The Corviale housing complex, located in the south-western periphery of Rome, was designed in the 1970s as a solution to the growing number of dormitory districts in the Roman suburbs, caused by the significant population increase between the 1950s and 1970s - when the population grew from approximately 1.6 million to 2.7 million inhabitants - followed by suburban sprawl.
The project, also known as Serpentone because of its huge proportions, was developed by a team of architects under the leadership of Mario Fiorentino between 1972 and 1974. Construction took place between 1973 and 1982, but the original plan to use the fourth floor of the main building for commercial uses, services, and common areas, was dropped because the contractor went bankrupt. The floor was eventually taken over by informal settlements, and this event is considered to be the root of the problems with this emblematic project in the history of housing in Italy.
Architecture as a metaphor for the city
The Corviale housing complex is located in the Quartiere Portuense and consists of buildings dedicated to a variety of services and three residential blocks, occupying a total area of about 60 hectares. The first building, a 958-meter long linear building, has nine floors intended for housing, plus two underground garage floors. The building is divided into two parallel but interconnected blocks, which allow more light and ventilation into the interior spaces. Staircases and elevators, situated near the management units, mark five main entrances and subdivide the building into six connected blocks.
Parallel to the main volume is another set of dwellings, but lower, with only three floors. This building also has services and activities for the residents, such as a daycare center, school, commercial units, and an open-air theater. Dwellers can move between the blocks via elevated walkways that extend from the five entrances of the eleven-story building. Finally, another residential block stands at a 45° angle to the other two buildings, around which are located a variety of facilities that served many different purposes over the years.
The grandiosity and monumentality of Corviale's architectural ensemble provoke inevitable associations between the building and the city. The metaphor of architecture and city can be perceived from different perspectives, either by its formal composition - in which the corridors become streets and the apartment blocks, city squares - or by the concept of including more than just housing, but also commerce and various services, even though many of them were actually never built.
Picturing buildings or architectural complexes as metaphors for the city is nothing new and has already been noticed in some very emblematic architectural projects, such as the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille (1952). Many of these projects are inserted in a historical context of population growth and lack of services and amenities in the periphery of the cities, so the government and architects saw in architecture, and especially in social housing, a possibility to provide a significant change in the inhabitant's lives.
From a symbol of decline to a model of urban regeneration
Failing to follow the original idea of the project, the lack of management of the spaces, and the degradation of the complex over the decades, impacted directly on the residents' loss of meaningful relationships with the urban context surrounding Corviale. But while some consider the building a "concrete monster" that should be demolished, others see in its history, and essence, a great potential for urban transformation.
For example, the Immaginare Corviale project carried out between 2003 and 2005, operated as a kind of multidisciplinary laboratory that sought to promote reconciliation with an interrupted history through the participation of the inhabitants. Besides this initiative, there are also many other intervention proposals resulting from competitions over the years, such as the Rigenerare Corviale International Competition and the Corviale Accomplished Workshop, just to name a few.
Now, there are two ongoing regeneration projects for the Corviale: the Chilometro Verde (Green Kilometer) project by architect Guendalina Salimei, and Rigenerare Corviale (Regenerate Corviale), led by Laura Peretti. While the former deals with the renovation of the fourth floor to allow the construction of 103 new apartments, the latter contemplates interventions in the common areas of the main building, as well as changes in the streets to adapt them to a pedestrian scale and to create new public spaces and green areas.
The Corviale complex stands out for its linear and massive main volume, but when examined up close, it reveals a universe of relationships established over the decades between dwellers and architecture and between architecture and the city. In this new chapter of its history, the regeneration initiatives revisit a utopia that could not be achieved, with at least the ambition to provide a better quality of life for the residents of the Roman suburbs.