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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Paolo Desideri joins Rome's Starchitects: Stazione Tiburtina

Mayor Alemanno (left), President
Napolitano at microphone.
We're embarrassed.  Not because we're a bit late in presenting the Tiburtina High Speed Railway Station (familiarly known as the new Stazione Tiburtina) to our readers.  The station was dedicated on November 28, 2011, with considerable fanfare: Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, lent his gravitas to the occasion, and Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno attended, as usual sporting a colorful sash.  No, we're embarrassed because we have not only failed to appreciate the extraordinary qualities of the building--at one point deriding it as "Battlestar Galactica," based on the view from the tracks--but failed to recognize the emergence of its architect, Paolo Desideri, as a major figure in Rome's 21st-century built environment.  Today, we welcome him to the elite roster of Rome "starchitects."

Beam me up, Scotty!
Our original critique of the new Tiburtina Station was not entirely bone-headed.  The "Battlestar" insult reflected our belief that the building was simply too large for its purpose, even considering the addition of high-speed rail to the services it provided, and our increasing familiarity with it has not changed our minds.  But we were also, perhaps, guilty of nostalgia for the scruffy but simple structure that was razed.  It had served our needs for many years; we knew where to buy tickets and the tracks were close.  More important, the demolition of the old station erased the memory of the deportation of Rome's Jews to the Nazi concentration camps from that station in 1944.  The plaque that recorded that tragic event, and to which we directed the readers of Rome the Second Time, is gone.

The Sant'Angese-Annibaliano Station on the B-1 line
Based on a recent walk-through of the station, particularly its main gallery, we are prepared to embrace the building.  We haven't entirely shed our "Battlestar" perspective, but we are ready for the voyage.  More on that later.  Just as significant, we were shocked to learn that Desideri and his firm, ABDR Architetti Associati, were responsible for five other new and compelling Rome buildings: four stations on the new B-1 Metro line, which runs northeast out of Piazza Bologna: Libia, Conca d'Oro, Sant'Angese-Annibaliano, and Gondar; and a recent addition to the Palazzo delle Esposizione.

The restaurant/wine bar Open Colonna, at the
Palazzo delle Esposizioni 
The modernist grace of the Sant'Agnese-Annibaliano Station had taken us by surprise (we did not yet know its architect), and we were ready to take our usual surfeit of photos when a guard waved us off with a wag of the finger.  We have enjoyed a break for wine in the striking all-glass addition to the Palazzo, again unaware of the identity of the architect.  Desideri's structure occupies the space once held by a conservatory designed by famed architect Pio Piacentini in the 1880s and demolished in 1931 when the Mussolini regime redid the building for a 1932 exhibition celebrating Fascism's first decade.

Desideri's Florence auditorium
Desideri's other projects include an auditorium in Florence (right) and the restoration of the National Museum in Calabria.

Annalaura Spalla's Cavour installation

Where the old station was about division--the plaque rekindling memories of the German occupation and the transporting of Rome's Jews--the new one is about unity, in two ways.  Because the station straddles the tracks, it unites two neighborhoods historically separated: Nomentana (which includes Piazza Bologna) and Pietralata, across the railroad yard to the northeast.  Dedicated to Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, a leading figure in the movement for Italian unification, the station celebrates (and with its high-speed trains, enhances) 150 years of Italian unity.  The station's Nomentano atrium (left) features a 20-meter high installation, designed by architect Annalaura Spalla, cut with the words of Cavour's discourse on "Roma Capitale," given to the Italian Chamber of Deputies on March 25, 1861.

The station has two architectural features of note.  One is the green block (right), housing the atrium (if we remember correctly) and set at an angle to the main concourse.  We always liked this element, if only because it seemed to wink playfully at the imposing structure looming behind it.

The other, above the tracks, is the main concourse, the grand gallery.  It has some notable "green" features: it's equipped to handle photovoltaic units (in the future); and rather than air-conditioned, it is oriented to take advantage of the movement of the sun.

June, 2012, 6 months after the opening ceremonies
The Pompidou Center, Metz, France.  More pods,
but Ban's, not Desideri's.  
But it's the "pods" ("volumi," or volumes, in Italian) that make the building.  They're huge, and they're suspended from the ceiling, apparently in an effort to eliminate vibration from the movement of trains, below.  Laminated in Brazil and first deployed in the Tiburtina Station, they are technically complex: a base of aluminum, covered with a shell of the plastic Alicrite.  When we toured the gallery in the summer of 2012, the sci-fi quality of the pods--curiously retro, as in "back to the futuristic"--was enhanced by the virtual absence of people.  We're told they'll eventually house restaurants, private offices, and internet services.  When we climbed the stairs to have a good look inside, a young woman shooed us away.  The jury's out on whether they'll prove useful or just wonderfully suggestive.  We don't know what inspired the pods, but they bear some similarity to the exterior projections featured in Zaha Hadid's Rome MAXXI gallery and Shigeru Ban's Pompidou Center in Metz, France (above right).

Paolo Desideri
And who is the fellow responsible for these architectural theatrics?  Like actor Alberti Sordi and soccer icon Francesco Totti, but unlike all but one (Paolo Portoghesi) of the other stars of modern Rome architecture, he's Roman through and through.  Paolo Desideri was born in Rome in 1953 and graduated from the School of Architecture of the University of Rome (La Sapienza) in 1980.  With three other architects, he co-founded Studio ABDR in 1982.  The firm specializes in large infrastructure projects and won a concorso (competition) for the Tiburtina Station in 2001.  Since 2007 he has been Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at Roma3.  

Welcome to the pantheon, Paolo.


A high-speed train, about to leave the Tiburtina Station.  In the center background, a "pod" protruding
from the grand gallery.  

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