A big city map of Rome on the wall of an art gallery in Berlin, the noise of the trenino Giardinetti in the background and a series of black plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling recalling names of familiar places like Pigneto, Torpignattara, Casilino 700 and 900, Mandrione or Valle Borghesiana. And yet unknown areas where I’ve never been while living in Rome, where the city shows diverse forms of informality and inhabitants experience their arte dell’arrangismo (make do approach).
Common grounds as key word to access a world that reproduces itself in different geographical locations. How to depict and present to the general public informal dwellers self-organization strategies or stories of civil engagement? How does an “invisible” city work within the formal city, based on which self-assessed rules? What does happen when the State is absent or even hostile towards those who without “official rights” claim their basic right to dwell? Are Rome’s Romantic landscapes of the “Grand Tour” time, the dreamy-like atmospheres of Fellini’s films and the harsh aesthetics of Pasolini’s work still visible in the today heavily urbanised long gone caput mundi? To investigate actual realities and to raise new ethical questions to these questions an international project group decided to take the lead. The exhibition “SMUR (Self Made Urbanism Rome) – Informal Common Grounds of a Metropolitan Area” presented at the nGBK (14 September – 3 November 2013) is the final result of a series of studies started in February 2009 on the Via Casilina, an arterial road in Rome running south-east from the central Porta Maggiore to the city’s borders and beyond. The project involves architects, artists, curators, urban planners, city activists, anthropologists, sociologists and other scholars from Università “Sapienza”. The starting point of their researches was clear: around a third of the built surfaces in Italy’s capital city were informally occupied by and with its future residents, and constructed without building permission or links to the urban infrastructure. The common line of all the exhibits is the participatory approach each research group member employed: they worked together with their target groups, shared experiences and established a genuine direct contact, which often turned into a long-lasting cooperation, engagement towards their cause and solid friendship. This is what shines through Stefano Montesi‘s B/W photos documenting the life of thousands of Asian immigrants squatting for almost a year the former pasta factory Pantanella ironically called by the inhabitants Shish Mahal Pantanella – chrystal palace -. Before the eviction in January 1991 they managed to develop a well-functioning community through self-organisation. The living conditions of Rome’s Roma community are also explored by the same Montesi, Nihad Nino Pušija and Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremic. All of them documented personal stories, the progressive master plan of their “eradication” from the city center “sold” as solidarity settlement project and implemented both by left and right-wing municipal administrations and their new life in isolated ghettos of shipping containers monitored by security forces.
Antonella Perin, Susanna Perin and Alessandro Lanzetta focused on Valle Borghesiana, an informal settlement in a phase of “normalisation”. Their installation explores the diverse relations between power and politics and their connections, by catching the residents’ everyday life in between the conflicting poles of insecure property relations and the dream of an own home. Enlarging the discourse Sabine Bitter & Helmut Weber make a parallelism between those examples of self-made urbanity and the recent experiences of self-organisation of the Cinema America and the newly born foundation Teatro Valle, completely rescued after two years of occupation. Moving through the exhibition, video installations and photo animations by respectively Klaus Schafler and Tobias Zielony show two opposite realities at the outskirts of the city. On the one hand a local Bengali cultural association which in cooperation with migrant initiatives from 14 countries of the Global South successfully organised a transnational festival in the public park of Centocelle district; on the other hand a group of around 40 young men, mainly from Bangladesh, housed in the Reception Centre for Unaccompanied Foreign Minors in Via Sant’Alessio in Borghesiana who struggle on a daily basis to find their place in a difficult social and legal environment.
Only to mention the projects which affected me the most.
The project outcomes bear no final answers or solutions to these complex issues, but open up to discussions and reflections, since these are not only Italian phenomena. What’s the lesson(s) to be learned? The action to undertake is not an increase of planning, but the answer is rather to be found in the basic question “how to plan”. And following people and community-oriented strategies which can address actual needs is part of the answer! Informality is a fluid situation endogenous to urbanisation as such which eventually will become part of the formal landscape, either being integrated or transformed. This general rule does not apply to Roma settlements, as the Europe-wide scenario suggest. Indeed, while regular citizens could stand for their rights while living in informality, unprotected categories are denied this condition. Nevertheless people born and grown up in Rome, migrants both legal and illegal and discriminated ethnic minorities contribute to a continuous shaping process of the urban landscape using parks, abandoned buildings and open public spaces. Whether they try to make a living or claim their right to exist and their freedom of expression, their “informality” is integral part of the city. And by doing so they fill the gap of a distorted system, lacking (or exceeding) in regulations. In plain words change of political interests, land rights and security seem to be the “medicine”.
As Calvino already said “D’una città non godi le sette o le settantasette meraviglie, ma la risposta che dà a una tua domanda.” (You don’ t enjoy the seven or seventy-seven wonders of a city, but the answer it gives to your question) – Le città invisibili –