Magnificent Seven: Sabbatini's housing

How one man’s creative, coherent view transformed social housing in interwar Rome

Rome’s population expanded rapidly in the 1920s and 30s, rising from 690,000 in 1931 to almost 1.6m by 1944. Large numbers of new housing units were needed not only to meet the demand of incoming professionals and civil servants servicing united Italy’s rapidly expanding capital, but also to rehouse the thousands of low income workers that had come to fill the city’s marginal spaces. De-regulation of rent controls by the fascist regime in 1928 had also made rented accommodation unaffordable for many poorer inhabitants, while its simultaneous programme of demolitions in the old city centre – intended to ‘liberate’ ancient monuments from their accumulated ‘clutter’ – was also displacing entire communities of working-class Romans. Since 1903, the Istituto Case Popolari (ICP) had been the main state builder and manager of assisted rental accommodation. It was also tasked with building most of the required units, plugging the gap for cheap housing which the private sector could not, or would not fill. The Roman branch of the ICP was re-organised in the 1920s, under the stewardship of architect Innocenzo Costantini. It became a large and efficient body with its own in-house team of architects and draftsmen, led between 1925 and 1931 by Innocenzo Sabbatini, who as head of design could transfer lessons from one project to another, with the office building up an impressive database of details, layouts, formal techniques and urban approaches that were rolled out across the city. Under Sabbatini’s tenure the ICP saw the clear rationalisation of many pre-existing tendencies in its output, from clever massing of the huge super-blocks, to the breaking up of large volumes into multiple elevations. Sabbatini’s works moved towards ever greater compositional precision in their handling of immense programmatic complexity, while developing a surprisingly rich and flexible classical language of simple means and minimal gesture but also of great effect. Together this created some of the most enigmatic, high-quality and enduring pieces of urban-scale architecture of that period in the Italian capital.


 

Casa Economica Trionfale V, Circonvallazione Clodia, 1927
Casa Economica Trionfale V, Circonvallazione Clodia, 1927

The Trionfale quarter, to the north of the Vatican complex, was created in 1911. In the 1920s it became one of the major areas of ICP intervention, with five extensions built between 1919 and 1929, and a sixth one planned for 1930 but never executed. It was also an area (along with the nearby Piazza d'Armi zone, around Piazza Mazzini) in which the ICP engaged in the most extensive – and largely fruitful – experimentation with the articulation of residential blocks of different sizes and shapes on highly diverse plots of land. Prominent among these blocks, and clearly illustrating Sabbatini’s masterful deployment of stripped-back classical ornament in combination with careful massing and judicious surface modulation, is the ‘Casa Economica’ Trionfale V, whose elevations achieve a grandeur that appears anything but economic or austere, and which are sadly now hemmed in on either side by other large apartment buildings. Sporting a virtuoso facade of an undulatingly sculptural baroque unity, it also shows perhaps most clearly of all the works presented here how Sabbatini looked to precedents in the city of Rome to justify his formal innovations, with this strange project being an extremely creative re-imagining of the façade of San Carlo al Corso, stretched, scaled up and punched full of windows. In an enduring tradition of creative re-use, Sabbatini successfully transferred compositional techniques from the world of 17th century ecclesiastical architecture on the tiny cramped roads of the ancient centre, to serve the demands of 20th century mass housing on the large new circulatories of the outer city.  


 

Cinema-Theatre, Piazza Romano, Garbatella, 1927-30
Cinema-Theatre, Piazza Romano, Garbatella, 1927-30 · Credit: Adam Nathaniel Furman

Garbatella, a new suburb to the south of the metropolitan centre in the direction of the port of Ostia, began its life in 1920 as a working-class 'rural' quarter serving the nearby industrial area of Ostiense, designed according to the 'garden city' ideas of the leading figure of Italian urbanistica of the time, Gustavo Giovannoni. During the first years of fascist rule, however, its function changed into a medium-density social housing quarter that expanded exponentially in the late 1920s and early 30s. Piazza Romano was designed as the communal hub of Garbatella, mixing residential, service and entertainment functions for the entire quarter. In 1927, the ICP decided to construct a multi-purpose building facing the square, combining a cinema-theatre with residences for artists and professionals. The building (surviving in modified form) comprised two distinct elements: the grand convex form of the theatre hall at the front that extends across the base of the entire complex; and two residential rectangular blocks rising along each of the two side streets – organised together in a concave form to generate a contrasting ensemble. The austere and functional organisation of the residential blocks stands in opposition to the monumental, classically-inspired character of the base that features a rhythmic pattern of arches, columns, and spurs in stark colours, converging on the grand theatre entrance. The original, slightly recessed mezzanine level in heptagonal shape mediated between the two components of the building. This, and the imposing tympanum with pediment crowning the central part of the residential complex, shows once again how Sabbatini was able to distill and recontextualise elements from the ancient Roman vernacular architecture in new balanced compositions and surprising urban effects. 

 

  • Casa ICP (Testaccio IV), Via Marmorata, 1927-29
    Casa ICP (Testaccio IV), Via Marmorata, 1927-29 · Credit: Adam Nathaniel Furman
  • Casa ICP (Testaccio IV), Via Marmorata, 1927-29
    Casa ICP (Testaccio IV), Via Marmorata, 1927-29 · Credit: Adam Nathaniel Furman

Testaccio was the first planned working-class district of Rome after it became capital of modern Italy. Already featured as a primary area of expansion for the city in the 1873 regulatory plan, the quarter was largely constructed between the 1880s and the 1910s, with a mixture of private and (from 1907) ICP-built intensive housing blocks on a grid pattern. In 1927, Sabbatini, with the ICP's technical director, Innocenzo Costantini, planned a new housing ensemble on the northern edge of the quarter (Testaccio IV), featuring four blocks arranged around a circular piazza, and destined for private ownership by higher-income professionals and artists – a notable departure from the overwhelmingly working class character of the rest of the quarter. Of this plan only two adjacent edifices along Via Marmorata were constructed in 1927-29 by Sabbatini. The building has a C-like shape, organised around a spacious internal courtyard. It follows a tripartite formal organisation along its main facade, highlighted by different building materials, textures and colours. The lower part and the attic reflect a stripped-down classical Roman vocabulary (thermal windows, columns, pediments); yet Sabbatini also incorporates references to the Roman barocchetto (subtle alterations of concave and convex walls on the western corner) and to early ecclesiastical architecture (the windows of the tympanum and part of the side facade), all coming together in a coherent stylistic homage to the fascinatingly diverse historical register of local architectural traditions.


 

Albergo Rosso, Piazza Biffi, Garbatella 1927-29
Albergo Rosso, Piazza Biffi, Garbatella 1927-29 · Credit: Adam Nathaniel Furman

This was one of three mega-hostels for the homeless built by Sabbatini in Garbatella, the other two also being known by their colours as the White and Yellow hostels. Not intended as places of permanent residence, but rather as a refuge until accommodation could be found elsewhere, the Albergo was in many ways a very large experiment in communal living. The dining hall where meals were eaten collectively was a grand, concrete coffer-domed space modelled on the pantheon, and there were equally well articulated spaces for cooking, cleaning and childcare. The Albergo fills a large block and is perhaps the most sophisticated example of the splayed form of layout used by the ICP. With a roughly Y-shaped form that meets the surrounding streets diagonally, creating multiple courtyards enclosed on three sides around the perimeter of the block, it generates a built mass with many distinct, separate elevations. Sabbatini modulates each of these to have a discrete architectonic character, and while they are clearly connected through form and colour, as one moves around the complex there is the quite exhilarating sensation of experiencing a small town in sequence, from grand palazzo facing the main square, to town hall with its tower in the centre, to modern apartment blocks at the distant end. All this is articulated through the simple combination of slightly differentiated massing, modified profiles including an abstracted pediment here, a bevelled setback there, and the deployment of simplified cornicing in a contrasting colour that composes some facades with its presence, minimal or abundant, and equally defines others through its judicious absence.


 

Edificio ICP per Bagni Pubblici, Piazza Romano, 1926-29
Edificio ICP per Bagni Pubblici, Piazza Romano, 1926-29

The rapid expansion of the residential tissue of Garbatella from the mid-1920s onwards, and the resulting growth of its population, increased the need for provision of communal services in the quarter. Sabbatini led the design of the multi-functional five-storey building facing Piazza Romano (which also featured the cinema-theatre), with the two lower levels reserved for a system of public baths, and the upper floors providing multi-purpose accommodation for workers, professionals and artists. Built in the tradition of a Roman insula, the influence of local vernacular and classical Roman bath architecture is evident in the design, especially with the grand thermal arches that crown the facade, albeit with modern materials and a stripped-down rationalising sensibility in keeping with the rest of the ICP architecture for Garbatella. In a good example of Sabattini’s creative re-purposing of architectonic forms, and the play between what they imply and what they really are, the Diocletian windows which crown top the building are not the exterior registers of impressively large, full height interior vaults, which is what they imply to passers-by, but are instead large windows for the artists’ studios they contain, and which have their own little communal living area atop the rest of the complex. Another distinguishing feature of the building is the narrow semi-vaulted balcony that runs across the long facade (along Via Ferrati), a structural feature also extracted from the typology of the insulae pieced together from the then recent archaeological findings in Ostia Antica, and also used by Sabbatini in the garden city of Aniene (Viale Gargano and Piazza Sempione block). 


 

Casa Economica ICP, Trionfale IV, Via Arminjon, 1927-30
Casa Economica ICP, Trionfale IV, Via Arminjon, 1927-30 · Credit: Aristotle Kallis

Along the axis of Via Doria - Viale delle Milizie that traverses the Trionfale quarter, one can watch the cumulative story of ICP activity in the area unfold with harmonious urban effect and ever-surprising architectural sequences of stylistic and formal variety. Walking from the Piazzale degli Eroi back towards the river is a journey through the ICP's evolving architectonic vocabulary for its social housing 'mega-blocks' throughout the 1920s, with early rustic neo-medieval elements (Trionfale II) gradually giving way to imaginative fusions of deconstructed Roman baroque and stripped-down, abstracted classicism (Trionfale IV-V). This medium-size ICP housing block has an atypical I shape in plan, with the main facade (on Via Arminjon) recessed and overlooking semi-open spaces on each side. The relatively narrow plot of land presented Sabbatini with challenges in terms of meeting new regulations of hygiene and air circulation stipulated by the ICP in the 1920s, without sacrificing his preference for imaginatively articulated volumes and scenic urban effects. The (shorter) side facades feature eclectic experiments with classical and baroque features, organised in Sabbatini's trademark harmonious tripartite scheme, both vertically and horizontally, but showing a higher degree of programmatic simplification compared to earlier blocks in Trionfale.


 

  • St Ippolito II (Casa del Sole), Tiburtino, 1929-30
    St Ippolito II (Casa del Sole), Tiburtino, 1929-30 · Credit: Adam Nathaniel Furman
  • St Ippolito II (Casa del Sole), Tiburtino, 1929-30
    St Ippolito II (Casa del Sole), Tiburtino, 1929-30 · Credit: Adam Nathaniel Furman

Sabbatini’s last project before leaving the office, the Casa del Sole, can in many ways be seen as a remarkably eloquent summation of his achievements, a masterful aggregate of the various techniques he had been honing over the previous six years. Another large block of housing, it fills the perimeter of its triangular site, stepping progressively down from nine levels at the back, to two at its southern front. This creates large, salubrious southern-facing outdoor spaces for many of the flats, whilst allowing direct sunlight and fresh air to the flats at the full-height rear. Taking the programmatically efficacious diagram of the building’s layout as the springboard for further architectural elaboration, Sabbatini places the main stairwell as a raised and angled projection at the centre of the rear full-height range, forming a consolidated focus for the entire block. This centralised composition is experienced as a strangely unstable layering in space when seen from the tip of the building at its lowest, southern point, with the terraces receding up and away from you towards the rear staircase in a form of counter-intuitive, collapsing perspective, creating a thrillingly updated, destabilised version of a baroque Cour d'honneur. The abstracted classical language used on his other works is here instrumentalised in a precise and rigorous fashion, forming a modulated grid of strong horizontal cornicing and doubly recessed offset rectangles that imply pilasters and entablature through the most minimal of gestures. Entrances, corners, interior and exterior of the block are indicated through careful shifts in these elements with the central bays to the sides having double windows in recesses lacking side offsets, and the windows to the interior of the block being simply cuts in the surface of the building. The Casa del Sole could have heralded a whole new generation of highly sophisticated social housing projects that rigorously combined practical innovations in the large scale provision of salutary units, with a nuanced combination of a revivified classical language, a profoundly urban sensibility, and an often highly (post) modern sense for abstraction and complexity. With the ICP’s following works descending into architectural indifference, it is instead, and in no way to its detriment, the solitary summary of a remarkable Roman career, the flag-bearer of yet another serendipitous combination in the city’s history in a period that saw immense construction activity, and its general guidance by the vision of a single creative mind.