Exploring the edges of the city with Francesco Careri

An interview by Anna Maria Piccoli from Mulab, Cultural Association in Rome, for the #DiOtherCity project.

source: cleanpng.com

Francesco Careri is an architect and Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture of the University of Roma Tre. Since 1995 he has been the founder of the Urban Art laboratory Stalker Nomade Observatory, where he experiments with methodologies of creative intervention in the multicultural city and informal living in Rome. He has done so first with public art actions at Campo Boario, then in Corviale with studies and projects on micro transformations brought about by the inhabitants, later in the neighborhood of the Roma community, between slums, equipped camps and self-recovery of occupied spaces.

Since 2006 he has been the organizer of the Civic Arts Course, an optional course with a peripatetic structure that takes place entirely by walking, analyzing and interacting in situ with emerging urban phenomena.

Since 2012 he has been Director of the Master Arts Architecture City, then since 2016 co-Director of the Masters Environmental Humanities and since 2019 of the Master PACS Performing Arts and Community Spaces.

Since 2016 he has been the owner of the Architectural and Urban Design Laboratory with which he experiments the strategy of transitory living CIRCO – Essential House for Civic Recreation and Hospitality

Francesco Careri, your whole professional activity shows a great love for all that moves, shakes and transforms on the edge and at the border of the city. Do you think sustainable tourism in the suburbs is possible? And, if so, what are the tools, what is a plausible narrative?

A very difficult question, sustainable tourism… Now almost everything is “sustainable”. We tend to put the adjective sustainable to almost everything we’re talking about, but then you have to see how much it really is so? 

Furthermore it’s the word “tourism” that concerns me a little. I mean, as far as I’m concerned tourism is usually a consumer activity, it involves the consumption of an area, of the inhabitants, of the practices and of the places. Therefore in order to be really sustainable there must be a real involvement of the peripheral or suburban realities.

There can not be an association, a guide or someone who goes from the center to the suburbs to just see or to show the zoo for example, but rather an empowerment of the inhabitants should take place. In that way it would be an experience born from the peripheral area, and this is the challenge. 

Usually, in the end, people go to “activate” these places, but in my opinion it is more ethical to go to look for people in that community who already have this inclination, or for local associations that work in the area rather than imagining to have tourists arriving to Fiumicino airport provide them with flyers and tell them: “I’ll bring you to visit the Romani camp”. This would not work.

It should be a Romani who decides how and when to bring people to their area, and what to tell them. We need to consider that perhaps not everyone is ready to enter a Romani camp, because maybe they need to go on their planned trip first. 

So how to activate tourism in suburban places? Suburbs can really mean everything, for example in Rome can also mean Roman archeology, think about visiting the beauty of the aqueducts and Roman ruins in the suburbs: there are plenty of guides and paths. But if you want to get into the submerged part of the territory I think you need an expert, someone who already has this inclination, who already does it in Barcelona, in Mexico City, in New Dheli and in London and wants to know the way of living at the margins. Offering the experience to some consumer-tourist who may have limited time, just an afternoon to go to see something other than the Coliseum, I would not recommend it.

How, in your opinion, could the inhabitants of a peripheral area be properly involved in such an operation?

We have to do scouting and field research, reading the territory, finding the associations, if there are any particular characters, storytellers, artists, who are the best people to accompany and explore a territory with aesthetic and poetic depth. How to do that? It is time consuming, you have to visit the local bar, chat, observe, stand still, watch what happens, and find the right person. There is no real recipe to go and discover the territory, I think spending a lot of time is the best methodology. 

And then walking, getting lost, stumbling, sneaking into some places, getting to know people, I always say: “trying to take the city by surprise, and be surprised by the city”. It’s like creating chance encounters. That being said, taking people around can always be a little risky.

In Rome there are many groups that do this, “Ottavo Colle”, “Mamma Roma”, who are choreographers and dancers, or “Urban Experience”, who offer walking tours with headphones. They talk to people through headphones, guiding them around the suburban area of Corviale. 

In my opinion, however, it takes a real meeting, sitting down at a table, eat together, have an exchange with the community, even if it is in the format that amongst Sardinians is called “Lunch with the shepherd”. It is selling an experience that then in the end is false, because you eventually find out that that lunch is done every week, two, three times a week. You realize that the shepherd is an actor, he’s not a shepherd anymore, but he organizes tourist lunches. 

For a real experience, afterall, you have to create it yourself. It’s good to always have at least one name of a person to contact. This could be the key to really getting to know a neighborhood.

What characteristics, capacity or function should this figure that we imagine have, in your opinion? This figure, who is capable of inspiring and experimenting with new forms of urban exploration. Let’s not call it a guide.

I think it must be a person who works locally, who works with the community, and who works not just in order to bring people there, but rather to empower the growth of the area in different ways. This person must be an activist, engaged in the empowerment of the area. Being a guide doesn’t imply you know what you are talking about. 

Visiting is not the whole thing. You do not understand things solely through your eyes, you need someone who tells you what to see, someone who explains, someone you meet and with whom you can have a real relationship. Provided that reality and truth exist…

I have imagined a number of things. There is a project I am working on now that is called “CIRCO” which is an Italian acronym for “Indispensable House for Civic Recreation and Hospitality”. It is about going to the suburbs, as well as to the city center, to actually reuse the abandoned heritage, bus depot, and barracks. In Rome there are around 67 closed and abandoned cinemas, as well as abandoned hospitals. In short, everything that is closed and abandoned today, and that is a problem. Let’s put this problem on top of other issues, such as the reception of migrants, off-site students, all those who are temporary inhabitants of the city. I have never thought that you can only provide services without producing any income. These hybrid places, where different people live and exchange skills with each other, could be financially balanced by tourism. Part of these new intercultural apartment buildings could also become Air B&Bs. They could cater for people who are interested in waking up and having breakfast with someone with a completely different cultural background. It could be a natif African, a Muslim, or students from abroad. 

I think that there are tourists that might prefer to live a real experience in a context where different people live rather than go to any B&B, or to a hotel in the center, or to a student hostel. In my opinion that could also work as a remunerative part, an income for those who offer services, since you can not rent a room at the same price to a tourist and a migrant. If I went to a city in the world, and I knew that I could go to an unusual place, where I meet artists, migrants, students, old people and children, and that every day unpredictable things happen, I would gladly go to sleep there.

Do you think that digital tools and possibilities they offer, could be of help in this process, and if so, how?

Yes, of course. I am not against digital and technology. The main thing is that they should not try to reveal everything. The challenge in all this is how to avoid consuming the territory, how to avoid consuming the communities and expose them, and through digital mapping it happens in a blink. You should try to give clues, without spoiling everything, to produce desire…

Producing desire more than giving information?

That’s exactly what I meant. Technology is not bad, depending on how you use it.

Do you think of a gaming experience, a treasure hunt as a positive example?

It could be, or you have a name of a person to look for, the “old man” or the “village fool” from which to start. I would try to do it creatively…

Based on your experience as an architect, as a university professor, as an experimenter and researcher with the group Stalker/ Osservatorio Nomade, with thirty years of walking behind you – could you give us some examples of an area or peripheral sites that deserve to be visited and talked about?

The Pantheon, the Pantheon! In my opinion East Rome is the most interesting part of the city, in that triangle between the Appian Way and the Prenestina, including the Tuscolana and the Casilina. 

First of all it has the highest concentration of migrants. Furthermore, there is an urban fraying, which makes the city full of voids, “marane” to say it in the Roman way. There was, for example, the whole project of the SDO area, of the Eastern Directional System, after the ring road, which today is still a parenthesis of sheep flocks, chicken coops, cows and then the city starts again after a while.

In that area you find the most informal part of the city. There is transitory living. There are a number of different people. You only need to take a bus to meet the whole world, except Romans. I couldn’t say a specific place, but I would tell you to go to the Park of Aqueducts, because it goes through the whole territory. I would suggest a long walk along the aqueducts, since they intersect the city in various places. This also allows you to read different types of urban structures, different types of society, and inhabitants.

What else can I tell you? I think housing squats today are interesting places to see in Rome. I can recommend three that are Porto Fluviale in Ostiense, Spin Time and Metropolix, which is in Prenestina, to be exact. Those are places that have been able – although illegally – to build different living practices in Rome. They are real intercultural condominiums where Arabs, South Americans, and Europeans live together with Italian families. I mean, they’re full of what I think life will be in the next few years, and I think the kids that grow up there are much more prepared to face the future than our own children. If you want to see where the city is going, those are interesting places, and are usually open to exchange and meeting. The Metropolix is open every Saturday morning, Spin Time is open almost all days, with the activities that it hosts on the ground floor. Porto Fluviale also has a series of weekly openings. They are places that, although they are born from the strongest political antagonism, eventually have an ability to open up and be read by the city. The Romani camp is an experience that I think needs to be done, since they live there…

You brought me there…

Rome has many faces. One could also look for the casinos in Via Tiburtina, for who is interested in spending and losing money, or the places of prostitution. But there are some Pasolinian places, those of Pasolini’s movies, of Mamma Roma, of Accattone, that you may think have disappeared and instead they have only moved a little further.

Some of them are still the same, as the Idroscalo, for example, November 2, 1975..

Yes, the Idroscalo is still the same. The shacks are still there, if you want to go and see how they live today… But what do you do? Do you bring a group of tourists to see the shacks? Not that simple… Or you know how to get in, you know how to relate. Furthermore the kind of tourists you bring must be perhaps those who avoid immediately taking out the camera. There must be previous education.

Do you think responsible urban planning is possible?

City planners should be responsible! I hope so… but, the world no longer goes in that direction. Urban planning no longer has any influence on financial and economic flows. 

I’ll give you a stupid example: when the building of a large shopping center in a certain neighborhood is planned, in area where there are communities that have been living there for a long time, and that maybe should be protected, when the money and employment arrive ( and here there is a whole rhetoric), in the end, when there is a flow of a few billion or hundreds of millions falling on a territory, there is no mayor, and no administrator able to say no, even if no urban planner had foreseen it and it is certainly not in the urban master plan.

In short, these things are capable of disrupting an urban fabric, a city, a community. So what are urban planners good for? In this world where everything is decided by corporations. I don’t know… It’s very difficult. The urban planner must focus first on the residual parts, or tackle and resist this other urbanism that comes from neoliberalism. 

Responsible urbanism today is an urbanism of resistance and invention and creativity of other things that can happen in the city in spite of it all.

You can watch the full interview here.

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