Refurbishing the 60′s masterpieces: La Rinascente and Corviale, Rome

The city within a building – Mario Fiorentino

In the last 50 years, we have built a massive amount of buildings, experimenting techniques and philosophies as never before. Reinforced concrete, cheap energy and cars allowed us a freedom to build that we never experienced before.

Now, many of the ideas behind them look outdated, and the building themselves are approaching the end of their lifecycle, and , so, deciding of their future will be one of the main challenges architects will face in the next years.

  • What shall we do with buildings that are growing old, need a massive renovation, but are a strong part of our heritage? Shall we save them as they are, adapt them to our comntemporary exigences, or admit they are too old and too expensive to be restore, and tear everything down?
  • In 50 years, will we regret our choices concerning the 50-years old buildings we decided to destroy, to keep or to renovate?
  • When we build our contemporary building, how shall we consider their future?

Let’s start with an example: La Rinascente in .

(photo: skyscrapercity)

Architects: Franco Albini/Franca Helg
Client: La Rinascente
Location: Rome,
Project year: 1957-1961

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(video: Fjfm)

La Rinascente is considered as one of the Italian Modernism’s masterpieces. Located in a strategic place, just outside the historic town, La Rinascente imitates the classical decoration of the surrounding buildings using a steel-framed structure. Every element of classical architecture is recreated in steel, and has a specific role in the building structure: the horizontal beams become trigliphs, the vertical beams columns and capitals, and the maintenance rails become the building’s main frieze. The space between columns is filled with precast concrete panels, featuring a white-and-red, waved texture.

La Rinascente is a masterpiece whose preservation will be problematic in the near future. Conceived in a period in which energy was cheap and environment was not a major concern, the building depends heavily on artificial lighting and air conditioned, and has almost no windows. Adapting it to current energy standards implies a massive refurbishment, and will hardly be possible without providing sources of natural lighting, opening windows on the façade and changing some of the features of the building.

Let’s go on with another example, still in Rome, but this time in the suburbs: Corviale.

(photo: flickr)

Architect: Mario Fiorentino
Client: IACP (social housing institute)
Location: Rome, Italy
Project year: 1972-1982

(image: flickr)

(image: flickr)

Promoted as “The city within a building”, Corviale takes the principles of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, and reunites all of them into a, 11-storey, 1-km long single building, hosting 1200 apartments and 6000 people. 5 main stairways allow people to enter the building, and a secondary network of stairs and walkways spread throughout the entire building. The 4th floor was reserved to shops, offices and small business, allowing the community to be entirely self-sufficient. All apartments would enjoy an optimal solar lighting, and an amazing view over the city of Rome.

To further show the experimental tone of the intervention, a special signage was commissioned, as well as 5 scultures, to be positioned in front of the 5 main entrances.

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(video: Fjfm)

Even though the architects had full freedom, and even if the building had an enthousiastic review from both public authorities and the press, it turned into a complete failure: the 4th floor was never able to attract shops and business, and little by little got squatted, turning into a “flying favela”.

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The other floor had a similar destiny: given to low-income families, they became a big ghetto, and now the entire building is considered as “The symbol of a failed utopia”.

All along the years, lots of different programs have been established in order to improve the inhabitants’ lifestyle: shopping centers all around the main building, schools and sport facilities, and an animation program, including a street TV and an incubator for young entrepreneurs. Some programs shave succeeded, some others have failed, but none of them has been able to turn Corviale into an appealing place to visit and live.

And, 30 years later, concrete is starting to crack.

Cite: Castroni, Marco. "Refurbishing the 60′s masterpieces: La Rinascente and Corviale, Rome" 21 Feb 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <>
  • Terry Glenn Phipps

    Corviale, like every structure of its genre in Europe represents the failed strategy of conflating western socialist political agendas and architecture. The result is, predictably, uninhabitable and undesirable. The seeds of failure are more traceable to the social agenda than they are to the architecture. Once people start to be put into these utopias the inhabitants are immediately meta-branded as Corvialisti. (Of course, the maximum expression of this distopian destiny is to be seen in Napoli – brilliantly depicted by Matteo Garrone in Gomorra.)

    Other examples of highly concentrated buildings as cities are much more successful. The example that comes most readily to mind is SOM’s John Hancock center in Chicago. This vertical city combines living, working, and shopping successfully as a modernist aspiration for the borghese class.

    Given that both structures represent excellent architectural fabric the difference is primarily marketing and the political agenda that stands behind that marketing.

    Other social experiments in Italy that are connected to diverse agendas have faired better. For example, Marzotto’s social city of Valdagno, the IVREA experiment of Olivetti, Edoardo Gellner’s ENI village in Borca di Cadore, and the wacky Salemi project in Sicily. Almost any aim (even one as perverse as Oliviero Toscani’s), other than putting people in little boxes and trying to convince them it is a home seems to work.

    The conflation of politics and architecture is the main theme of the original post. The current agenda is sustainability – a poorly articulated catchphrase standing in front of a poorly articulated political agenda. By confounding the aims of historic preservation and politics one achieves success in neither pursuit.

    In reality, the preservation of commercial architecture has always been an extremely difficult challenge. Two examples that comes to mind are Bullocks department store in Los Angeles and the Schocken department store in Berlin. Both were subject to the vicissitudes of radically changed economic, political, and commercial forces.

    Buildings that are made for selling things have a need to reinvent themselves with the passing of time. A prime example of such a building in crisis is Andrew Geller’s (Raymod Loewy) Lord & Taylor department store in Stamford Connecticut – or – any of the main street modern buildings on the World Monument Fund’s endangered list. Here the crisis is provoked by the promotion of economic value ahead of cultural value.

    It is ludicrous to think that the future of the La Rinascente monument should be any more dependent upon either its original purpose or its technological infrastructure than the Roman Colosseum. The transitory problem of the air conditioner (an area of technological research where Italy happens to excel) or the lightbulb should have no bearing on this problem. This is especially true given that La Rinascente is on the scale of a palazzo and not of a city.

    The best thing to do, when there is no obvious path, is to do nothing. This is a fundamentally Italian principle that has saved the nation through its every crisis of the last millenium. Leave this buildings be until they can find an honorable purpose.

    Terry Glenn Phipps

  • Michigan

    Beautiful buildings, for the sentimentals like me I would renovate and keep it unless there is a safety concern. Maybe some modifications for energy conservation could be done without sacrificing the highlights of the design.

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  • BT

    I just agree 100% with Terry Phipps post.

    Such a wide-ranging post with examples from Stamford, CT (used to live near there) to Los Angeles (I live there now).

    But I would add that there is probably no reasonable way to ‘save’ something like the Corviale. At some point you are forced to choose whether to save or demolish, after the ‘do nothing’ approach has gone as far as it can. I suspect that the Corviale would not be culturally valuable enough to fix, save as a negative example. And I suspect that it would not be cost-effective to modernize either.

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  • Jeff

    I don’t think that our disposable world should translate to tearing down buildings.I believe that sometimes we are to quick to blame our societies “ills” on a building and not take a look at ourselves.Also I believe that some places just love to tear down buildings and replace with either a vacant lot or some hideous gross building that someone(usually some investment company) believes will enhance the area( and make the shareholders and ceo’s a profit)

  • Josh Billington

    just a quick thought while on my lunch break…if not restore, must it be pulled down? I’m thinking Angkor Wat in Thailand, and closer to Corviale, the Colosseum. Maybe, we are creating new ruins to visit in the future. A new joy could be found in these buildings, and maybe we would then finally be able to drop the ‘failure’ moniker, from what was an adventurous and proud moment in architectures history.

  • Tom in London

    I once took a group of students to visit Il Corviale and as we got off the bus, the driver warned everyone “don’t say you’re architects”.

    There is a certain group of elitist architects in Rome who believe Il Corviale is an heroic architectural statement, too sophisticated for most people.

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