rectangular blocks. Via dell’Arco della Ciambella is one of the streets within that fabric, sitting pretty much on the east-west axis of the bath’s main hall. The remains of the hall show the beginning of an arch--its main entryway--that gives the name to the street.

(By the way, the word “ciambella” refers to an Italian doughnut-shaped pastry, a shorthand analogy to the circular hall of the baths.)