Romance and Pasta But Not Enough Bike Lanes: A Conversation About Planning and Rome

Photo: View Pictures/Getty Images

Picking up where we left off in Paris, all month long on Italy in 30 Days we'll be continuing our cross-cultural conversation series Exchange Rates, pairing our editors and critics with their counterparts across the Atlantic. Look out for Love & War columnist Maureen O'Connor, who'll get the scoop on sex and dating Italian-style, and the return of restaurant critic Adam Platt, but this week, our architecture critic Justin Davidson checked in with Rome-based Paola Pierotti and Andrea Nonni, architects and co-founders of the architecture newsletter PPAN.

You both write about contemporary architecture in Italy, which must make for a lot of frustratingly slow news days. Does Rome really stay as immutable as it seems?
Paola Pierotti: Yep, pretty much. In the last few years there have been several books on contemporary architecture in Rome, but when you look inside they all feature the same few buildings: Renzo Piano’s Auditorio, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis. There’s also Massimiliano Fuksas’s new crystal cloud on top of the H&M building, but the only way you can see it is from the air.

It’s strange: For centuries, Rome kept reinventing itself with new architecture. Then 50 years ago, it just stopped. Is it the spirit of historic preservation that put an end to that adaptability?
P. P.: Partly, yes. But we also live in a state of perpetual delay. The government organizes competitions and projects get started but then they run out of money and never get finished. A new Holocaust Museum was supposed to get built on the site of Mussolini’s palace at Villa Torlonia. That’s been in the planning stages for nearly ten years, and now they’ve relocated it to a shopping center in [the Fascist-era development] EUR. But who knows if it will ever happen? It’s a classic Italian tale.

It sounds like Rome is littered with stalled megaprojects.
P. P.The biggest of them all is a huge sports complex in the outskirts designed by Santiago Calatrava. It was partially built but construction stopped three years ago. I was at the top of Saint Peter’s dome with my niece the other day and you can see it from there, way out in distance. It’s like some strange apparition.

So, Calatrava effectively designed a new Roman ruin. It went straight to antiquity, skipping over newness.
P. P.Rome has a lot of places like that. There’s even a website with an interactive map of abandoned properties: Roma Abbandonata.
Andrea NonniWhen the government gets involved, everything slows down. Without it, things can happen. Years ago, the wholesale markets moved out of a huge complex near the Ostiense train station. Rem Koolhaas won a competition to do a master plan, then it was supposed to be a the City of Youth, anchored by student dorms. That project is still frozen, but in the meantime the neighborhood has transformed itself. It’s young and trendy, full of restaurants and cafés.

Did something catalyze that change?
A.N.: One thing was Eataly, which took over a huge bus terminal that was built for the 1990 World Cup. It’s enormously successful.

I keep hearing about 30-year-olds still occupying their childhood bedrooms, but it sounds like Ostiense is one place young people can live.
P. P.There, and in shabby areas like San Lorenzo [back behind the main train station], or farther out in Pigneto.
A.N.Pigneto is an entirely new phenomenon, actually: a racially diverse neighborhood in Rome. For the first time you have 25-, 26-year-olds of different ethnic origins who have grown up here, all living together.

It’s good to hear that there are thriving immigrant areas now.
A.N.Not everyone’s happy about that. The Esquilino has become totally Chinese, which is out of tune with Rome.

Why? We have a pretty big Chinatown here in New York, and most people feel that it enriches the city.
A.N.Well, here they take over and open stores that don’t seem to sell anything at all except beads and cell phones. They don’t speak any Italian, and the only customers are other Chinese. So Romans wind up feeling marginalized.

The newish mayor, Ignazio Marino, spent years practicing medicine in Philadelphia, and now he famously bikes to work, just as he did there. He seems to be taking a page from the Bloomberg administration, pedestrianizing roads and stumping for bike culture. How’s that going? I know the bike-share program, which started in 2008, has been a disaster.
A.N. There’s a kind of improvised network of bike lanes that will take you pretty far, but it stays out of the center. You can bike along the lower level of the Tiber embankments, as long as the river’s not too high.

But that means humping your bike up and down the stairs to get there, right?
A.N.[Laughing.] Right.

What about Marino’s signature move: banning traffic from via dei Fori Imperiali? That’s a huge thoroughfare, linking the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia. I can’t imagine it without cars.
P. P.Wow, he really got a lot of Romans mad with that one.

Really? Sounds like a good idea, though.
P. P.But the city neglected to work out the logistics. They just closed it off, and drivers found they had to make these enormous, complicated detours all over the city.

So it created more traffic, not less?
P. P.It was a mess at first. Taxis and buses can use the road anyway. And Romans don’t like to be told what not to do, so when the cops weren’t looking, cars would just slip through. Now they’ve installed barriers. Even so, the idea was that it was going to be a great new after-dinner stroll, a passeggiata, but nobody goes there in the evening. The street cuts through the Forum so there are archeological sites, but no bars, no restaurants — nothing.

Let’s talk about gentrification. One of the pleasures of Rome years ago was its economic diversity. You had outdoor vegetable markets in front of greasy moped-repair shops and next to fancy antique stores. And you had working-class and wealthy people living next door to each other. But I get the feeling that the old areas have now been transformed into luxury goods.
P. P.That’s basically right. Some families manage to hang on to rent-controlled apartments, but for the most part real estate in the historic center is surreally expensive.

So tourists see a city preserved in amber. Where has the action gone?
A.N.To the outskirts. A lot of Romans never go downtown. Now people gravitate to shopping centers, some of which are quite beautiful. There’s a big one called Porta di Roma, which is out on the Raccordo Anulare [Rome’s equivalent of Washington’s Beltway].  It’s always crowded. Families go there not just to shop, but also to have dinner and do the passeggiata.

Oh, God. American cities are rediscovering their downtowns and Rome, of all places, is besotted with suburban shopping malls!
P. P.It’s embarrassing but it’s true.