Just beyond the fringe of the city, Tiburtino stands ambiguously in its multi-colored, playful facades, celebrated by its inhabitant yet dismissed by its very designers. Constructed between 1949 and 1954, it is the earliest one of INA-CASA housing projects, and a paradigm of neorealist architecture. By the second-half of the twentieth century, neorealism gained a new momentum as conceptions of modernism shifted in parallel with the new reality of the Italian state and its democratic ideals. Diverging from rationalist and fascist attitudes, the new ideology was in search of a vernacular language that was rich in tradition and sensitive to the needs of the ordinary, common individual facing the repercussions of the war. Such was the case with the architects of Tiburtino, whose goal was to provide a remedy for housing shortage through the design of “architecture on the human scale” (Casciato 45). Tiburtino was thus a comprehensive project in scope, attempting to find an equilibrium between social values and functional yet organic design, and ultimately testing architecture’s limits in realizing that ideological pursuit.
[INA-Casa Tiburtino housing project, 1949-54]
History: Towards a New Democracy
By the end of the war, housing became one of the chief concerns in Italy’s reconstruction, as six percent of housing or “over two million rooms” were damaged (Kirk 156). Efforts began by establishing governmental and financial structure from 1944 to 1948, paving the way to the planning and executing of large housing projects by the end of the decade. Tackling the problem of unemployment and lack of housing was a considerable task, and these social goals had to work in sync with the overall design in a speedy yet effective manner.
It was certainly an ambitious project that had ethical and social underpinnings, and to challenge the architects even further, they were to institute a new aesthetic and artistic expression stripped away from Fascism and adhere to the principles of a new democracy. While the former style was dictated by a rational, monumental, and academic tradition, detached from the “architecture of daily life” indifferent to the individuals, the new design was to critically consider the psychological, social, and material needs of the individual and the society at the same time (Casciato 32).
[Palazzo della Civilta del Lavoro, example of Italian Fascist architecture]
This idea was first elaborated in Bruno Zevi’s 1945 Towards and Organic Architecture, in which he proposed an architecture that was not bound by authority, but one that was functional from technical, social, and psychological point of view. It is by no surprise that in the Manuale dell’ Architetto (The Architect’s Handbook), a mass produced handbook created in 1946 which set up criteria for the fields in architecture and planning design, proposed solutions stemming from the idea of an organic architecture. The manual drew its references from the elements of German functionalist as well as craft techniques, which would later be realized in Tiburtino. Organizations like APAO (Associazione per l’Architettura Organica) and various literatures, including the journal Metron, also propounded upon the idea of a more authentic and “realistic” architecture giving emphasis on the people who occupy it.
These conceptions were soon to be realized in 1949 through the Fanfani Law, which spawned the growth of large-scale housing projects nationwide. The national insurance institute INA (Istituto Nazionale per le Assicurazione) oversaw and executed the housing legislation INA-Casa until it expired in 1963. The INA-Casa Tiburtino complex was one of the earliest of its prototypes and a significant one, embodying a wide scope from the architectural component to its very details. The overall plan was designed by Mario Ridolfi, while Ludovico Quaorni focused on the aspects of urban planning. The complex was situated in an L-shaped area of 88,000m2 to accommodate about 4000 inhabitants. Along with its 770 apartment units, there were shops, social centers, as well as sports facilities and green spaces.
[site plan of Tiburtino housing complex]
In Context: Back to the Roots
What was most compelling in the vision for Tiburtino was thus the humanistic approach. It was an approach away from rigidity and towards a “continuity” that Ernesto N. Rogers in Casabella stressed in 1952. It was a comprehensive ideology responding to the postwar reality, which left the nation fragmented and in desperate search for a cohesive national identity, not just in the realm of politics, but the Italian culture as a whole. By means of referencing back to a common, shared history, tradition, and culture, it aimed to make a connection back to the ordinary individuals occupying that reality.
[Vernacular Roman builings as precedents for Tiburtino]
Through this nostalgic lens neorealism entailed a strong emotive participation. This is epitomized in Tibertino, where the principal design goal was to give “careful consideration of habits, local traditions, climate, latitude, and altitude, local construction materials, crafts, workmen, and building systems…bearing in mind the spiritual and material needs of a man, of a real man and not an abstract being” (Casciato 33). This intimacy and sensitivity towards tradition was achieved through a plan reminiscent of a medieval Roman village, fostering a more intimate setting and a sense of natural growth of a local community.
In place of austere and abstract geometries of modernism, a more fluid continuity was introduced to provide mediation between public and private spaces (Casciato 29). Along with distorted winding roadways, housing blocks were organized into clusters, opening up public spaces, allowing multiple viewpoints and stimulate both architectural and social interaction. This composite experience that the Tiburtino project attempted to render “was exploiting to the utmost emotions that a man walking along the street might experience” (Casciato 43).
Building: Finding the Dialect
Consequently, social obligations, psychological values, and architectural design had to all work in tandem to generate a quick yet comprehensive and functional solution. The general strategy focused on bringing in a local dimension, from the use of local workers, material and technologies to the very layout of the complex. Tiburtino project thus attempted to go back to the humble roots, mimicking “folk flavor” of traditional villages (Casciato 34). Yet it also had to consider the necessity and urgency of the postwar economic situation, accommodate high density and minimize building costs.
[Different building typologies in Tiburtino]
The 770 flats in Tiburtino were arranged in three building typologies, consisting of row houses, apartment blocks, and free-standing apartment towers, and ranging in height from three to eight floors. In addition to alternating heights and elevations with staggering rhythms that conform to the undulations of the site, plans rotate in such a way as to open up spaces with varying vistas. The composition gets more interesting in further detail. Row houses form triangular linkages, while loggias retain irregular forms, balconies begin protruding, and inclined roofs decorate the top. The institutional housing that would have been otherwise monotonous and devoid of character is now articulated and modulated through fragmentations and ruptures.
[staggering rhythm shown in elevation]
The architects were also concerned with traditional techniques and materials for detailing and construction. The exterior of row houses are covered with plasters, and underneath are layers of tufa stones with courses in brick. Plastered surfaces also cover apartment towers, which have frame construction of reinforced concrete. These surfaces are then painted with “Roman earth tones,” which are derived from local iron ore deposits. If the choice of materials is a straightforward borrowing from the rural peasant tradition, the design of minor details such as window shutters and railings of balconies and stairs take the Roman dialect one step further by giving them a modern touch. In effect, Tiburtino had an air of spontaneity and idiosyncrasy as it drew its inspiration from multiple sources and synthesizing different materials and forms: the housing models of Scandinavian and German-speaking countries and combining them with local tradition. Neorealist language in this way was not an entirely new one, but rather a rediscovery and re-activating of an existing vernacular. It was an amalgamation of sorts, heterogeneous in character.
[Colors of facades reminiscent of Roman earth tones]
Experience: A Cinematic Approach
The polychromatic character of Tiburtino share many commonalities with neorealist cinema. It was from the neorealist cinema from which the architects picked up the sensibility to rediscover and celebrate the “arcane Italy – the Italy of the common folk” and attempted to actualize it into architecture (Casciato 26). In both cases, a new sense of democratic identity was portrayed through its respective mediums.
[Bicycle Thieves, 1948 by De Sica]
In neorealist films, the democratic ideal was represented by dividing narratives into fragmented episodes, which contrasts with the unitary character of the fascism. Their goal was to depict “truth” and reality of these ordinary individuals whose lives were marked by the struggles they faced in search for a new life. The use of vernacular language and dialects, amateur rather than professional actors, and on-site film locations made it all the more realistic. In neorealist films, this culminated in a plot that involved actual, believable problems and characters (Bondanella 34). For example, in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film Bicycle Thieves (see film clip), an unemployed man finds a job, loses a precious bicycle, and wanders throughout Rome to find the thief without success (Landy 136).
[Bicycle Thieves, 1948 by De Sica; trailer]
In the same vein, neorealist architecture was in search for a new vernacular. Again, moving away from a hierarchical scheme, they brought together disparate elements and arranging those fragments in random fashion that resembled the spontaneous character of village, whereas neorealist films used fragmentation to represent spontaneous character of the lives of individuals. They were hoping to create a space “where each building had its own distinct physiognomy and everyone can find their home, feeling their own personality reflected in it” (Terranova 5).
Conclusion: Alice in Wonderland?
Aspirations of the new democratic state found its way into architecture in Postwar Italy, and neorealist architects put considerable effort to embody those ideals into the project, as seen in the INA-Casa Tiburtino quarter. Yet the project received criticism based on its nostalgic vision, and the effort to imitate a village-like neighborhood was dismissed for its artificiality. Designers of the project themselves repudiated it the pursuit for the picturesque, and critics labeled it as being exotic, baroque, and fantasy-like. The problem seemed to lie in the notion that the variety and spontaneity it tried to achieve was imposed upon the project in a deceiving and illusionistic way, making it appear as though the complex had been laden with history and built over time.
[Corviale vs. Tiburtino]
Regardless of the reception, from the perspective of an ordinary individual, Tiburtino is admirable because it gave respect to local culture and color such that current inhabitants are “enormously proud of their housing complex and maintain it beautifully” to this day (Ghirardo 2). Was not this the very premise of the project, to make connection back to the people? While housings such as Corviale have fallen into despair because its residents find it dehumanizing, it is still embraced by architects for its monumental and idealized architecture. Such a paradoxical contrast now raises the question of what really constitutes success in social housing.
Bondanella, Peter E. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. Ungar film library. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co, 1983.
Casciato, Maristella. “Neorealism in Italian Architecture.” Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture. Ed. Sarah Williams Goldhagen and Réjean Legault. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2000. 25-53.
Ghirardo, Diane. Modern Currents Along the Tiber. The American Institute of Architects Committee on Design. 10 May 2009 http://repositories.cdlib.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1030&context=ced/places.
Kirk, Terry. Visions of Utopia, 1900 - Present. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2005.
Landy, Marcia. Italian Film. National film traditions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Scrivano, Paolo. "Ludovico Quaroni, Mario Ridolfi: barrio INA-Casa Tiburtino, Roma = INA-Casa Tiburtino neighborhood, Rome." 2G: Revista Internacional De Arquitectura = International Architecture Review. 15 (2000): 28-35.
Terranova, Antonio. The Design of the City. 10 May 2009. http://upcommons.upc.edu/revistes/bitstream/2099/3255/1/018-033_El%20dise%C3%B1o%20de%20la%20ciudad.pdf