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Scomodo takes on Italy’s housing crisis with words and action

Words:
Marina Engel

An Uncomfortable Night in Rome is no longer just another struggle for a home. It’s Scomodo’s disruptive takeover of abandoned buildings to force change

Work in progress at the entrance to Scomodo.
Work in progress at the entrance to Scomodo.

Rome may capture the imagination as a languid city with breath taking monuments and a ‘dolce vita’ life-style, but it also has one of the largest numbers of squats and self-governed buildings in Europe, as its citizens attempt to combat an increasingly desperate social housing crisis of scarce council homes and exorbitant house prices. Recent official censuses have calculated that over 100 buildings are occupied illegally by around 10,000 people – while a large number of abandoned buildings in the capital, and the nation, decay. The Italian Home Office has registered 160 derelict buildings in Rome – including factories, hospitals and cinemas. It has been called a citta fai da te, a ‘do it yourself city’ where a resilient population is finding solutions to compensate for the demise of the welfare state and a weak and bankrupt local city council. 

A lively and diversified alternative scene of grassroot cultural and social associations in squatted buildings has encouraged some interesting creative and social experiments, most recently the proliferation of independent creative spaces in the 2000s. Some, such as Spin Time Labs, provide a home for the homeless and social and cultural services for the city, while helping prevent property speculation by restoring a building in disuse to the community. Over time, the residents have renovated the structure themselves, and arrange social and cultural services, often with neighbourhood organisations and the local parish. 

Not surprisingly, an inter-disciplinary research team of architects, urbanists, legal experts, sociologists and economists, at Salerno, Roma Tre and Tor Vergata (Rome) Universities, have cited some of Spin Time Labs’ actions as future strategies for social housing schemes, in its use of ‘inclusion, reuse, management co-operation, self-building and services.’ Today, this tradition of grassroot collective action is also in the hands of the very young. Scomodo is an extraordinary example.

Tommaso Salaroli was only 17 in 2016, when – with school friend Edoardo Bucci – he founded his own organisation and a printed journal, Scomodo. Scomodo means uncomfortable or inconvenient. Certainly its goal is not to conform to society, but to change it by offering an alternative model of information to the web and mass media. Eschewing the internet, Scomodo is adamant about ‘slow, critical and independent information’.

Scomodo at Palazzo Nardini.
Scomodo at Palazzo Nardini. Credit: Tommaso Salaroli

Today, with an editorial board in Rome and members in Milan, Turin and Naples, over 400 young people contribute to the 100 page monthly that is produced entirely by under-25s. Although popular among young Italians, it is also followed by older age groups. Indeed, it sees itself as a communication tool between generations, and its content – social, political and cultural issues – is admired by some of Italy’s leading writers, including Erri de Luca and Roberto Saviano. Fiercely independent, the journal is self-financing and rejects advertising and sponsorship. Decisions are taken collectively and funds raised by subscriptions, crowd-funding and extra events. Printing 7,500 copies a month, higher than any other European student magazine, it is distributed free to Italian schools and universities and can be bought at independent bookshops. Italian lockdown has been draconian however and, exceptionally during this emergency, the organisation is posting the content of its magazines online. 

But Scomodo is more than just a journal, and, in these bleak times, it aims to recreate hope and the desire for change by proposing projects that encourage young people to take a more active part in society. One of its best known enterprises endeavours to focus their attention on the need to transform Rome’s ‘Mostri’, (Monsters) – its term for abandoned or unfinished buildings – from spaces of ‘ugliness and danger’ into ones that offer a ‘new possibility.’ The magazine publishes a piece on a different Mostro regularly. These Mostri are also the subject of regular Le Notti Scomode (Uncomfortable nights)  – attended by thousands of the under 30s – in which Scomodo occupies or ‘liberates and reanimates’ a disused building, to ‘wake up the city’ and restore a public space to its citizens, if only for a night. (They are temporarily suspended during Covid, and will take place in other Italian cities when they re-open.)

 

Entrance to Scomodo at Spin Time Labs.
Entrance to Scomodo at Spin Time Labs.

Le Notti Scomode are carefully organised. Volunteers clean, prepare and, with professionals, check the security of the designated venue ahead of time, only revealing the location on social media at the last minute. While they are fun parties, they also provide rare occasions for emerging musicians, artists and actors to perform and exhibit. With a €5 entrance fee, such nights help finance the journal. Over the years, le Notti Scomode have become an efficient, if illegal, way of showing how young people can join forces to capitalise on the huge potential in the city’s resources and its empty buildings to create new cultural models – a potential they feel is being ignored by the political authorities.

Some of the buildings selected as Mostri are architectural masterpieces, like Pier Luigi Nervi’s Stadio Flaminio, inaugurated in 1959 but abandoned for years.

Others are infamous landmarks, such as the ‘Bidet di San Paolo,’ as Romans call this unsightly white cement seven-floor skeletal building. Following an agreement in 2004 between the city council and some powerful developers, it was designed as a 180-room hotel but has never opened. On both Notti Scomode here, the police ordered people to leave, but the party, supported by some local residents, moved to a nearby park. Other Notti Scomode have continued undisturbed, as has their one day occupation in 2018 of the handsome 15th century Palazzo Nardini, which had been left derelict for decades in the centre of Rome. In collaboration with different cultural associations, as well as the Stalker architects’ and artists’ collective, Scomodo concocted a day of performances, talks and exhibitions to oppose the sale of the palazzo to private investors for development into a luxury hotel. A banner they erected above the entrance read ‘Roma sogna’ (Rome dreams). 

Preparations for the Notte Scomodo at the Stadio Flaminio.
Preparations for the Notte Scomodo at the Stadio Flaminio.

And the dreams continue. Scomodo has functioned as a nomadic enterprise since it was founded, but a few months ago it was able to move into new headquarters in the garage basement of Spin Time Labs. Unfortunately, at the same time, Rome was settling into its second lockdown and the organisation had to close temporarily to the public. 

Over the last two years, the disused garage has been renovated in a hands-on, participatory planning programme that has involved 24 young architects (including students) and over 1400 volunteers. A crowd-funding campaign and call for donations – as well as a bank loan – have financed the entire venture and sponsorship in kind has helped furnish the space. Today, its 2200m² contain an open plan centre open to all residents, regardless of age. Scomodo can accommodate a rare 150 seat study room for students, open 24/7, as well as a library containing tens of thousands of books received in donation. Its own office sits to one side. Other zones include a project/screening room with armchairs supplied by a former cinema, a lecture space, a bar and an outdoor theatre area that can also host workshops for children. 

In only four years, Scomodo has launched the most widely read magazine by Italian under 25s, a journal that defies the internet. It has ingeniously drawn together tens of thousands of young people to participate in projects that exemplify the urgent need to requalify Rome’s and Italy’s abandoned buildings. And, hopefully soon, it will be able to open Rome’s first cultural hub, operated by its youngest citizens. At just 21, Salaroli’s dream of ‘contributing to turn this country into the one we would like to live in’ appears to be on track. 


Marina Engel is a writer and curator based in Rome.

A longer version of the text will be published in a forthcoming issue of JoCA

 

 

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