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  • Writer's pictureDavid

The Urban Field Hospital: Surgical Implants

Updated: May 20, 2019

wash rendering of project from my fellowship year, 1988-89, at the American Academy in Rome
Elevation of the Istitutum Astream, via della Conciliazione, 1989

Thirty years ago, I presented my project for the via della Conciliazione, developed over my fellowship year at the American Academy in Rome, to an audience at the Academy that included Colin Rowe and the great Bernini scholar Irving Lavin. The problem of that street, and its history (to which I was introduced when a student in Rome by my professor Jeffrey Blanchard), later informed my chapter on Rome in Timeless Cities. All along I was concerned about both urban form and urban meaning; I saw the infill of that street as not only an opportunity to right a wrong of twentieth-century planning, but to make the site an even more meaningful part of a journey to the Basilica of St. Peter’s.

Much has changed in thirty years. The cultural issues that I was interested in are still the ones that interest me, but I have also realized that culture may not be enough. Or, that addressing pressing social issues can also be reconciled with enriching (read, saving) our culture. Call it The Francis Effect, but if I used to think that beauty and truth were what artists largely dealt with, I now can imagine how goodness is more than what each of us does personally, it can be a cultural project.

Long elevation of the hospital-type building in a typical urban context
Elevation, Temporary Housing (not site specific)

I admittedly backed into the insight. Revisiting Filippo Raguzzini’s S. Gallicano hospital, I saw how it—not as a building, but as a type—could have new uses. My wife’s involvement with Jesuit Refugee Services helped me connect the dots between a building form that could fix over-wide modern streets and a building type that could provide dignified temporary shelter.

Two typical temporary housing buildings inserted in the middle of the street
Via della Conciliazione, Rome, modified

I designed a generic version of the building, and tried inserting it, with only slight modifications, into two locations in Rome: viale Trastevere and the via della Conciliazione. These are meant not as nuanced local responses, but as tests of the validity of the type in solving urban problems. Pope Francis has described the Church as a field hospital, and the medical analogy works as well for urbanism, where we talk about surgical interventions in the city. But while the genius of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Rome was in those surgical excavations of the fabric in places like piazza S. Maria della Pace or S. Ignazio, what’s needed today are surgical implants to recalibrate the scale-lessness of the modern city.

This is, of course, a theoretical project. It is also a real proposal, in the sense that it could be done. But what matters most is that it opens up possibilities: for Rome, for refugees and other displaced people, for classical architecture and urbanism.

More information is on the page dedicated to the project.

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