Exploring the Heart of Italian Cities-The Periphery

CRP studio presentations

This week, the hard work of my City and Regional Planning (CRP for short) colleagues is finally coming together. After surveying three neighborhoods outside of Rome’s city center for the past 2 and half months, we presented our findings in Palazzo Lazzaroni’s beautifully painted lecture hall.

The CRP urban design and analysis studio class here in Rome has allowed me to apply myself to my coursework in meaningful, Italian, ways. Such coursework indeed would not be possible to complete back in Ithaca, New York. So far, in our CRP studio, I have finally learnt how to draw and create street maps on In Design, and also how to approach complete strangers on the street and ask them questions regarding their neighborhood and to ask them to draw a mental map of their neighborhood on a piece of paper.

Not only has my CRP studio coursework been meaningful in ways of gaining new experience and skill sets, but also in ways of actually contributing back to human society by working towards creating a final neighborhood analysis booklet and set of posters for each of our respective neighborhoods, that each CRP group was assigned.  Within the booklets and posters are neighborhood analyses of significant findings of the neighborhood that set it apart from the rest of Rome, in addition to creative design proposals to help improve the livability and overall image of the neighborhood. Our completed booklets along with a number of exhibits will be presented to the public and key stakeholders of our neighborhoods before the end of the semester.

Spina Tre a Torino


Converted Industrial Space, Spina Tre-Torino


Were it not for the CRP design studio, I would not know what it is to explore the heart of Italian cities. As Italian film director Pasolini alludes to (particularly in his film Mamma Roma 1962), that the heart of the Italian city lies not in the city center, but rather in peripheral city neighborhoods, where real living occurs.  Real living as the majority of urban dwellers don’t live in the city centers themselves.

Before coming to Italy, and before coming to Rome, I had never really imagined what anything outside the historic city centers of Italian cities would look like.  With our CRP design studio, we have explored not only the peripheral neighborhoods of Rome, but also of Bologna, Turin, and Milan. Exploring the peripheral neighborhoods of each of these cities has provided us with the bigger picture of the Italian city, a greater understanding of the Italian city that truly differentiates a mere tourist from an academic.

Urban Horticulture a MilanoUrban Horticulture Greenhouse- Milano


Crossing Bridges: Rome and Ithaca


Ponte Garibaldi, View to St. Peter’s, Photo by Author.

Every day, I cross Ponte Garibaldi to go to studio. The bridge itself is nothing special, but the view is nothing short of spectacular. On the right is Isola Tiburina, a scenic island hospital that has been a center of healing since antiquity. To the left, the dome of St. Peter’s stands in the distance, a blue signpost hovering over the tree-lined river banks. At different times of the day, the vista becomes animated. Early morning, the Tiber is calm, and verdant spring trees sway and breathe in the air. Late afternoon, the water sparkles, and flocks of seagulls swirl above the blinding ripples. At night, St. Peter’s becomes an illuminated orb, and decorated streetlamps cast golden shadows along the embankments. The view is, in every sense, a movable feast.


Tiber River, Late Afternoon, Photo by Author

But the bridge is also significant in another way. As most Cornell in Rome apartments are in Trastevere, and the studios are located in Centro Storico, the bridge becomes—dare I use the architectural cliché—a “threshold” between life and work, or work and play. Walk one direction, and I find Bar Callisto. Janiculum Park. Apertivo. Walk the other, and I am confronted by tourists. Chipboard. Professors Jim and Lily (Note to Jim and Lily: You guys are are awesome, chill people, it’s just studio).

cornell bridges

Thurston and Suspension Bridge, Photo by Google Images.

This “threshold” condition actually reminds me a lot of Cornell campus, and the walk from North Campus to Milstein/Rand. As professor Vince Mulcahy once explained, Thurston Bridge connects academic Central Campus with the leisurely “freshman” world of North Campus, so the commute would represent a “change in attitude”. I think back to all those cold 3am walks from Rand to Risley, Milstein to Clara-Dixon, and Milstein to Ujammaa—and the only “change in attitude” I can think of is from waking to sleeping. At least in Rome, when the security guard kicks me and my classmates out of studio at 1am, we still have a view of St. Peter’s on the walk back.


View from Garibaldi, Evening, Photo by Author.

Which makes me think: In my five years as a Cornell architecture student, I would have crossed a bridge to go to studio over a thousand times: Thurston, Cascadilla, the suspension bridge—and now Garibaldi and sometimes Sisto. That’s a thousand poignant crossings over water, a thousand sleep-deprived, late night treks, a thousand threshold moments between waking and sleeping through daily life. I think about my other threshold moments of late: of being more than halfway through my five-year program, of having one month left in Rome, one month before another archi-adventure in Chicago and beyond—

Better make the most of it, and keep watching the seagulls.



My Sicilian blood was boiling when I stepped off the plane in Catania. I had never been to any part of the little island Italy perpetually kicks along…so I was very anxious to embrace my forgotten history. What I saw was a bit shocking and strange. I admit I had culture shock. Catania was a whole other world apart from the rest of Italy in general. If Rome feels old, Sicily feels…retro. Sicily has definitely got a soul that no one else in Italy can lay a claim to. My case and point lies in the fish market, which has remained unchanged for centuries, still as smelly, slippery, and scrumptious as it ever was.

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From above you can see the nonnucci with hands in nests behind their backs and their longshoremen’s caps, endlessly contemplating the catch(es) of the day. Below, weathered fishermen stand loyally with other members of the family (each representing a different generation) adorned with bags full of euros on their crotch of their jeans and bibs sequined with pearlescent fish scales. They shout prices to the spectators above and dip their paws in buckets of water to flick and sprinkle atop the displayed morsels from the trawls, a gesture which I understood to be a sign to whet the appetite of potential customers or to signify freshness.  In Sicily, their dessert is sweeter than yours always. The cassata never fails to outdo its other competitors with not one but two layers of colorful marzipan, candied fruits, and fruit juice or liquor soaked into pan di Spagna (sponge cake) and finally layered with sweet ricotta cream..think cannolo…(anglicized to the heretical, ear-scathing term, cannoli). Catania was ancient, dirty, scary, all-encompassing, and surprisingly friendly. I tip my hat to the barkeep who I talked to on my first day who taught me all the best (and worst) parts of town. I got around using the public transit, which is full of all kinds of characters going every which way (and many a spitting gypsy). It brought me to hike Mount Etna, which is the most active volcano in Europe. Aside from the horrendous sunburn, I took some amazing pictures and got to hike along the snowy, smoky volcano’s summit.

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I also visited thanks to the public transit, the sleepy beach town of Aci Castello, where the water really is bluer on the other side. From the licks of Arabic in the language, to the crazy concoctions, to the myriad of biomes and settings, Catania was so many amazing experiences rolled into one. Though I might never go back, Catania has enough character and left enough memories to last me a lifetime.

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Facing Faceless Milano

If you could build the most ambiguous city on the face of the Earth with the most atrocious people with terrible manners you’d construct Milano. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad. Milan does have some redeeming qualities. The Duomo was definitely in my top ten cathedral list. And there was a lot of cool modern architecture. Look no further for the most fascinating Moretti constructions sliding into the streetscape.

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Milan was also very clean and efficient and new. Here I’ve been, stuck under the Roman veil of the old world. Coming to Milan, I thought I had just stepped out of a cryogenic freezer: there were no baroque or renaissance constructions in sight. A lot of the buildings are a result of the rise of fascism, as the Fascists used architecture to celebrate and iconize the new period of Italian power. This stylization is not uncommon, if you think about it every single power in Italian history has its own example of monumental or iconic buildings. During industrialization, it became the headquarters for much of the automotive, textile, and machinery industries. Many buildings find their roots in this advent as well. The money was there and the buildings sprung up like flowers— really anonymous, austere flowers.

Don’t get me wrong, I was really grateful that all the trains worked at night, and the schedules were on time. I was excited to be in a cleanly city with the promises of fashion and seriousness (even though I didn’t buy anything).The real reason I think I didn’t like Milan was that it was a little too much like every other wealthy city. It was globalized, so much so that I believe it failed to make ‘places’. Place, as in a defined area constructed by a particular culture which is born from a particular set of spaces. Milan seemed like some sort of conglomerate where everyone wore sharkskin blue suits. There were very few pockets in the center of the city that seemed like home to anyone…or maybe it was that they were home to everyone and no one at the same time. I was also let down by the ‘fashionability’ of the residents as well. They were well dressed, but they were all impeccably dressed in the same clothes. And the people were often snooty and mean; it was the first time that I was actually treated really rudely in a museum or store and yelled at…the first time my Italian or my efforts to use Italian didn’t shield me from being called uneducated for asking for a coat check ticket.

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I strongly believe that the economy and architecture go hand in hand in constructing a cultural environment. Unfortunately, the emphasis in Milan was largely impersonal and commercialized, with little room for anything other than corporate whims. No rush of blood or swooning here, Milano definitely wasn’t for me, but most of my classmates found Milan to be their favorite city encountered thus far in their Italian travels. I respect you Milan, but my heart lies in the mystery, malfunction, and majesty of the multifaceted Rome!


The Non-Unbecoming of Contemporary Architecture – IaN+ Lecture

Reliving the Historic

IaN+ Conceptual Work, “Reliving the Historic Center”. Google Images.

These days, everyone seems to be talking about the death of the architectural profession – the growing irrelevance, the commercialization, and the hollowing out by engineers and developers. In these supposed “tough times,” where should young architecture students turn to? Parametrics? Radicalism? Revolution? For IaN+, the final evening lecturers of the Cornell in Rome series, the answer is “none of the above.” To do architecture, according to IaN+, one must recognize what one does NOT want to do with architecture — and then just make the projects work.

In a lecture titled “This is not a manifesto,” architects Carmelo Baglivo and Luca Garofalo of IaN+ reflect on their desire to rid architecture of its superfluous threads – its ideologies, its formalism, and its grandiosity. As an introduction, Baglivo and Garofalo explain that contemporary architecture is a self-referential act, driven more by media than by issues of the city. Lost in the culture of consumption, architecture as a discipline has lost its meaning as a “thinking tool to interpret reality”. To make the discipline grounded again, architecture has to eschew what it is not, and what it cannot deliver – an anti-manifesto, in a sense.

Projects Conceptual

IaN+ “Un”Radical Unrealized Works.

Garofalo summarized IaN+’s theories and recent projects with five points: 1) No Utopia, 2) No Vision, 3) No Radical Projects, 4) No Icons, and 5) No New Paradigms. For “No Utopia”, Garofalo presented a theoretical project for a New Parliament: a lattice roof structure in a plaza that is neither indoor nor outdoor, realizing the lack of hierarchy in our non-utopic reality. “No Vision” featured a project for Benetton in Tehran, which features a “linen” mesh that blurs public and private zones, while “No Radical Projects” showed a competition entry for the Busan Opera House that intensifies reality through a vertical piazza. In “No Icons”, Baglivo showed an extreme project to gut and transform underused buildings in Rome into housing units, but concealing the interventions by maintaining old facades. Finally, in “No New Paradigms,” the two architects showcased their two built works: Centro Anziani Falcognana and Ospedale del Mare.

Projects Built

IaN+’s Recent Built Works. Above, Centro Anziani Falcognana. Below, Rendering of Ospedale del Mare, In-Construction

For all their ambitious discussion about manifestos and radicalism, IaN+’s realized works are more straightforward, albeit still good. With Centro Anziani Falcognana, the office devised a new senior center next to verdant meadows in Rome’s outskirts. The project’s “money shot” was the front portico, which feature dramatic angled beams that leap off from the roof. Meanwhile, Ospedale del Mare is a courtyard addition into an existing hospital. An “elevated tree” connects different points of the courtyard together, and the main spine punctures through the existing block to terminate in a circular outpatient building.

Between their built and theoretical works, there seems to be a great disconnect; eschewing radicalism and the spectacular, IaN+’s architecture may look unbecoming. But that’s okay. If the office’s goal was to free architecture from lofty, unrealistic ambitions, then what remains—their built works—are simply good spaces. “Urban devices” and microinfrastructures may be more evocative words to describe the projects, but in the end they are just words. If and when architects have a chance to make projects which others feel are dazzling, or extraordinary, then great. If not, then architects are better off just making buildings work — projects that fully engage reality — and leave the thought-provoking theories for another lecture.


Roma La Capitale

Two evenings ago, I finally witnessed a protest in Rome! Being the capital of the nation, I was anticipating to see many more throughout my time here- perhaps I just wasn’t at the right places at the right times. This protest however was happening right outside my window along the Lungotevere!

The police or carabinieri were all lined up blocking the street in front of the Ministry of Justice, which forced me to take an alternative route home.

The protestors were acting against the repression of the judicial system that, for example, recently jailed a number of teenage girls for smoking less than a few grams of marijuana. Given the many other problems that the Italian state is facing and has faced-Berlusconi and his league of corrupt cronies- not to mention significantly high unemployment, jailing young citizens for such petty crimes is ridiculous. Not to mention that only a few hundred kilometers away in Amsterdam one can smoke as much marijuana legally as one desires.

As a city-planning student who is trained to also view the city from a political lens, I find such peaceful protests a positive sign of active citizens who truly care about their country and how it’s run.



Seeing Milano as a City Planner

Although my first trip to Milano lasted for only two days, the city told me many wonderful or interesting things in such a short time. Stepping off the Frecciarossa express train from Rome (It gets you to Milano in under 3 hours!), and onto the metro– the differences between Rome and Milan were already clearly evident. The Milano metro was so much cleaner smelling! And had better service. All of these ideas about the wonderful Milanese vs. Roman way of public transportation went crushed under a rock the next day- when the entire public transport system (Taxi’s, underground, buses, trams) went on strike! Nothing is perfect after all.

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Another note about public transportation in Milano- when eyeing the old orange street trams- I was reminded of the many street trams that I would see back home in San Francisco- they even had the same city insignia- the trams in San Francisco must have come from Milan! And sure enough, after some online research, they did! It seems that a man by the name of Peter Witt decided to import the trams from Milano to San Francisco around the 1950’s-and they’re still running the F line of the San Francisco Muni today! Fancy that.

Now here’s a short list of things to do in the fair city of Milano nestled by mountains (That make smog and heat hang about the city on particularly windless days):

1) Grind the bull’s bollocks with the heel of your foot in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II for good luck

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2) Grab a panzerotto or two from Luini’s by Piazza del Duomo

3) Go on top of the Duomo

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4) Have drinks with friends by the colonne across Basilica di San Lorenzo (Don’t forget to use plastic cups!).

5) If you’re into the fashion scene, walk around the Ticinese neighbourhood or get off the metro at Montenapoleone

Milano was just as good or even better than my favourite Pepperidge Farm cookie!


Traveling with Professors

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Traveling with professors to places with amazing historical backgrounds is one of the greatest perks of the Cornell in Rome programme. Having your professor enlighten you about the turbulent or peaceful past of an ancient Roman city is a much more fulfilling experience than listening to a pre-programmed audio tour-guide! (Who uses those things anyways?).

Traveling with our City and Regional Planning Professors and locally wise Italian TA’s, there’s a wealth of information about the cities I visited that my eye could see only thanks to them.

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Is the Real Life? Is this just Fantasy?

Hercules and Nessus

Hercules and Nessus in the Loggia della Signoria by Giambologna

Firenze. I’m still not quite sure what you are, or how time has changed you. I took a short trip to what could be considered as the capital of the art world during a school break. I had been there once before. And when I arrived, I tried to make the remnants within my mind reunite with the city, but it had changed beyond comprehension. Did you know that Firenze has free Wi-Fi in virtually every piazza? Every one. And every single space in the city, the churches, the libraries, the hallways, the courtyards, even the bathrooms have paid entries? Firenze is what I’d like to call a museum city. The preservation laws are insane; I DARE you to find one building front that doesn’t beckon to renaissance or baroque backgrounds. The streets aren’t streets, they’re floors. They’re so clean that you could eat Lampredotto off of them. Admittedly, the broad avenues, the outdoor markets, the facades, the ambiance, the river, all of these things are amazing.

Boboli Gardens

View Looking Out on the Boboli Gardens

But the little city of Firenze has the potential to be extremely deceptive. For example, that house of Dante that you took pictures at and proudly stowed away into your camera’s memory bank. That house was constructed way after Dante. Way, way after. Even though it looks rusticated and old and like Dante sat at the decrepit old wood desk furiously scribbling away on pieces of vellum. Firenze has been reconstructed to look constructed. To look like a ruin. Everything’s on display. It is a museum city.


Da Nerbone. It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s really GOOD. Eat here.

Glide through the Uffizi, watch religion, war and the robustness of human progress fly by in a matter of hours. Marvel at the magnificence of the view from atop Santa Maria del Fiore. Lick your chops in approval of the homemade Stracotto and the thick sanguine Florentine steaks. Walk everywhere. Florence has so much to offer, and it’s all a stone’s throw away. Don’t forget your walking shoes. And don’t forget to sit just downstream from the Ponte Vecchio under Tuscan starshine. The slow churn of the water rolling by and the ripple of Vespa lights skipping along the surface will leave you mesmerized. Sit a bit, breathe through the rhythm of the river, and meld with the richness of the city.

Ponte Vecchio

The River at Night


Milano Trip