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Sunday, November 20, 2022

Rome's "Other" Pantheon: Julio Lafuente's Little-Known Gem Is Now Decathlon


A rather weird interpretive perspective on the Air Terminal Ostiense. The ancient ruins in the foreground certainly don't exist where they are portrayed here, and never did. The composite photo
seems a superficial effort to recuperate certain ancient forms.

Many Romans will have experienced architect Julio Lafuente's Air Terminal Ostiense building, if only because since 2012 it's been the Rome home of Eataly. Eataly may have saved the structure from demolition, but damaged it by converting its enormous, hangar-like space into several department-store like floors. Today, it resembles a post-modern mall. (See photo, right.)

Decathlon's version 

Across the street from Eataly there's a more modest, circular building (see above)--so modest, in fact, that hardly anyone seems to know that it, too, was designed by Lafuente. Indeed, both buildings were designed for the 1990 soccer World Cup. The building's reputation may have suffered from its history. For a while it was occupied by a toy store--Rocco Giocattolli ("Rocco Toy Store"). Later, it was known by the letters that graced its roof--Balocco, a variety store that was a dark, messy, and somehow gloomy place that sold a variety of items nobody would ever want (and that we wrote about in 2016, not knowing the building was by Lafuente). See photos below.

Balocco, 2016. The elevator may have been original to the building.

We're surprised that this smaller building has received so little attention, because it has a back story that puts it at the heart of Rome's history.

Born in Madrid, Spain, Lafuente emigrated as a child to France. As a young man, he studied architecture in Paris, returning to Spain in 1941, when the Germans occupied the French capital and much of the country. Soon after the war ended, Lafuente returned to Spain to continue his studies. His education complete, he intended to travel to the United States, but instead opted for the "Grand Tour" of Italy, aboard a BMW motorcycle.

When he arrived in Rome, his life changed. Just a tourist at that point, he encountered the Pantheon. He was overcome by the building: its shape, and especially the oculus, which bathed the interior in natural light. 

In 1990, he took his Pantheon experience (adding a dash of the Coliseum) and used it to design his own Pantheon. Like the Pantheon, it's round. And, like the Pantheon, it has its own version of the oculus--a glass ceiling (and partial glass walls) that bring in natural light. It's now an outlet for one of the big box stores of sporting goods chain Decathlon, which has restored much of the building's architectural presence. From Pantheon to Decathlon.

Lafuente's 1990 structure. Now (above) a Decathlon store. 

And here's the rest of the story. Much taken with the Pantheon and with the city's roster of fine modern architects, Lafuente decided to make Rome his home. In looking for work, he visited the studios of Ludovico Quaroni, Mario Ridolfi, and the prolific Luigi Moretti (whose best known building may be the Watergate complex, in Washington D.C.). His search ended at the Studio Monaco-Luccichenti, where Lafuente felt most accepted. 

Lafuente had a distinguished career as a creative modernist, designing a number of buildings in Rome and environs as well as the Middle East. Among his best-known works is the Tor Di Valle Hippodrome, designed for the 1960 Rome Olimpiad. [His studio's website is still accessible - his daughter, Clara - still maintains the architectural practice -  and has many more photos of his work.]

We were first introduced to the Spanish-Roman architect in 2006 when there was an exhibition at Istituto Cervantes on Piazza Navona, celebrating his 50 years of his work. Lafuente was there; he was very congenial; and we had a great talk with him that opened our eyes to his works in Rome.

Hippodrome, Tor di Valle, 1959 (now "ex [former] ippodromo Tor di Valle")

Lafuente's 1980 Esso building (below), in the business park Parco dei Medici, will be familiar to anyone traveling the limited-access road to the Fiumicino airport. In June, our driver pointed out the building and explained how much he liked it. We think it's spectacular--one of the most interesting and innovative structures in Rome's orbit (we tried - and failed - to get inside it).

Among Lafuente's other area buildings are the offices of SAIE, on viale della Letturature 30, in EUR; Villa Fiorito (1965), an apartment house in the Aurelia Quartiere (via di villa Betania, 31 [photo below]; the Rome Church of Scientology (off via della Maglianella 375--Google street views suggests that the church is not visible from the road and is likely not open to the public); and the Stabilimento Ferrania (1959), a storied company famous for making the celluloid which the great neorealists used, active until the early 2000s [photo below]. The Rome complex, which Lafuente designed, is at via Appia Nuova 803, now part of Autocentro Balduina (an enormous car sales and service organization, with multiple outlets).

Villa Fiorito, Quartiere Aurelia 

Stabilimento Ferrania, 1959

Julio Garcia Lafuente died in Rome in 2013, at age 92. 


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