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Rome, Chicago, Barcelona

October 11, 2011

Barcelona skyline from Montjuic

Yes I know that reads like a shopping bag from a fashion boutique but …I’ve been travelling recently. A lot. Here’s part two of my observations.

I learned in Barcelona that in the early 20th century as the city expanded into the Eixample there was a great interest in the Chicago school of modernism, while in Chicago, with the “greening of the city” projects I saw great interest in European models of transit-oriented development and sustainable urbanism, such as Barcelona’s last few decades.   Both cities grew around big events like the 1893 Chicago World Fair and the one in Barcelona in 1929 (as well as the 1992 Olympics there).  Both cities strive to be cutting edge while leveraging their particular cultural heritage.

At the Chicago Architecture Foundation and exhibit of ideas for a greener Chicago included a John Ronan’s ingenious scheme for modernizing the “L” with a new suspended Mag-Lev rail system. In Barcelona I rode the new metro and tram lines which leap-frogged the technology of late 19th century cities like Chicago or New York, creating smart late 20th century transit solutions.  And returning to Rome, well, I can only get to work on finding the best solution that will leap-frog both the 19th and 20th centuries. The good news is that Rome doesn’t really have a decaying transit infrastructure (just a couple of Metro lines, a few more trams and a web of buses stuck in a sea of private cars.)  Despite what people say there is no structural or archaeological impediment to introducing smart transit to Rome.  Solutions are possible, and cities like Chicago and Barcelona provide inspiration and ideas.

Both Chicago and Barcelona also boast great bike-sharing programs.  Will Rome reactivate its own bike-sharing any time soon? Please.

Both Chicago and Rome have active civic organizations which help disseminate information about contemporary projects: the Chicago Architecture Foundation famous for its tours, exhibits, talks and other events, and CCCB (the Barcelona Center for Contemporary Catalan Culture) famous for its facilities next door to Meier’s MACBA museum but also for the neighborhood walks they organize. My students were lucky to attend a fascinating walk of the Poblenou neighborhood where the high-tech 22@ project is underway. While Rome has hundreds of grass-root organizations, it lacks one clear, efficient point of reference for urban design and architectural culture.

Years ago when I founded Scala Reale Architectural Itineraries (an idea now carried forward by Context), I was especially inspired by the architectural walking tours I had taken in Chicago. It’s wonderful how occasionally traveling and then coming back to Rome inspires.


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