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Rome: the eternal city / the vital city?
Patrik Schumacher, Rome 2003


The notion of sustainability that was orienting the various design interventions formulated during the workshop was a notion of social, economic and cultural sustainability rather than ecological sustainability. However, since the notion of sustainability is usually associated with ecological questions I prefer to speak of the ongoing “vitality” as the key problematic of the “eternal city”.

In fact this question of the social, economic and cultural vitality of the city is much closer to the heart of the disciplines of urbanism and architecture. It is the challenge posed to all historical entities in the modern world: how to cope with the momentous transformative dynamic of modern civilization. This challenge demands permanent competitive restructuring and reinvention.  Instead the notion of sustainability places the emphasis on the establishment of long-term cycles of reproduction. While the capacity to survive is obviously to be presupposed I believe that the search for long-term cyclical self-sufficiency is a fallacy. I would rather promote a project of exploration that ultimately – in the long-term -  ventures into the unknown whereby only medium-term safe-guards are given. This is the difference between reproduction and development: Development is an irreversible process of transformation over transformation, whereby the entities in question progressively deviate from the origin or starting point until the original identity is irredeemably lost. Each new level of development is a new point of no return.


In the specific case of Rome there is an obvious tension between the preservation of a precious heritage and the quest for ongoing vitality  which requires the incorporation of modern technological amenities and permanent reprogramming of its buildings and urban spaces. There are some immediately obvious compromises, for instance with respect to an efficient metropolitan transport infra-structure. In order to safe-guard its dense historical heritage Rome renunciates with respect to the installation of an underground train system. This places an unusual burden upon the on ground traffic. The historical fabric with its narrow and irregular street further burdens the need for efficient traffic. However, the Romans cope and compensate by means of their extensive use of scooters. The result holds unusual opportunities for an intensified urban communication.

While the Roman architectural and urban typologies seem robust and resilient enough against the onslaught of new social demands, it should not become a dogma that the historical fabric of the city has to be preserved in its entirety. Strategic substitutions, superimpositions and various forms hybridizations might define the relations between old and new. That an unleashed spatial imagination has a role to play in the revitalization of the life of the city can not be a priori excluded. In fact, the projects emerging from the workshop displayed a refreshing level of creative irreverence in relation with the historical fabric, without however descending into a crude or vulgar attitude of confrontation.


Another tension to be resolved with regard to the question of maintaining the historical heritage is the tension between the needs of those who live and work in Rome versus the needs of the tourists who threaten to swamp the breathing space of the Romans. Is Rome a giant museum to be maintained as a destinaion for international tourism or is it to develop as one of the most vital and productive intellectual centers of Italy/Europe? This decision has strategic economic import. Obviously tourism itself is an industry. But is it an industry that fosters and sustains the highest possible levels of education and material freedom within the population? Is the tourism the industry that can make the most of the well educated and cultured population that resides here? I believe there is a productive level of tourism which helps to maintain a convenient density of facilities like hotels, restaurants, shops, museums, theatres etc. which can be utilized in parallel by those who live and work within the city. But there are levels of tourism that overcrowd and suffocate the vital life of the city.

The same tension has to be negotiated by each museum and cultural institution. It is important that these museums are not prioritising tourism, but instead offer a rich, and varied programme for the citizens who live and work in Rome. This means offering changing rather than fixed exhibitions, offering lecture and conference programmes etc., in order to provide regular opportunities for cross-professional, cultural communication for the professional workforce of the city. This also means that the primarily art/heritage based institutions should find ways to make their cultural programmes relevant and vital for the contemporary culture/media industry.


The role of the Contemporary Art Centre


In this respect new cultural institutions like the new Auditorium or the forthcoming Centre for Contemporary Art (MAXXI) are of crucial importance for the cultural and professional vitality of Rome. MAXXI will be well placed to productively fuse and synergize a certain type of international “tourism” with its role as communication platform for exchanges and cross-fertilization of various vital contemporary industries. The location just outside of the historic center afforded here the opportunity to experiment with spatial scenarios.

“Art” today is this open-ended platform to reflect new social phenomena, e.g. like the new condition of globalisation and multi-culturalism. Contemporary “Art” is also a vital vehicle for the experimentation with new forms of communication and possible applications of emergent technologies, e.g. as in internet art and  interactive electronic art etc. Ultimately contemporary art is all about the playful  invention and dissemination of radically new perspectives on life. It feeds from and into all the most vital and advanced productive industries of the contemporary world.

Contemporary art centres offer a frame or clearing for the unknown and untested to burst forward.

An art centre is a rather abstract, open-ended, and essentially anti-institutional form. It is a vacant field defined only negatively as the refusal to perpetuate the status quo and as a promise that things might be otherwise. There can be no strict typology as there is no positively defined function. It is subject to the open-ended series of re-interpretations of the very concept of art by each new generation of artists. The only certain constitutive characteristic is that it is public, i.e. that it initiates public events and constructs a public space. It is (or should be) a catalyst of mutation and incubator with respect to the form and content of public exhibitions, communications and gatherings. In principle any political, social, economic, moral, cultural or technological question can be brought forward for public exposition and reflection within the domain of contemporary art. The raving popularity of the events initiated within the Contemporary Art Centre so far, manifests the latent need and craving for the injection of such new urban incubators within the texture of the eternal city.


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