08/06/2015 - Rome

Mostly Rationalist Rome Tour

Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana
EUR, Palazzo dei Congressi
The Palazzo degli Uffici, part of the EUR complex
La Sapienza University and its statue of Minerva
The British Embassy by Basil Spence
Fountain detail in the Quartiere Coppedè
Pier Luigi Nervi's Palazzetto dello Sport

Some of the highlights of architectural achievement in Rome during the 1900s (as promised), and the basis for another of our exclusive, tailor-made urban excursions guided by professionals with insider know-how.

No better place to start than the Europa district, still better known by the acronym EUR for Esposizione Universale di Roma. That’s what Mussolini had in mind when he commissioned plans for a whole new quarter of monumental buildings representative of the Fascist ideology (and with those trademark grandiose names) in an area south of the city centre, by which to impress the world. Expo 1942 never took place, of course, in Rome or anywhere else, but Italian rationalist architects had already had a field day before work ground to a halt during WWII.

If Marcello Piacentini was director of the whole project, the most impressive constructions were designed by others. The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is the emblematic centerpiece of the EUR, an icon of Fascist architecture also known as the ‘square colosseum’ (and recently rented out to fashion group Fendi). Entirely clad, like most of the others, in travertine marble and sporting a deal of symbolic statuary, it was designed by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano and inaugurated in late 1940. The Palazzo dei Ricevimenti e dei Congressi by Adalberto Libera, started in 1938 but only completed 16 years later, is another fine example of its genre, as indeed is the building officially called Palazzo Mostra dell’Autarchia e del Corporativismo (which probably takes the cake for pompous naming) designed by Mario De Renzi, Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini and housing the state archives. And if this is your cup of tea, then at least another 3 or 4 squarely solid and imposing constructions (the Palazzo degli Uffici and the Basilica, for example, as well as the lake and the obelisk) are worth a look while we’re in the area.

A little closer to the centre is another pile by Libera and De Renzi, the Palazzo delle Poste (1935) in via Marmorata, shaped like a squared C. And more of a similar geometric ilk by Marcello Piacentini, with the new (1935) campus of La Sapienza university, the città universitaria  covering almost 440,000 square metres near Roma Termini railway station, and, along with Attilio Spaccarelli, Via della Conciliazione (1936), the grand thoroughfare connecting Piazza San Pietro to the west bank of the Tiber.

For a little respite from weighty rationalist edifices while we’re in this part of town, we could check out Basil Spence’s rather wonderful British Embassy building (1968-71) in Via XX Settembre. And then stop by the Quartiere Coppedè on our way north, going back in time to what rationalism was actually reacting against. It’s a compound of apartment buildings rather than a neighbourhood, fundamentally art nouveau but capriciously borrowing from a host of other styles, named after the architect, sculptor and decorator who planned it in 1915.

On we march northward to the Flaminio neighbourhood and Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport. A 3,500-seat indoor arena designed for the 1960 Olympic games, its architect was actually Annibale Vitellozzi, but the signature reinforced, thin-shell concrete dome, diameter 61 metres and braced by flying buttresses, was engineered by Nervi. 

Still on the sporting theme but back where we started style-wise, across the Flaminio bridge is the area known as the Foro Italico, the vast sports complex imagined by Mussolini and planned by Enrico del Debbio by 1933 though not completed until 1968. While we’re there, the Palazzo della Farnesina (Enrico Del Debbio, Arnaldo Foschini and Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, started 1937 finished 1959) is worth a look.

And to close the tour in a mood of glorious meditation, how about the awesome Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre in the Parioli neighbourhood, designed by Paolo Portoghesi and  inaugurated in 1994, the biggest in Europe?

Contact mikaela(at)urbanitaly.com for more information and a customized tour, which could take in must-sees from the 21st century too.

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