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Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Laurentina 38: a Controversial Public Housing Project

Entrance to Laurentina 38, other side of the circle.  
Laurentina 38 (which begins on via Ignazio Silone, south of EUR, not on via Laurentina), is one of 3 major public housing projects constructed in Rome in the 1970s and 1980s.  The others are Vigne Nuove (to the north of the city) and the monumental Corviale, also on Rome's southern end.

Whatever their deficiencies, they were part of a major governmental effort to provide inexpensive, subsidized housing for the poor.  In the United States, at least--and likely Italy, too--such efforts no longer exist.  In the States, whatever low-income housing is built is constructed by private developers, who agree to allocate a certain number of units to "affordable" housing. 

Designed by architect Pietro Barucci, Laurentina 38 was inspired by the larger projects of Le Corbusier as well as the New English towns.  Design work was done in 1972/73 and construction carried out between 1976 and 1984.  The basic idea was to create a "satellite city" on Rome's periphery. Some say the community--which would house some 32,000 residents--was intended to be self-sufficient, though what that might mean in a highly interdependent urban world is not clear.

As originally conceived, Laurentina 38 consisted of "islands" of high-rise housing, the buildings separated from one another but united by a series of walkways (which were never built).  The apartment buildings were arranged along a 4 km ring road (via Ignazio Silone), where cars, trucks, and buses would travel.  Pedestrians could use the sidewalks along the busy ring road, but they were expected to move about on a second level, above the street, under covered walkways.  We found some of those walkways intimidating, others blocked with refuse or foliage.

The buildings on one side of the street were integrated with those on the other side by 11 bridges  (ponti), placed at intervals along the road, designed in the brutalist style of the day and made of reinforced concrete.  The ponti, one level above the road, are the distinguishing architectural feature of the complex.  They were intended to house offices and shops (perhaps that's the note of self-sufficiency that was said to be built into the project). Some think that the offices/shops idea was flawed from the start; others argue that the services were never "installed," though in a capitalist economy it's not clear how shops (say, a hardware store) could be "installed." Apparently market forces were insufficient to populate the ponti.

At any rate, the ponti were empty from the beginning and remained so, creating a void that was filled by hundreds of homeless people--many, apparently, new immigrants--who took over the bridges as squatters, building walls to separate families and living there without bathrooms or, in many cases, windows.  The residents of the bridge below have installed satellite dishes.

The sign below celebrates 28 years of "occupation" of ponte #6.

According to the most common narrative, failure of the bridge idea, and other peculiarities of construction of the high-rises (no interior hallways, empty spaces on the second level intended for leisure pursuits but never used, the lack of connections between the buildings) led to the degradation of the complex and to high levels of crime and drug use.  Others blame the prominence of the road (below).

An example of the empty spaces on the second level:

One of the 2nd level walkways:

Probably because of the arrest and incarceration of some of the project's residents, there is opposition within the complex to the idea of prison, and in particular Rome's Rebibbia prison.  "We hate the prison," reads the sign below. And there's information about a 3 day event in June at the 6th bridge, with concerts, food--and tattooing.

We also found opposition to "gentrification" (Italians use the English word, apparently because they don't have their own).  L38!

Three of the ponti--#s 9, 10, and 11--were demolished in 2006.

A small group of young Americans interested in architecture visited Laurentina 38 for two days in 2009.  They were not welcomed by the residents.  "We were shouted at, cursed at, told to back home, teased, harassed."  When we visited in May 2019, we experienced no such hostility--despite poking around a good bit.  We did notice the trash and more than one scooter carcass.  But that's just Rome.

We enjoy seeing public housing projects and are interested in brutalist architecture.  But our visit to Laurentina 38 came about because we had heard that there was new and important art on its walls.  We found only one piece--and that may be all there is--by street artist Ericailcane (Erica il cane, Erica the dog).  It's near the 5th ponte, on the right.  Looks like the theme is greed.

Another positive sign: an association of volunteers ("Gocce di speranza" means "drops of hope"):

Laurentina 38 is about a half mile from the Laurentina Metro stop on the B line.  The project is located between via Cristoforo Colombo on the west, and via Laurentina on the east.


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