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Thursday24 July 2014

Julian Lewis’s inspiration: the 1960 Olympic Village, Rome

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Julian Lewis of East looks to the outskirts of Rome for an example of rich urban placemaking

Inspiration 1960 Olympic Village
Architects Vittorio Cafiero, Adalberto Libera, Luigi Moretti, Vincenzo Monaco, Amedeo Luccichenti
Completed 1958-60
Location Flaminio district, Rome

At East, we’re drawn to fringe areas of the city where there is less urban clarity but plenty of potential. Perhaps that’s why I’m so intrigued by this part of Rome — the site of the 1960 Olympic Village in Flaminio. It might not be among the textbook architectural highlights of the city, but there is so much to learn from here in terms of urban place-making.

I first became aware of it many years ago when my English teacher at school gave me a book on Pier Luigi Nervi, engineer of several of the site’s structures including the viaduct that runs through the village. Then, around 15 years ago when East was still quite a young practice, I visited the Olympic Village with a colleague at London Metropolitan University. It was then that I realised how close Nervi’s stadium and viaduct were to the Olympic housing. I felt a real convergence between the epic set-piece nature of the stadiums and viaduct and the naturalness of the housing.

This difficult balance between something that’s background and something that’s carefully placed for impact is one of the reasons I keep coming back. The stadiums are carefully mixed into the overall landscape and work far better than they do at the London Olympic site in Stratford, where all the buildings are trying to be special events.

The Rome Olympic Village suggests an attitude towards housing that was all about responding to a place rather than a site. One of the amazing things about it is the difficulty of clarifying authorship. It was designed by a group of architects including Luigi Moretti and Adalberto Libera but I still don’t really know who did what, and I really enjoy that. You get the idea that they were great collaborators.

When I visited for the first time, I felt encouraged by the development’s interest in an urban ambition for longevity and normality. Nervi’s indoor stadium with its ferro-cement roof and delicacy of structure was great but I was more interested in how it was part of the bigger urban whole.

Instead of the buildings occupying the places, the housing makes the spaces

The strong, clear geometry of the housing layout excited me. Long thin strips of buildings seem to walk into the landscape. What’s particularly lovely about it is the combination of the viaduct and the housing, and the way the two relate to each other spatially and materially. The viaduct was built to help transport people to the site and, because it was elevated, allowed the landscape of the village to flow continuously underneath, recalling the historic park landscape used for equestrian and other sporting events.

One of the qualities of the housing is that it isn’t overdesigned. Housing in Britain often tends to stake its place in the urban setting stridently excluding the existing qualities of the place, but this takes a back step formally while still creating an identity through its use of materials. You would not call this an estate, or street, or even courtyards. These are fields of houses set into a wild parkland edge. It makes a wild edge of Rome into a place. You can walk through it.

These architects were looking at how to locate architecture and how to locate generosity. They understood that architecture can’t be at play everywhere. If it was, the result would be too explosive. Instead, they added to the place gently. Put together, the effect might not be sculptural but it is powerfully spatial.

Instead of the buildings occupying the spaces, the housing makes the spaces. Some blocks make tight spaces that are quite charged while others are slacker — the character of the area changes radically when the blocks are placed closer together. I particularly like the criss-cross patterned piazza lined with shops, which is like a stretched version of Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio. It’s incredibly effective in how it just flexes inwards rather than going for a big heroic gesture.

Some of the housing has been arranged to make a space in response to the viaduct. If the blocks adjacent to it ran just straight in parallel, the effect would seem tough. But the slight inflection in the housing blocks makes the spaces in between it and the viaduct a little more friendly and allows it to clasp a little bit of landscape out of the bigger Olympic park.

The viaduct’s structure recalls the columned bases of the housing and offers space for the imagination. I find it genuinely exciting to have such a highly determined area — the housing — next to the undetermined space underneath the viaduct. Whenever I bring students out here this always prompts a discussion about the nature of prescribed and unprescribed use. They are usually rather bewildered because there is nothing specific to look at.

The stadiums work so much better than at London, where all the buildings are trying to be special events

On the other side of the viaduct, the blocks are arranged at right angles as if they are moving towards the viaduct rather than alongside it. Then, further away, there are the cross-shaped blocks, which put together start to hold together courtyards. Ungated, even these more formal spaces are dynamically engaged with the wider place, enlivening the experience of the moving pedestrian.

The inspiring thing for me is the village’s uncompromising nature but at the same time its softness — its scale is all very human. I like how you can look around and can’t quite see where the centre of the village is — this is not a highly regimented space. As you walk around, the arrangement seems a little chaotic, but I find it quite spellbinding. And I do see great potential for using housing to create this kind of urban clarity.

There is a lot of instinct involved and a painterly quality. The architects have managed to mix in a personal judgement of materials quite unlike the fascist architecture of the Mussolini era. The pilotis supporting the housing blocks are delicate and have been designed with facets that catch the light. The architects use the same brick throughout but in some of the buildings the bricks run vertically, and in others they run horizontally — they are seeded from one building type into the other.

At the corner of the Type A blocks, the concrete bands step down and become lintels. They look papery — snipped and cut at the corner as if the architect was tailoring clothes. You sense this massive structure beneath this delicate brick “wallpaper”. I also like the blank ends to the blocks which read as extrusions; the strange baskets on top of the roofs of some of the housing that hide the services; and the way the really flat wide facades of the horizontal blocks mirror the generosity of a deeply spatial landscape.

Generally I find there are so few examples around of really good housing with places to meet and play, yet here it is unbelievably rich with very limited means. Often architects are so worried about making an impact that they try to dress a building up with architectural rhetoric — but not here. This attitude definitely informs our approach at East. In the village I’ve seen how a modest series of materials can enrich an area in combination with pilotis and brick facades — just a few tiny adjustments such as the terracotta colours of the wooden shutters or the course of the bricks can make a big difference.

Recently we have visited São Paulo, Rotterdam and Croydon — all cities substantially shaped in the sixties and seventies, with comprehensive road and housing infrastructure projects overlaid upon the older city. We have become interested in how to engage architecturally with this physical mix. For example in Croydon we have been masterplanning areas at a range of scales — from substantial blocks of housing to a special park café — that brings concrete flyover spaces, Victorian railway infrastructure and civic gardens together around a new public realm of streets and uses. This is about understanding the identity of places, and how all parts contribute to that.

We are also designing a hotel and housing building in West Ham where we are using the opportunity to strengthen the presence of the park opposite to inform the design of the building and its surrounding spaces.

The Olympic Village was an example of how the energy and big vision of modernism could work in conjunction with the existing city. Although at East we are careful to avoid overdesigning our buildings and spaces, and are sensitive to working alongside existing qualities of place, it is also inspiring to see the scale and ambition of a place like the Olympic Village where confidence and architectural rigour were crucial in making the place amazing.

1960 Olympic Village, Rome

Plan of Olympic Village with viaduct cutting across.

First time Olympic site was catalyst for urban change

The 1960 Olympic Village was a showpiece post-war project for Rome, containing housing for 6,500 people after the event, shops and a church in addition to the sporting facilities themselves.

It was built to the north of the city along the flood plain of the Tiber in the Flaminio district, which had a history of hosting sporting facilities. It was notable as the first time that the Olympics had been used as a catalyst for urban change. It was designed by a number of architects including Luigi Moretti and Adalberto Libera. Engineer Pier Luigi Nervi designed the Corso di Francia viaduct, which runs through the middle of the village across the river to Foro Italico as well as the two indoor sports arenas Palazzo dello Sport and Palazzetto dello Sport to the south, plus the outdoor stadium at Flaminio.

The viaduct divided the housing for male athletes to the east from that for the female athletes to the west.

It is elevated on T-shaped piers to allow free passage of athletes across the site and, after the event, to reinforce the idea of a continuous park along the river.

The housing was arranged in 1,800 apartments divided into five main building types, the tallest rising to six storeys united by consistent use of pilotis, yellow brick exteriors, steel windows and similar wooden blind details. To the west are three storey, free-standing villa blocks, a strip of two six-storey blocks then two pairs of curving five-storey slabs facing the viaduct. To the east is a four-storey courtyard block, several large slab blocks with two curving to form a shopping arcade, and to the east a large number of three-storey cruciform clusters.

After the Olympic, the apartments were used as public housing. But during the seventies and eighties the area declined.
Construction of Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica nearby kick started regeneration but, although there are signs of gentrification, the area beneath the viaduct remains underused. There have recently been calls for a conservation plan to safeguard the architecture of the area.

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