Thursday, June 19, 2014


An hour and a half on the 75 bus, followed by the number 5 trolley along Via Casilina brought me, Elizabeth Fain Labombard and her husband, John, out well beyond the historic center, to what is simply called, at least by my landscape architecture friends, "the periphery." I have waxed, if not eloquently then long, about many of the buildings and works of art within the heart of Rome. And I was earlier this spring especially taken with the carefully protected Appian Way park, which gives the sense of a pristine countryside surrounding the ancient road.  But like so many historic cities, the real, unplanned and protected edges bear virtually no relationship to the center.  Just a mile or two beyond the Aurelian wall, one finds a chaotic world of farms pushing up against shopping malls, new highways, dead Santiago Calatrava projects, housing complexes that each could be a case study in planning failure, but also small villages that seem to be, in Venturi's famous phrase, "almost alright."

The morning started urbanely enough, with a walk to Richard Meier's “Dives in Misericordia” church, built for the 2000 Jubilee celebrations.  

Built at the heart of a series of palm-shaped housing complexes, of the gloriously awful 1970s variety, it is a surprisingly beautiful church.  I am not a fan of the Ara Pacis museum he built along the Tiber, so I was not expected to be moved by his next building in Rome.  The three curved walls, symbolic of the ship of the church, frame a warm, indirectly lit sanctuary.  I even felt echoes of Steve Holl's Seattle church, The Chapel of St. Ignatius, one of my favorite modern churches.

Our journey quickly became more, well, rustic after our visit to the clean white world of Richard Meier.  Elizabeth had charted our journey alongside one of the Roman aqueducts, which rise up out of the earth, stand tall and proud, and then sink down as the topography changes, almost underground, and then return again, sulkily moving across the land as a low wall. For miles and miles across miles of the periphery out to the mountains and the source of the water the aqueduct can be seen, less and more destroyed, cannibalized, and left alone.

We started along a highway but soon found ourselves tramping through fields to follow the line of stones.  Though the aqueduct is public and people are allowed to cross private land to get to it, the private owners ignore this rule -- fences were everywhere, and we ended up crawling through and over a half dozen fences to keep to our commitment to follow the public line of the aqueduct.  We also encountered two very fierce dogs, a whole lot of bees, and very testy used car-lot owners, who did not appreciate our taking photos that included the aqueduct and their containers.  One wonders what are in those containers....

Perhaps the most compelling moment, came at the end of morning, when we walked through a little settlement and followed the aqueduct as it disappeared in the backyards of peoples' homes, serving as a wall between gardens, a divider between the car mechanic and the cafe, before disappearing again into a rising hill.

The aqueduct should be more accessible.  It should be better interpreted.  It should be better cared for.

But, still, the aqueduct lives, not in a museum, not in a park charging admission, but amid the people of Rome, a friendly backyard companion, always there, posing questions.

What more do we want from our historic places?

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