romaLAB : architecture as a relational practice

romaLab   is a research lab aimed to the study of the urban growth and, on the same time, to the study of architecture as a relational practice.

In 2006 the lab has been working on the latest urban growth of Rome with a specific focus on public space. Hosted by the Eni Enrico Mattei Foundation, the lab is open to everybody interested in the subject and foresees the participation of specific guests that will contribute regarding different issues that dealt with.

Genesis of this research activity is, on one side, Marialuisa Palumbo’s theoretic research moving from the body/space issue to the issue of the city as the common space where relations between bodies take place and, on the other side, a network of design practices – 2A+P | AQ | doppiomisto | ellelab | IaN + | ma0 | tspoon | UAP | unpacked – specifically oriented towards the issue of public space.

Neither form nor function

What are we talking about when we talk about architecture? Are we talking about houses? Interior design? Buildings? Parks and gardens? Or districts, historic center, suburbs or entire cities?

Undoubtedly architecture is or can be all these things because its research objective is space: from the small dimension immediately close to the space of the body (the chair) to the big scale of the city, neither closeness to the body nor space of the body, but common space of several bodies. In this sense, the house is certainly the intermediate passage where my room, my desktop, my bed, are the most certain places and gradually less contested; they become more intimate portions of space, opposed to that common place (the living room, the kitchen, the bath room) where sharing can be more or less problematic. There is a dubiousness which grows as soon as we cross the border and we move outside: in the landing which belongs to me as well as to my neighbor, and in that lodge which belongs to all the joint owners, and in that entrance which already leads to a part of a road…

In short, if it is true that the primary object of architecture is space, not secondary objects of architecture that are relationships that space immediately brings up: relations between the space of my body and the space of this chair that (more or less comfortably) holds me, but also (and above all) relations between people, close (familiar) or (more or less radically) extraneous. Furthermore what makes the difference is not the scale but the way of looking: a bench for a public space can be a simple seat drove into the ground or a modular object to be composed in several different ways or, still, a movable object to be brought nearer or further away from other seats and people.

That’s why talking of relational architecture means, first of all, to talk about a way of looking at and intending architecture: architecture as a tool to build relationships in space. This happens in all scales: from the object to the house (I put a wall to divide my room separating my activities from yours, I take off a wall to join who is cooking and those who are in the living room, I build a mobile division to be able to open or close the space as I wish etc.), as well as from the house to the city.


From the body space to the urban space

Nevertheless something important takes place in the change of scale.

Becoming instrument of relations between people which are not by themselves familiar, architecture as a sociality device gains a very significant role. That’s because if the city dimension is collective, plural or more precisely social, together with the system of laws which regulate the collective life, architecture provides a powerful system of implicit rules: a system of possibilities and impossibilities (of crossing, border, sighting, hiding, meeting etc.). For example, Corviale’s never ending landing (Corviale is the famous one kilometer long building in the roman suburbia) makes it impossible to manage a space that, belonging to many doesn’t belong to anybody. In a similar way, but moving from opposite assumptions, the American suburbia, where you need the car to get some milk, doesn’t allow, due to its dispersion, any possibility of building relations (which on the contrary it wants to avoid by all means to the point of putting up “armed answer” signs).

In this sense, architecture is a device of social control. Not only in negative terms (the panopticon) but also in positive terms: the piazza (the agorà) is the heart of the polis which is the city intended as the place for public, social and political life.


RomaLab: workshop of relational architecture

Let’s ask ourselves another question: what’s happened everyday in the growth of a town? Or, what importance is given to architecture as a social device in the territory development planning? Does it act as a device, not only for aesthetic pleasure, or as a founding device of the social living?

For example, taking Rome into consideration, the Italian city that has grown the most in these last years, according to what principles has this expansion happened? How is the city been built, with which idea of public spaces and private buildings? What kind of margin, what relations between the green space, the agricultural areas and the built city, what modalities of pedestrian crossing and public service?

Beginning from these questions a group of roman architects founded RomaLab: a research lab aimed to the study of the urban growth as well as to the design of new strategies to re-think the existing city and to think the future one.

Therefore the base assumption of the workshop is the statement of the social value and aim of architecture, intended primarily not as a dialogue between a client and a designer, but as a moment of a plural dialogue between the several subjects which inhabit a territory; intended as a tool of synthesis between different needs, expectations and desires, as a founding moment of the public and common spaces of a collectivity.

Final goal of the workshop is to become a critic observatory of the urban phenomena setting up the bases for a new thought composedof real and imagined scenarios targeting new economical, social and environmental sustainability.

From a methodological point of view, the strategy proposed is one of affirming, near to the social ‘aim’, also the social ‘way’ of doing architecture, which means the centrality of a collective and shared processing of the emergencies, potentialities and development strategies of the territory. That’s why the workshop is open to all the architects, artists, sociologists or simply citizens, who would be interested in participating.


Rome as paradigm

The first study case has been Rome, observed in its specificity as well as in its complex paradigm of the contemporary city.

In fact, if on one hand Rome is the city where the space of relations par excellence, the piazza, has been expressed in what have become real urban models (San Pietro, the Campidoglio, piazza di Spagna, piazza Navona, campo dei Fiori) each one symbol of a specific modality of public life (the religious meeting place, the political one, the fashion and spectacular one, the circus of cafés and acrobats, the market and aperitif piazza), on the other hand, Rome is now suffering, as every other contemporary city, the progressive loss of meaning of public space, in the center as well as in the suburbs.

Considering Rome as a paradigm means to move on the tension line between two opposite poles: between the ancient and the contemporary, between the sociality of the polis and the dispersion of the megalopolis. Looking at the urban space as a relational devise means to go beyond function and aesthetics to catch the shapes and processes able to generate the public space.

The latest city

The first step of the workshop has been a series of explorations of the most recent city (the city built in the last fifteen years), aimed to develop a real understanding of the recent city and a vision for the future one.

Each exploration was curated by one of the promoter groups according to specific modalities and starts from a specific place and theme.

After each physical exploration of the existing city there has been a following that took one or more working days to develop together a critical analysis of what exists and a system of visions for possible future transformations.


Starting from this explorations some major issues of the latest city have been taken as traces for developing a research path by each of the groups involved in Romalab, which is expected to be concluded by summer of 2007.

romaLabis an open network promoted by:

2A+P | AQ | doppiomisto | ellelab | IaN + | ma0 | t-spoon | UAP | unpacked

and curated by:

marialuisa palumbo

About paesaggisensibili

Architect and senior fellow of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology of Toronto University, I'm a member of the board of directors of the Italian National Institute of Architecture (IN/ARCH) in Rome, where since 2003 I am in charge of the Institute Master Programs. My studies are rooted in the fields of architecture and philosophy of science with a special interest in biology and anthropology. Key words for my research are: Man, Space, Nature, Technique, Webness, Ecology, Relations, Interactions, Resources, Energy, Landscape, Footprint, Past and Future. My goal is to build critical understanding of the present to suggest useful strategies to build the future.

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