Tear Down the Corviale! New Urbanism Comes to Rome

Nikos Salingaros presents the case for demolishing a modernist eyesore in Rome and replacing it with a high-density, mixed-use New Urbanist neighborhood.

The Corviale building outside Rome is a social housing block that exemplifies the established Corbusian tradition of treating human beings as battery chickens. It was built during 1972-1982 as a single one-kilometer-long building. It is now estimated to house 6,000 people. Apologists who are nostalgic of Soviet-era social experiments continue to defend its paradigmatic modernist design on the grounds that every resident is EQUALLY oppressed in this inhuman environment, an ideal consistent with totalitarian notions of social equality.

Photo: a depressing view of the front of the Corviale Building.
Apartments in the Corviale Building. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matteo Dudek)

I am involved in an architectural revolution that is occurring today in Italy, and which may hopefully spread to the rest of Europe and the World. We are proposing tearing down the Corviale and replacing it with new urbanist fabric consisting of 3-5 storey buildings tightly knit together with pedestrian and vehicular connections, and supported by a network of urban spaces and green on the human scale. This comes as a shock to many Italian readers.

Immediately after the Italian elections of just a few weeks ago, incoming politician Teodoro Buontempo announced that he is going to tear down the Corviale. The Corviale monster (also called the "Giant Serpent") will be replaced by a high-density mixed-use city. At this moment, we have three very nice projects by three of my friends in Italy: Ettore Maria Mazzola, Gabriele Tagliaventi, and Cristiano Rosponi. These very different new urbanist designs offer three responses to the problem of building new urban fabric and replacing existing urban tissue that is gangrenous.

The Corviale plan.
The Corviale site as it is currently planned.

It is worth discussing what these solutions represent within their broader political, historical, and social implications:

  1. This is probably the first time that new urbanist projects are laid out in front of the Italian public accompanied by strong political support. Thus far, the press has conspired with the Universities to bury any traditional urban projects so as to be able to deny their very existence. That way, the architectural establishment could continue to live off the deception that buildings and cities "simply cannot be built that way anymore".
  2. Mazzola's project is new (2010). Tagliaventi's project (A Vision of Europe, 2008) was published in magazines and on the internet but was ignored by the mainstream media so that no one remembers it as having existed at all. Rosponi's project (Agenzia per la Città, 1997) was presented to the Italian government about 13 years ago, which then included Teodoro Buontempo in a less powerful position than he holds today, but the design was not implemented and was buried in the cupboard by the succeeding administrations.
  3. Having three very different new urbanist projects on the table exposes the second great deception of modernist urbanists: the claim that traditional architects supposedly offer the same tired solution which copies old buildings. This self-serving statement is false. Having discovered the correct mathematical rules for human-scale architecture and urbanism, we can generate an infinite number of adaptive solutions, each one different from the other, yet all comparably human. It is the modernist image-based pseudo-solutions that turn out oppressively similar in their non-adaptivity to human needs.
Picture: The Tagliaventi plan.
The Gabriele Tagliaventi Plan
Picture: The  plan.
The Ettore Maria Mazzola Plan
Picture: The Rosponi plan.
The Cristiano Rosponi Plan

Since all three protagonists are my friends, and I could be involved with the detailed execution of one of the designs when it is chosen, I will not compare the relative merits of these three alternatives. They are distinct in approach and show many interesting differences in implementation. All three are viable alternatives and have valuable urban lessons to teach. Suffice it to say that we welcome having even more new urbanist suggestions on a new Corviale: even a fourth and fifth design of a living quarter on the human scale, just to show the Italian public the rich variety of adaptive design possibilities without the need for any duplication.

All three proposals plan to build one portion of new city, then move some of the residents and demolish the vacated space, repeating this process in stages until the entire Corviale has been replaced. Increasing the eventual total area of habitable space without spreading beyond the original grounds will enable the new urbanist projects to largely pay for themselves.

The Critics
We are facing competition, unfortunately supported by the Italian press as being of comparable value to our more radical proposals for rebuilding, coming from young architects who are still fixated upon formal geometries and propose some superficial changes such as paint, making the wall surfaces look "contemporary", and other palliatives. Those architects haven't learned that the human use of architecture depends upon its basic geometry, not upon surface appearances. It is the inhuman scale of the cement slabs and they way they are arranged that create the Corviale's deadly oppressive environment. The absolutist out-of-scale geometry was wrong to begin with, and that error has to be admitted before the built environment can be fixed. Friendly surfaces are certainly essential, but if placed upon the wrong forms they can never fix the basic problem.

Another argument that has blocked previous attempts to condemn the Corviale in the past as an architectural, social, and political failure is the following. Apologists keep mentioning the "incompleteness"of the project, supposedly needing more investment to realize its initial dream (of course); with just some more money everything will turn into a dreamland of joy and happiness. The planned shops on the fourth storey were never completed; the lovely play gardens were never built. But children are happy to play anywhere they feel psychologically comfortable, yet such spaces are sadly missing in the Corviale. Here, the most basic laws of urban structure were ignored, because urban complexity arises through people's movement, which can never occur on the fourth storey. Healthy commerce develops and thrives from network connectivity. What happened instead is that the optimistically labeled "commercial" spaces were occupied by squatters (and still are). Calls for evicting those illegal settlers ignore that they are merely obeying urban pressures to occupy vacant unconnected interior space. The squatters turn out to be better informed about urbanism than the original architects.

Commerce did in fact develop as appropriate to the Corviale's geometry of dreary and dark corridors. The Corviale is recognized as a thriving center for the narcotics trade, prostitution, and a variety of criminal activities. The business perfectly matches the architectural and urban form. If you want retail commerce and schools, then you simply need to change the geometry.

Photo: another view of the Corviale Building.
Another view of the Corviale Building. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matteo Dudek)

Tearing down the Corviale is a great opportunity for human-scale urbanism. But there also exist strong obstacles of a deep ideological nature. I urge readers around the world to watch this battle because the modernists and their political allies could choose to make a last stand. It is not simply an argument about a monstrous and ugly building, but about the monstrous and ugly ideology that permitted such a building (and many others like it) to be built in the first place. Losing Corviale to New Urbanism could well represent the beginning of the end of totalitarian rule in urban morphology, and so for the entrenched ideologues, it's worth fighting to preserve it.

The Corviale was sadly built just at the time when the US recognized that monstrous social housing blocks were an inhuman mistake, a failed experiment on a massive scale. Pruitt-Igoe in Saint Louis began to be dynamited by the Government in 1972, whereas Corviale was begun at exactly this time. It's a pity that the Italian architecture community did not learn from American mistakes, as it would have saved them a lot of grief. Corviale was called "visionary", a term still used in Italian academia. Urban crimes against humanity are taught to architecture students as examples to follow, and their architects presented as heroes. Severe criticism of inhuman housing projects in Italy over several decades has not made the slightest difference.

If the reader does not mind me quoting from one of my papers, I wish to conclude on a note of warning about the seriousness of the underlying issues:

"Choosing to erect anonymous blocks without the slightest reference to the essential properties of a house, projects are then executed with pseudoscientific accuracy they have been planned, exalted, advertised, and studied in all the universities. Those projects have been taught as positive examples to students, by architects who have transformed a vision they originally declared to be "ethical" into an "aesthetic" dimension, which ended up as a mix of mechanization and political ideology Four examples of public housing built in Italy: Monte Amiata in Milan, Corviale in Rome, Scampia in Naples, and Zen in Palermo, were condemned by European urbanists in 1991 as being total and abysmal failures. Nevertheless, 15 years later, those very projects were spotlighted in an exhibition of innovative Italian architecture, which toured the major Italian universities. These examples, wherein similar cases gave rise to opposite lessons, underline that the discipline itself stubbornly sticks to a failed ideology."

-P. Pagliardini, S. Porta & N. A. Salingaros, "Geospatial analysis and living urban geometry", Chapter 17 of: Bin Jiang and Xiaobai Angela Yao, Editors, Geospatial Analysis and Modeling of Urban Structure and Dynamics, Springer, New York, 2010.

Dr. Nikos Salingaros is professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and is also on the architecture faculties of the University of Rome III and the Delft University of Technology. He is consultant to the Schools of Architecture of the Catholic University of Portugal, Viseu, and the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico. Dr. Salingaros is Associate Editor of Katarxis III -- an online journal of New Architecture, New Science, and New Urbanism; the Nexus Network Journal; and the Online Planning Journal. He also ranked 11th in Planetizen's 2009 poll of Top Urban Thinkers.



Detailed drawings for the Corviale projects

This essay has only been up for one day and I'm already receiving all sorts of positive comments, and there is a lot of discussion on the web. Many questions are answered by looking at the detailed drawings of the various stages of construction in each of the three projects, and it is also important to notice the distinct solutions that are offered. All three projects, it must be emphasized, foresee building first on available ground, then moving people to completed buildings, and only then tearing down the monster in stages. No resident is going to be displaced, yet that has been their main fear (not unfounded, considering older examples of heavy-handed government moving people around). Readers can look at the detailed drawings here:

The Tagliaventi Proposal

The Mazzola Proposal (high resolution, slow loading)

The Mazzola Proposal (low resolution, faster loading)

We are at present preparing to publish all three projects in separate issues of the online magazine Il Covile (in Italian), so that most design details should soon be available online.

Ettore Mazzola sent me this piece to clarify his project for English speakers:

"In my project for rebuilding Corviale I applied all the theories developed in my last book "The Sustainable City is Possible", Gangemi, Rome, 2010 (for whoever is interested, it is bilingual and it is also distributed in the US). In the drawings of the successive phases it is possible to see in dark the existing buildings, in orange the new buildings, and in yellow the demolitions. The typology of the building blocks follows courtyard buildings with semi-private inner gardens open to the public passage, typical of the marvelous examples of social housing built in Rome up to 1928. In these spaces there are gardens for people to gather, especially old people and children, and indeed every courtyard is provided with a playground for children. The access to the apartments is located in those courts, since the exterior of the block is characterized by the presence of shops and workshops.

Given the topography, the perimeter of the neighborhood offers a chance for constructing terraces/backyards that cover the parking spaces and which give the sense of city-walls that also define clear edges of the district. As for the streets, my proposal differs from the other two, by being based on the idea of saving money by keeping all that is possible to maintain from the existing condition of streets and infrastructure that are impossible to abandon. Many different monumental and special buildings, as well as shops and workshops, are introduced in order to keep the district alive 24 hours a day. All schools from Kindergarten to High School are present, and are conceived with green areas inside them to be used as sport complexes at the end of the didactic activities. This concept of "mixed activities" will reinforce the livability of the whole district for the entire day and save spaces for the landscape.

The character of the building will be the logical continuity of the examples published in "Il Covile No. 588" (an on-line magazine), or rather the modern traditional buildings built in Rome up to advent of international modernism. In my book I also documented the real costs of construction of those buildings, demonstrating that the building typologies proposed for the Corviale are much more economical than current construction and, very importantly, they are extremely durable!"

One more thing

first of all thank you Nikos both for your post, and for posting my previous comment too.
I just forgot to clarify this:
no one inhabitant of Corviale is going to be evicted before the new dwellings are available. This is something that was deeply studied and carefully described in the diagrams of the phases of development that are visible in "Il Covile nr.588". See the link indicated by Nikos.

Ettore Maria Mazzola

"Losing Corviale to New

"Losing Corviale to New Urbanism could well represent the beginning of the end of totalitarian rule in urban morphology..."

New Urbanism was established as a formal planning philosophy only about 20 years ago. I consider it a fitting evolution for the Industrial Age, that it may mature sustainably in the 21st Century. Many examples of modern architecture should be preserved. Innumerably more are complete failures. To selectively demolish and redevelop land beneath suitably into their surrounding districts could be an act of cultural evolution, rather than radical revolution.

Enjoy the difficult work ahead and set aside time for dancing. Arriba!

Two brief questions

Two brief questions:

How much bigger are your proposed new urbanist projects than the actual Corviale building itself?

If people are presently living in the Corviale, where will they be relocated to if it is torn down? Will they be able to inhabit the new buildings?

There is a senior citizen high rise of similar bleakness that I would like to see torn down and converted into a human-scaled, walkable design.

As harsh as this may seem,

As harsh as this may seem, it is sometimes better to disperse the residents of mass housing failures than to relocate them on site. The existence of massive concentrations of poverty such as these housing projects is unnatural to begin with, and replacing them with higher-quality housing is enough to free up affordable housing regionally.

It may just appear that improvement increases housing costs because demand goes up a lot in a small place but only goes down a little over a very large area. We do not notice widespread small changes.

Yes, but

I agree poverty shouldn't be concentrated, but what I am asking, is are these people guaranteed new housing, or will they be left to find their own new housing?


your generation is depriving my generation of our architectural heritage in the same naive mindset of "isms" that led to the destruction of so much pre-war architecture you probably resent losing. many people happen to like modernism... and though the fickle tastes of the majority may swing back and forth, the idea behind preservation is that not everything should be destroyed when that pendulum swings. the idea of tearing down something that is legitimately old in order to replace it with a simulacrum of a more glamorous past is the antithesis of sustainability (not to mention good taste). As much as new urbanists must love to play the "eco-friendly" card they have no problem with waste when what's at stake is a high-profile opportunity to lecture the world about why fake disney towns are the future with as much irritating self-assuredness as corbusier or adolf loos. When I am your age, there will be few monuments to the era of optimism and creativity (albeit naivety as well) that I didnt have the chance to live through. In their place will be a pastiche of politically correct buildings, "designed" by a generation that lived under a shroud of guilt for the recent past and fear of contributing to a future.

The Timeless Way Of Building

"though the fickle tastes of the majority may swing back and forth, the idea behind preservation is that not everything should be destroyed when that pendulum swings"

The New Urbanist proposals are examples of what Christopher Alexander calls "the timeless way of building." They have features that are common to all vernacular and traditional architecture and that were adopted by so many different cultures because they make people feel comfortable.

Modernists rejected this timeless way of building because of their fascination with new technology and mass production. But now we can see that they were wrong - that people are not comfortable living in this sort of sterile, impersonal environment.

In many cases, as in this case, this sort of design was created by a architects with clique tastes and imposed on people with the least choice - on the poor.

This is not a case where the pendulum swings back and forth. It is a one-time historical error that should be corrected.

Charles Siegel

The dangers of -isms

Great call and a painful reminder of the ever present hubris among architects and planners; from Wright to Corbu to Mies and to Gehry. The victims are always others; mostly common folk.

Modernism and all Zeitgeist -isms become dangerous when they turn
into ideologies, mantras or belief systems. Corbu started out as a hero
and ended up a villain (still a great man; we would not be talking
about him if he weren’t). Who tops the hubris scale today and is next on his path?

We are all modernists in so much as we will only accept proven
propositions. Evidence-based action is the only one we consider legitimate. But we understand humbly that the latest truth is never the last. Beware of arogant assurances to the contrary!

The article had a pleasant surprise: Of the three plans that were shown, the Mazzola one had an obvious pedestrian dominance in its street network and in the open space structure. It also had a rational (modernist) hierarchical road system; the closest I have seen a plan come to the Fused Grid. A fusion rather than exclusion of ideas is happening in the field.

sad people cling to old ways

Again with the Disney criticism. These modernist monstrocities aren't fit for human habitation, they are warehouses. Extensive studies have been conducted to determine their anti-social and anti-human effects. Empirical evidence has shown over and over that they do not work and produce inumerable social ills. So modern, intelligent people respond by producing the new-urbanist plan that's designed to address all these real issues. Then here come the modernist minions and their manifestos calling the effort nostalgic and superficial. How ironic when their analysis is skin deep and they don't care one bit about the ideas that have gone into these new plans. And how ironic that they nostalgicly cling to the tires modernist claptrap when every new and revolutionary design was thought to be superior to the old simply because it was new. Guaranteed, these critics would never subject themselves or their families to live in those modernist monstrocities. In fact assuridly they pontificate amongst the quaint old allyways of some centro historico, sipping their capuccinos while didcating how people ought to live based on a discredited and by now historic philosophy. Modern is a point in time, not a style.

I actually happen to live in

I actually happen to live in a warehouse. literally. I can tell you it's quite fit for habitation. just because some housing stock doesn't meet bourgeois standards doesn't mean other people can't use it. It seems fairly obvious to me that it is the new urbanists and NOT the modernists(preservationists) who are dictating how people should live. There are always going to be people who need a place to live and we should have options. I would choose the corviale over those suburban-town-center designs... but I have no problem with others choosing to live there. It seems the lot on which the existing structure stands could easily accommodate both options... and I wouldn't complain... because being contextual really isn't all that its cracked up to be... cities are better when they don't match. we should have a mix of building styles. modern IS a point in time, which is why it should be preserved the same way a beaux-arts building would be. "they don't make them like they used to" rings true.

I actually ment something else

I guess you would equate the Pruitt-Igoe warehouse housing complex with the warehouse district in Soho New York. And how do you conflate modernists with preservationists? If you think that housing works then you must not care for the people who clearly want it demolished. You should count yourself lucky that there will be plenty of housing options for you in the future due to the profligacy of builders in modernism's heyday of the 60's and 70's. For us who crave detail and softness, don't let it threaten you.

The three New Urbanist projects for rebuilding Corviale

Now all three New Urbanist projects for rebuilding the Corviale have been published in Italian with sufficient graphic documentation to give an impression of what we have in mind. Here are the links to the three different projects by my group of friends, just to show the possible variety in generating a living environment:

The Mazzola Project

The Rosponi Project

The Tagliaventi Project

Meanwhile, the modernist architectural cult (alive and thriving in Italy) has reacted by using the old and tried techniques of misinformation: claiming that, contrary to what we have always heard, the residents actually love their building and lifestyle. Predictably, no statistically-relevant survey is presented to back up these surprising claims.

On the positive side, I have heard from other distinguished architects who are interested in contributing a human-scale alternative plan for rebuilding the Corviale. The more the better! We must finally show the world in the most explicit manner possible that New Urbanism represents a method for generating living urban fabric independent of architectural style, independent of dogmatic form language, and independent of any political or ideological orientation.

All the three projects are

All the three projects are great. But I think Mazzola's one has some problens. Those parks around the new burg will make it somehow segregated from the neighborhoods around it.
Meanwhile the Tagliaventi project, seens to be more integrated with the region, and the central park will sure bring a lot of visitors to the burg, boosting the comerce, and bringing more life to the streets.
Rasponi project is great too. I can't decide which would I choose, Rasponi or Tagliaventi.

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