New research on the Italian Stone Pine and the intersection of the Roman landscape and film.
By Zach Mortice
On April 20, the American Academy in Rome announced its class of 2017–2018 Rome Prize recipients, which includes the landscape architects Rosetta Elkin and Alison Hirsch with Aroussiak Gabrielian.
Chosen by a jury chaired by the architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis (and featuring the landscape architects Lisa Switkin of James Corner Field Operations and David Fletcher), Elkin, Hirsch, and Gabrielian will join a multidisciplinary cast of architects, historic preservationists, historians, writers, artists, and composers to pursue independent research at the Academy’s Villa Aurelia in Rome.
Elkin, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, will use her Rome Prize fellowship to investigate plants that “[identify] a region culturally, but also become a kind of naturalized indicator of changing and shifting conditions in the living environment,” she says. Her research proposal, called Shorelines: The Case of the Italian Stone Pine, examines how this tree—an iconic and emblematic piece of Roman culture—has evolved to meet changing ecosystems and biome ranges over time. The source of the Italian staple of pine nuts, stone pines (Pinus pinea) line the Via Appia, Rome’s ancient and expansive road, and are an indispensable part of many Italian Renaissance gardens. The oldest stone pine in Rome is on the Academy’s grounds.
Originally an upland species, the stone pine has become adapted to shoreline ecosystems. It’s been actively cultivated for 6,000 years, Elkin says, and for 300 years farmers along the west coast of Italy have planted these trees in lowland coastal areas to protect fields from salt spray from the ocean. As these trees move into new shoreline ecosystems, they’ll have to contend with coastlines affected by climate change, the stone pine’s next adaptive hurdle.
Elkin wants to elucidate this change over time as way to remind people that even though we often consider natural systems to be static, permanent, and immovable, they’re in fact constantly evolving. This continual change gains added salience when you’re looking at a plant that has such a seemingly unyielding presence in cultural memory. “If we look through the lens of plants at ecological change,” she says, “it can help us align our ambitions with these really complicated timescales that are hard for humans that live for 80 to 90 years—max—to attend to.”
Hirsch, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s school of architecture, and Gabrielian, who is pursuing her doctorate at the university’s school of cinematic arts, will combine the study of landscape and film. Their project, Rome Real and Imagined: Cinematic Fictions and Future Landscapes, will focus on “how the Roman landscape has been constructed through the social imagination through the cinematic medium,” Hirsch says.
The dominant narrative that surrounds film representations of Rome, Hirsch says, first involves ornate and sprawling epics of an ancient, mythic city that’s the seat of empire and civilization, such as Ben-Hur, filmed on Hollywood backlots. And then as a direct reaction, there are the Italian neorealist films like Bicycle Thieves, which were shot on location. These examine the motivations and circumstances of ordinary people faced with prosaic moral dilemmas given weight and pathos by the honest humility of their presentation. Hirsch and Gabrielian (who are professional partners and partners in life) will look for “hybrid ground,” past this established narrative, “prodding that a little bit further by unearthing nondominant narratives [that are] social and ecological,” says Hirsch. One example, Hirsch says, might be ways to represent the long-standing Syrian community in Rome through film. Another research priority will be documenting ways that landscape features have been first established by film representations of the city, only to migrate into the minds and works of the people designing and building Rome itself; these are cases of landscape fiction becoming landscape reality.
Hirsch envisions the final product of this research to be a series of experimental immersive film installations staged in less-documented areas of Rome, what she calls “live renderings” or “cinematic projections.”
The American Academy in Rome is among the oldest American institutions for independent study and research, and grew out of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, when a group of participants (including the architects Charles Follen McKim and Daniel Burnham) sought to create a center for the study of art and culture. They chose Rome, McKim said, because “no other city offers such a field for study or an atmosphere so replete with precedents” as Rome’s “architectural and sculptural monuments” and “galleries filled with the chefs d’oeuvre of every epoch.”
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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