Refurbishing the 60’s masterpieces: two examples from Rome

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The city within a building – Mario Fiorentino

In the last 50 years, we have built a massive amount of buildings, experimenting techniques and philosophies as never before. Reinforced concrete, cheap energy and cars allowed us a freedom to build that we never experienced before.

Now, many of the ideas behind them look outdated, and the building themselves are approaching the end of their lifecycle, and , so, deciding of their future will be one of the main challenges architects will face in the next years.

  • What shall we do with buildings that are growing old, need a massive renovation, but are a strong part of our heritage? Shall we save them as they are, adapt them to our comntemporary exigences, or admit they are too old and too expensive to be restore, and tear everything down?
  • In 50 years, will we regret our choices concerning the 50-years old buildings we decided to destroy, to keep or to renovate?
  • When we build our contemporary building, how shall we consider their future?

Let’s start with an example: La Rinascente in .

La rinascente

(photo: skyscrapercity)

Architects: Franco Albini/Franca Helg
Client: La Rinascente
Location: Rome, Italy
Project year: 1957-1961


(video: Fjfm)

La Rinascente is considered as one of the Italian Modernism’s masterpieces. Located in a strategic place, just outside the historic town, La Rinascente imitates the classical decoration of the surrounding buildings using a steel-framed structure. Every element of classical architecture is recreated in steel, and has a specific role in the building structure: the horizontal beams become trigliphs, the vertical beams columns and capitals, and the maintenance rails become the building’s main frieze. The space between columns is filled with precast concrete panels, featuring a white-and-red, waved texture.

La Rinascente is a masterpiece whose preservation will be problematic in the near future. Conceived in a period in which energy was cheap and environment was not a major concern, the building depends heavily on artificial lighting and air conditioned, and has almost no windows. Adapting it to current energy standards implies a massive refurbishment, and will hardly be possible without providing sources of natural lighting, opening windows on the façade and changing some of the features of the building.

Let’s go on with another example, still in Rome, but this time in the suburbs: Corviale.

(photo: flickr)

Architect: Mario Fiorentino
Client: IACP (social housing institute)
Location: Rome, Italy
Project year: 1972-1982

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(image: flickr)

(image: flickr)

Promoted as “The city within a building”, Corviale takes the principles of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, and reunites all of them into a, 11-storey, 1-km long single building, hosting 1200 apartments and 6000 people. 5 main stairways allow people to enter the building, and a secondary network of stairs and walkways spread throughout the entire building. The 4th floor was reserved to shops, offices and small business, allowing the community to be entirely self-sufficient. All apartments would enjoy an optimal solar lighting, and an amazing view over the city of Rome.

To further show the experimental tone of the intervention, a special signage was commissioned, as well as 5 sculptures, to be positioned in front of the 5 main entrances.

(video: Fjfm)

Even though the architects had full freedom, and even if the building had an enthousiastic review from both public authorities and the press, it turned into a complete failure: the 4th floor was never able to attract shops and business, and little by little got squatted, turning into a “flying favela”.

The other floor had a similar destiny: given to low-income families, they became a big ghetto, and now the entire building is considered as “The symbol of a failed utopia”.

All along the years, lots of different programs have been established in order to improve the inhabitants’ lifestyle: shopping centers all around the main building, schools and sport facilities, and an animation program, including a street TV and an incubator for young entrepreneurs. Some programs shave succeeded, some others have failed, but none of them has been able to turn Corviale into an appealing place to visit and live.

And, 30 years later, concrete is starting to crack.

(this post was originally published on ArchDaily.com)

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 7/7

50 years after the first Unité, this model seems already belonging to another era. The strong separation between the building and its surroundings, the sensation of living in an all-artificial environment, and an almost complete identification of the Unité d’Habitation with social housing have made this model quite undesirable. The destiny of the millions of Unités scattered around the world will be one of the major problems for XXI century urbanists.

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Rome, Theatre of Marcellus, probably a model for the evolution of the Unités (image: wikimedia commons). Originally a Roman Theater, in the Middle Ages it was reused as a mixed residential-commercial building.

Rome, Corviale, 1972-1982. Just like in the Theatre of Marcellus, spaces have been reused over time: the abandoned commercial spaces have been squatted and turned into dwellings.

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Rome, Laurentino 38, 1973 (image: flickr). When it was conceived, the district followed the rules of the Urbanisme sur dalle: the road network at the lower level was supposed to be dedicated to cars, while, on the upper level, 11 elevated roads (the so-called “bridges”) were supposed to be dedicated to pedestrians and filled with shops. At the moment, shops have moved to street level (note the kiosk at the extreme left) while the upper level has been squatted and turned into dwellings. In 2006, 3 over 11 elevated roads have been demolished.

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Paris, Beaugrenelle, another case of Urbanisme sur dalle (image: flickr). Shops and activities have deserted the pedestrian level and moved at street level.

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Paris, Beaugrenelle. the street level (image: flickr).

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Paris, Beaugrenelle, shopping center (image: flickr). All the complex is undergoing a major renovation: the slabs covering the roads at the grounds have been removed, and the shopping centers have been rebuilt, with new entrances at street level. All the details about this project can be found here.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 6/7

Promoted as a standard, easy-to-build product, The Unité d’Habitation concept spread all over the world after WWII. The first 5 units (Marseille, Firminy, Rezé, Briey and Berlin) built by Le Corbusier himself became the standard for almost all public housing project between 1950 and 1990.

The more the model was spread along the world, the more it changed from the original concept. Most examples use a simplified version, colloquially known as Panelák or Plattenbau.

Another transformation of the Unité d’Habitation was the so-called Urbanisme sur dalle (urbanisme on slabs). Instead of being raised on pillars one by one, buildings were raised in groups, with an elevated ground floor between them.

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Paris, Les Olympiades, 1969-1974. The elevated ground floor, dedicated to pedestrians (image: wikipedia).

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Paris, les Olympiades, 1969-1974 (image: wikipedia). The whole district is raised on pillars. Roads pass under the district and lead to garages.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 5/7

Promoted as a standard, easy-to-build product, The Unité d’Habitation concept spread all over the world after WWII. The first 5 units (Marseille, Firminy, Rezé, Briey and Berlin) built by Le Corbusier himself became the standard for almost all public housing project between 1950 and 1990.

The more the model was spread along the world, the more it changed from the original concept. Most examples use a simplified version, colloquially known as Panelák or Plattenbau. From the original Unité, the Panelák kept:

  • The concept of building as indipendent, serial units floating over a green landscape
  • the absence of decorations
  • flat roof (even though they were no longer used as public spaces)
  • large windows and balconies.

On the other side, some features were discarded:

  • buildings suspended over pillars
  • multi-functional buildings (commerces and services were put aside, in small, low-rise buildings)

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Gdańsk, Falowiek, 1970. 11 storey, 850 m long, 6000 inhabitants (image: wikimedia commons).

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An example of Panelák in Prague (image: wikimedia commons).

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tower-shaped Panelák in Prague (image: wikipedia).

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Gdańsk, typical windows pattern on a Panelák (image: wikipedia).

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 4/7

Promoted as a standard, easy-to-build product, The Unité d’Habitation concept spread all over the world after WWII. The first 5 units (Marseille, Firminy, Rezé, Briey and Berlin) built by Le Corbusier himself became the standard for almost all public housing project between 1950 and 1990.

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Rome, Corviale, 1972-1982 (image: flickr). Strict translation of the Unité d’Habitation principles in a 980 m, 11 storey building. 1200 apartments, about 6000 inhabitants. Probably the biggest Unité in the world.

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Rome, Corviale, 1972-1982. The building, seen from the countryside (image: flickr).

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Rome, Corviale, 1972-1982. the internal staircase and corridors (image: flickr).

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Geneva, le Lignon, 1963-1971. The complex, 1060 m long, hosts 5581 people (image: wikimedia commons).

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Geneva, le Lignon, 1963-1971. One of the ends of the 1060 m long building (image: Flickr).

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Geneva, le Lignon, 1963-1971. the two towers, 26 storey and 30 storey high (image: flickr). The highest of the two towers hosts two swimming pools on its roof.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 3/7

In the beginning of the XX century, steamships were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Each one of them could carry 2000 passengers for a 15-days trip between Europe and America, and in these days it became for them a sort of new house.

The image of all these people living, loving, fighting, making business, all in this big floating superstructure entered the social imagery of the time and little by little, more and more nautical elements were integrated into architecture.

In the first building, this integration was limited to decorative elements, then it became more substantial: all steamships’ characteristical elements were analyzed and transposed into architectural elements. The result of this work was the Unité d’Habitation.

Just like a steamship, the Unité d’Habitation floats over the landscape, suspended over a series of pillars. Apartments, hotels, shops, schools and hospitals lie in rows just like cabins, while the roof (the building’s deck) hosts public spaces, sport facilities and swimming pools. Inhabitants of the Unité have whatever they need within the building, and could spend all their life without going out of it.

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MS Kungsholm, section showing the superposed decks (image: wikimedia commons).

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Berlin Unité d’Habitation, floating over a park, 1957 (image: flickr).

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Marseille Unité d’Habitation’ s hull, suspended on pillars, 1947-1952 (image by Emma Mykytyn on flickr ).

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Apartments and shops on the sides of Marseille Unité , 1947-1952 (image by Emma Mykytyn on flickr).

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Marseille Unité‘s deck, with view over the city, 1947-1952 (image: flickr).

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 2/7

In the beginning of the XX century, steamships were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Each one of them could carry 2000 passengers for a 15-days trip between Europe and America, and in these days it became for them a sort of new house.

The image of all these people living, loving, fighting, making business, all in this big floating superstructure entered the social imagery of the time and little by little, more and more nautical elements were integrated into architecture.

In the first buildings, this integration was limited to decorative elements, as we can see in the examples here below.

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A tipycal steamship’s deck (image: wikipedia).

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Mies van der Rohe, house in Weissenhof, Stuttgart, 1927 (image: wikipedia). Note the stairway parapets, directly inspired from the Steamship’s deck.

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Giuseppe Terragni, Casa del Fascio, Como, 1936 (image: wikipedia). while the image of the buildings recalls steamships’ multiple decks, its plan still recalls renaissance palaces.

The rise and fall of the “Unité d’Habitation” – 1/7

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SS Empress of britain, pre-1924 (image: wikimedia commons).

In the beginning of the XX century, steamships were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Each one of them could carry 2000 passengers for a 15-days trip between Europe and America, and in these days it became for them a sort of new house.

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MS Kungsholm, entrance to 1st class room, 1928 (image: wikimedia commons).

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MS Kungsholm, 1st class room, 1928 (image: wikimedia commons).

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MS Kungsholm, 1st class smoke room, 1928 (image: wikimedia commons).
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MS Kungsholm, swimming pool, 1928 (image: wikimedia commons).

The image of all these people living, loving, fighting, making business, all in this big floating superstructure entered the social imagery of the time and little by little, more and more nautical elements were integrated into architecture.

the whistle stop train tour

Following the same route that Abraham Lincoln rode 150 years ago, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Dr. Jill Biden made their way to the inauguration on a whistle stop train tour that wove its way from Philadelphia through Delaware and Maryland on its way to Washington.

“To the children who hear the whistle of the train and dream of a better life — that’s who we’re fighting for. That’s who needs change,” President Obama said at one stop along the way. “And those are the stories that we will gather with us to Washington.”

After several years in which trains have been neglected in favour of cars and planes, Obama’s choice of trains as a symbol of the new hope for USA is indeed a good news!

(source: The White House)

Architecture and complexity

One of the things that create a great built environment is complexity. When facing big projects, most of the architects have tried to recreate a complexity in their buildings, with a big effort and not very satisfying results.

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Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67 (image: wikipedia)

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Frank Gehry, MIT Stata Center (image: wikipedia)

Another option allows a better result with lower effort. Instead of planning every single element, we can just design some “seeds” of the building, then wait. Even when seeds are simple, the result turns often amazingly complex.

An example of this kind of architecture is the Quinta Monroy housing project by Elemental.

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Quinta Monroy, just before the arrival of the dwellers (image: ArchDaily)

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The same view, some months later. dwellers have arrived, and have modified houses to match their needs. As a result, all houses are different from each other.  (image: ArchDaily)

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