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Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

A Strange and Beautiful Edge: Elizabeth Fain LaBombard Lecture

In his Golden Globes acceptance speech for “The Great Beauty” (La Grande Bellezza), Italy’s winning entry for Best Foreign Picture, famed director Paolo Sorrentino thanked Italy for being a “truly strange country, but a beautiful one” (Lyman, Hollywood Reporter, 1/13). While Sorrentino’s film finds strange beauty in central Rome, Rome’s peripheral areas, it turns out, also have a wondrous allure. Today’s Cornell in Rome (CIR) lecturer, Elizabeth Fain LaBombard, talked about exactly that.

In a lecture titled “Expect the Unexpected: Design Strategies for Large Urban Projects”, Rome Prize recipient and landscape architect Elizabeth Fain LaBombard spoke to a packed student audience about marginalized landscapes in Rome’s periphery. Beyond the ring road of Rome, runaway development has created a spatial condition that is neither urban nor rural, says LaBombard. Since the 1970’s, population in central Rome has declined, as people move to edge areas for economic opportunities. Because of, and in response to, these changes, developers have been building infrastructure to generate “regional tourism,” LaBombard explains. This has led to American style “hypermarkets”, amusement parks, and shopping malls – lots of IKEAs and Carrefours.

According to LaBombard, these massive developments have had mixed results. In the past decade, ecological habitats have been depleted, and landfills have reached capacity. Porta di Roma, a popular exurban shopping area, has generated economic growth, but it is architecturally banal and often vacant. LaBombard’s most stunning case study is “Rainbow Magicland,” a Disney-eseque theme park in the rural town of Valmontone. The audacity of the park’s name is matched only by its logo: a rainbow of amusement rides bursting from the Colosseum.

As a fellow at the American Academy of Rome, LaBombard has been researching spatial opportunities, particularly public spaces, in this exurban area. She has identified some bright spots: wildlife has taken over some lands, and local communities have occupied abandoned plots and converted them into urban gardens. The most famous example of community takeovers is the Parco Garbatella, the first urban horticulture sites in Rome. LaBombard says she intends to continue researching these parks and horticultural sites in the next few months.

Based on her past experiences, LaBombard is well-equipped to tackle her research topic. As one of the project managers for New York City’s High Line, the landscape architect has had a lot of experience with abandoned spaces and regeneration. In fact, she spent the first quarter of the lecture explaining the process of realizing the High Line. Besides some expected comments about cost-effectiveness and communicating with contractors, her description of the sophisticated planking system, as well as the wide varieties of plants used, was particularly illuminating.

All-in-all, LaBombard presented a thought-provoking lecture on a rarely discussed subject: the Roman periphery. While mainstream media often present romanticized notions of Rome, those preconceptions do not accurately represent the city as a whole. When talking about the contemporary city, peripheral—marginalized and abandoned—areas should always be included in the dialogue, even if they do resemble American suburbs. Hopefully our studio discussions can move beyond “Rome the glamorous” and touch upon “Rome the fringe”–which is, if not conventionally beautiful, still fascinating.

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