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Addressing Rome’s Refugee & Urban Challenges:
Temporary Housing in a Permanent Building

THIS PROJECT WAS BORN in the Spring of 2017 as a response to two seemingly unrelated problems: the temporary housing of refugees and others in crisis, and the devastating effects on the urban fabric of Rome of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sventramenti, or guttings. I believe these two challenges, one humanitarian and one urban, could be addressed with a single solution: the expression in English is “killing two birds with one stone,”  but I would prefer to replace that destructive metaphor with a more constructive one: feeding two birds with one worm.

I’ve become increasingly aware over the last decade and more of teaching in Rome how much the city we inhabit today was radically transformed by the destructive interventions after the unification of Italy. The rich, subtle texture of the urban fabric (and neighborhoods) that Giambattista Nolli’s map of 1748 represents was rent by the work of sventramento post-unification and pre-World War II. These eviscerations were meant to achieve a variety of ends, from modernizing the image of Rome on the lines of Haussmann’s Paris, to accommodating traffic, to celebrating the power and reforming zeal of the Fascist regime. I’ve written about this process and its effects in my chapter “The Shape of Public Space: Place, Space, and Junkspace” in the book Perspectives on Public Space in Rome, from Antiquity to the Present Day. There I trace the roots of this scale-less approach to streets and open spaces to the techniques of nineteenth-century Beaux Arts design and planning. With the intention of connecting the city for traffic, boulevards like viale Trastevere actually split that ancient neighborhood in half. Conversely, the via della Conciliazione that leads to Saint Peter’s was meant to memorialize the agreement that split the Vatican from Rome and Italy, but it also eliminated the rich texture and scale of the Borgo neighborhood, and the drama of the old approach to the Vatican basilica.

Hospital of S. Gallicano

IN STUDYING THE CITY I’ve also come to appreciate some of the lesser-known but sophisticated tools that the architects of Nolli’s Rome brought to the urban fabric, and that we might reinvent for today. While Nolli’s map is well-known among architects for the way he shows the interiors of churches and palace courtyards as seamlessly connected to outdoor public space, it’s less appreciated that he also shows theaters and, oddly enough, hospitals. In researching Nolli’s representation of the city’s hospitals I can imagine this building type—long wards often anchored by a shared worship space—as a useful urban element that could be redeployed today as a flexible and effective means to recalibrate the scale of over-wide streets and provide the short-term housing that the city often needs. This bar-building, long and narrow, actually fits just right into the center of Rome’s gutted streetscapes. And, by rethinking its internal workings—preserving its flexibility but adding the services that modern functions require—the building can be made to serve new and even unforeseen needs.

The hospital of S. Gallicano in Trastevere is an ideal example of the type. The first building for Pope Benedict XIII by the architect of the piazza S. Ignazio, Filippo Raguzzini, it’s a simple structure with a central chapel and two long, unequal wings for men and women; advanced for its time, it included an external balcony accessible by staff to open and close the windows and shutters of the wards without disturbing the patients, and water closets between every two beds with direct exterior ventilation. The hospital today is partly occupied by the Italian organization for the promotion of the health of migrants and the fight against the diseases of poverty, INMP (Istituto Nazionale per la promozione della salute delle popolazioni Migranti ed il contrasto delle malattie della Povertà).

At the palace-monastery of Mafra, in Portugal, you can still see an elegant version of the small bed chambers within the larger ward. It provides privacy and intimacy, recalibrating the sense of scale of the ward.


What is proposed is a reimagined ward-type hospital, now a hospice for displaced people, with lodging on the top floor in a series of discrete two-bed units separated by bathroom modules, and on the main level below dining areas over a naturally-lit basement with kitchen and workshop spaces. At the top of the central pavilion is a multi-faith worship space. A simple building, in other words, flexible and adaptable. Not a permanent answer, but  a diginfied temporary solution for displaced people: refuguees, vicitims of environmental disasters, the homeless, etc. Functionally the kitchen could also be a classroom for learning practical, marketable skills. 

At the same time, its impact on the urban fabric would be permanent and positive. The building could be surgically inserted into a space like the viale Trastevere or via della Conciliazione, accomodating trafic, parking, and public transit by a more careful calibration of dimensions. Two streets where there is one, more human-scaled and more effectively funtional. The ends might incorporate an outdoor market space for the vending of refugee-produced goods.

Our political crises are often the consequence of false choices: between tradition and innovation, between the native and the stranger, between the temporary and the permanent. With just a little creativity we can build on the past to make a better future, integrate the displaced and make better urban spaces, solve short-term crises with long-term solutions.

It’s not a question of going back or going forward, but going together. 


Temporary Housing as a Temporary Hospital

This proposal for housing refugees and other displaced people, derived from the hospital typology of Nolli’s Rome, could also serve another function, even closer to the typological model. With discrete one or two-bed cells and private baths, it could serve as supplemental hospital space in times of crisis. Each cell is potentially accessed by a door, making it capable of serving as an isolation or quarantine facility. As hospitals and pilgrim hospices were not so different in the past, this temporary housing is adaptable to a minimum-care isolation hospital when hospitals themselves are overburdened.

Planning for crises with permanent facilities is not pessimism, it is prudence. Thinking about cities that way has a long history, is immediately necessary, and can be a resource for our future, all the while enriching our urban fabric independently of crises.

Feeding Two Birds with One Worm
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