EUR & La Sapienza

Most travel guides will, briefly, mention the EUR district to the south of Rome. An exemplary collection of Fascist-modernism, the guides suggest that curious tourists take a few hours to wander down the wide boulevards, and experience the contrast between this area and the ancient Roman streets of the city center.

The EUR district was designed as a campus for the Esposizione Universal Romana 1942, located towards the south of the city as part of an attempt to reconnect Rome with the sea (through its port at Ostia). Taken together with new towns built on the drained Pontine Marshes, the EUR district is evidence of a larger plan by Mussolini’s Fascist regime to modernize and reclaim the underutilized lands to the south of the city. Though some of this plan was carried out in the 1930s (as evidenced by the construction of towns such as Latina and Sabaudia), EUR had to wait for completion until after World War II. Stylistically it represents the culmination of Italian fascist-modernism.

Laid out on a cardo & decumanus (a rational urban planning technique used for ancient Roman military camps and colonies), and constructed in travertine and brick (a conscious material choice intended to echo the grandeur of Ancient Rome) the EUR district is almost oppressively grand. The massive scale of the complex is intimidating to anyone on foot: on the few occasions I’ve visited the major axes have been devoid of life. The typically Roman water fountains are conspicuously absent – especially noticeable on a hot August day. Though there is some relief to be found on the tree-lined side streets, it is clear that this district was not designed for pedestrians, a fact reinforced by the ample parking – another contrast with the historic center.

Architecturally, the EUR district is a great example of late-stage fascist-era Italian modernism. Even if completed after the War, the unique synthesis of modernism and neo-classicism perfectly reflects the policies of Mussolini’s regime. There is a conscious effort to strip the buildings of unnecessary ornamentation and to place an emphasis on basic platonic forms. These rational principles from the modern movement are augmented by stylistic reference to ancient Roman architecture, a theme that appears again and again in the work of Italian architects from the 1900s to present day. Here in the EUR district, the major landmarks all make reference to classical precedents. The “Square Colosseum” (the Palazzo della Civilita Italica by architects G. Guerrini, E.B. La Padula, and M. Romano) is of course the most obvious example, and the other major public buildings all feature colonnades, at various levels of abstraction.

The EUR district was designed primarily by architect and urban planner Marcello Piacentini, who was director of the magazine Architettura and a key figure in the Fascist regime. By the time of the EUR design, his style had clearly been codified and adopted by the architects given these landmark commissions, but a few years earlier in the masterplan for the Università di Roma – La Sapienza (1935), he seems to have given the young group of invited architects much more freedom.

Piacentini’s own design for the main building at La Sapienza represents the same principles seen later at EUR, but here the scale is much more manageable. As a university campus, it embraces housing and public space in a way that EUR perhaps could not, but the result is a pleasant, human-scaled, and pedestrian friendly campus. While not in the heart of the city, it is close to Termini station, and a much quicker visit for architecturally-inclined tourists.

It is especially interesting to look at the work of other architects on campus. The curved facade of the Faculty of Chemistry (by architect Pietro Aschieri), is a near-Baroque interpretation of the monumental entry to Piacentini’s main building. Painted in a vernacular burnt sienna, and detailed with rationalist handrails and window details, the building is a playful and eclectic mix of the vernacular, the rational, and the neoclassical that would not be tolerated a few short years later.

Other buildings range from the severe to the downright odd. The Institute of Minerology and Geology (an early work by Giovanni Michelucci, architect of the incredible Chiesa dell’Autostrada del Sole outside of Florence) is surprisingly restrained….

… while the Institute of Mathematics (architect Gio Ponti) is composed of clashing forms that somehow manage to define a classical entrance….

… and the Institute of Physics (by Giuseppe Pagano) best represents the synthetic style of the campus as a whole, with its clear geometric forms rendered in brick and travertine, augmented by details (such as the entry overhang) that owe a debt to streamline modernism.

In conclusion (and to extend the conceit that this blog could possibly be used as a travel guide) for visitors to Rome seeking a little modernism with their antiquities, I can definitely recommend either EUR or La Sapienza for a quick visit, and preferably both as I believe the subtle differences in style are fascinating.

EUR can be reached on the Metro: Line B to EUR Magliana, EUR Palasport, or EUR Fermi depending on what you want to see first. Be sure to print a map ahead of time or take a guidebook, as this is off the typical tourist track. [Map]

La Sapienza is just a short walk from Termini station. [Map]