Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Looking for Brutalism: Balsamo Crivelli, Serenissima, and the 544

Some time ago one of our readers--we'll call him Mr. X (if, indeed, he is a man), responded to a piece we had written on Brutalist architecture.  What set off Mr. X was our statement that "There isn't much brutalism in Rome and environs."

"WTH?" began Mr. X.  "The entire 544 ATAC bus line is nothing but Roman Brutalism.  I invite you to visit here and ride it with me.  Get off, take a look at Balsamo Crivelli and tell me the entire facility isn't classic Brutalist architecture.  La Questura headquarters at Serenissima station as well. All of post-Fascist Rome is as Brutalist as it comes. How can you have missed it?  Dear God, come see it! Rome is almost entirely Brutalist.  Look at her government architecture.  I live here!"

The 544
RST didn't ride the 544 with Mr. X, but we did, indeed, take the 544 bus from Balsamo Crivelli to Serenissima station.  Despite asking a dozen people where the Questura might be found, we never found the headquarters to which Mr. X refers, and an internet search revealed no Questura within a mile and a half.

What we did find is the subject of this post. But first a little background on Brutalism.  As used by scholars, the term Brutalism refers to an architectural movement of the mid-1950s through the 1970s. The word Brutalism derives from the French term beton brut (raw concrete), the material identified with Brutalism.  Buildings made with raw, unfinished, and uncovered concrete often have a fortress-like feel and appearance.  Then there are the "brick brutalists," who combine detailed brickwork with concrete.

So, whether you're talking about Brutalism or Brick Brutalism, you've gotta have concrete, and it has to be "raw"--that is, unfinished.  It doesn't count as Brutalist if it's covered with marble, or even if it's covered with a concrete finish, such as stucco.  There are thousands of stucco buildings in Rome, but none of them are Brutalist by the standard architectural definition.

Some of the post-1960 apartment buildings that line Viale della Serenissima.  "Brutal" perhaps--that's a matter of
taste--but not Brutalist.  
Brutalism is most often identified with government buildings, universities, shopping centers, and housing projects.  Architects have generally avoided using the term.  And, importantly for the Mr. X argument--the term has more recently become part of the popular discourse, referring (says Wikipedia) to "buildings of the late-twentieth century that are large or unpopular--as a synonym for "brutal."

To our knowledge, the only Brutalist
structure in Serenissima.
Here's the bottom line: neither Serenissima nor Balsamo Crivelli has many buildings that qualify as Brutalism by their use of raw concrete.  We found only one such building in Serenissima: curiously, a church bell tower.

And Balsamo Crivelli has one, maybe two.  Nor did we find much raw concrete on the ride between the two suburbs.

The Autostrade HQ, ahead center right.
The headquarters of the Autostrade, which lies just outside the center of Balsamo Crivelli, is
standard, government-issue late modernism, but it isn't Brutalism.

All concrete all the time.  Brutalist.  The Soviet look.
Just to the south of the Autostrade building is an apartment complex that seems to us to qualify as Brutalism.  We first saw it from the 544, again on our walk back.   

Both places have plenty of large apartment buildings, many of them without distinction, some of them downright ugly.  Most are not Brutalist, but the one on the left, above, is.
Corviale-esque in its length and sameness.  But unlike Corviale, it's not concrete.
And Serenissima has a large apartment complex made up of identical, stucco-covered buildings, one after the other, receding into the distance (below).  Not enticing, but not Brutalism.
Looks like "projects."  You might not want to live there, but it's not Brutalism.
In short, Balsamo Crivelli and Serenissima have many buildings that are "large" and "unpopular" (for Mr. X, a at least)--that is, "brutalist" with a small "b," buildings that look "brutal" (again, to Mr. X, at least). Aside: Serenissima is a generally unappealing place, but it does have a new, chic, modern bar/wine bar.
Amidst all those big apartment buildings and "projects," this
elegant coffee/wine bar.  Estro, Viale della Serenissima 67
Balsamo Crivelli is centered on a park that could be elegant, or at least attractive, were it not so overgrown.  Across the street from the park we found a building that, while perhaps not Brutalist in the classic sense, was shockingly so by the cultural definition--and has a Brutalist feature.

One of the ends of the "U"
The ends of the U-shaped building, facing the street, seem to be mostly raw concrete.  The interior of the U is leavened by the balcony railings.  But the centerpiece of the building--the mass of concrete that apparently feeds underground garages--took us by storm.

Ground level shops, now mostly abandoned, swallowed
by the concrete pit.

It's both Brutalist and brutal--one of the ugliest interior courtyards ever designed.  The architect expected that the space just above the parking area--the ground floor of the apartments--would be lined with shops.  But they're mostly gone, victims of that concrete pit below.

According to one source, Brutalist structures often express in the most obvious way "the main functions and people flows of the buildings."  That's what is happening here. From the street one can see where people live, where they are expected to shop, and--especially in this case--where they'll park.

RST would like to thank "Mr. X" for his comment; for helping us work out some of the issues; for getting us into two interesting and seldom-visited neighborhoods, both remarkably close to central Rome; and for leading us to that new wine bar.  Now if only we can find the Questura.



Rufus said...

I'm not an architectural expert but British Embassy on Via Palestro. Brutal and/or brutalist.

Anonymous said...

Ever had a look at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione in via dei Crispolti? That should quality as brutalism, I guess, shouldn't it?

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Rufus: the British Embassy qualifies--though it's brutalism tempered by water pools, and we like it.
A: I don't think we've seen that church. Will have a look this spring. Bill

Anonymous said...

Mixing furniture dimensions adds balance.