Rome may be a model city but it's also a warning
Last week I accepted the opportunity to trade a cold weekend in the seven hills of Sheffield for a visit to the altogether different Seven Hills of Rome. And yes, topography aside, the contrast between the two cities was as great as you would expect. Rome is one of the great ancient cities of the world and a modern capital;
Sheffield is a provincial northern English industrial city famous for special steel. I doubt that Goethe ever visited Sheffield and, if he had, however hopefully he might have travelled, it is unthinkable that he would have felt as he did on arrival in Rome: 'I have calmed down and feel as if I had found a peace that will last for my whole life.' So there the comparison ends.
As a guest of Studio Labics (a small, but very smart, architectural practice) and the city's university, I saw a different side to Rome.
We skirted the tourist attractions, diving in occasionally for a fleeting glimpse of the irresistible: Pantheon, Capitol Hill, Piazzas Navona and Farnese. Instead, we frequented the Rome of the Romans. This is a parallel world of different coffee bars and restaurants, set one street back and just around the next corner.
Romans still regard the city as their 'living room' yet they accept that the tourists also own it. Indeed, I was astonished by the good humour and tolerance of what could be seen as a most unfortunate intrusion. Apparently there is no let-up; the attraction of the mild climate and history ensures that the city is busy all year.
The Romans can reclaim their city only in the early morning before the visitors arise.
My nostalgic recollections of a Rome of extended lazy afternoons, car horns and temperamental outbursts were summarily dismissed by both experience and my acquaintances. The architects I met are working extraordinarily hard trying to make something within this city. Their efforts are, however, constrained by the forces of preservation and restoration. Any new architecture is pushed out to the city fringes or carved out of the interior of existing buildings.
Of course, this restraint demands significant creativity from architects, not to mention the photographers who attempt to capture these ingenious secret buildings and places.
Rome remains a model stratified city in both use and form; it is just that the strata stopped accumulating in the 18th century, when the invention of the European Tour and the fascination with antiquities virtually halted this age-old process, effectively cancelling the future. It puts any of the problems we experience from the 'save' (for save, read 'stop') lobby sharply into focus. Of course, the benefit to Roman architects is their skill in creating architecture within, just as their predecessors carved courts within blocks and buildings. The special nature of their problems is highlighted by the fact that a particularly Italian form of negotiating with a financially hungry bureaucracy has created a new shady business for 'special people who fix things'.
Still, I was not the only one disavowed of a perception. At my lecture I was introduced as an architect working in England, 'where the architect is still the impresario who leads and inspires the project'. I can only note that, while I spoke of the benefits of collaboration in construction, I had to inform them that the PFI route is following the same disastrous 'contractor is king' model that has led to the malaise in Italian architecture.
We need to ensure that we allow neither of the twin dangers - of the ossification of a city by conservation and of commissioning through contractors - to kill off architectural opportunity. We would do well to learn from the Romans and make sure that we do not get 'done to' in England as they have been 'done to' in Rome. Sheffield can also take heart that, as a living city, it has one thing Rome does not: the