Rome’s Millennia of “Modern Ruins”

By Zach Mortice

Alexander Robinson’s model is made from modeling clay, cardboard, melted wax, chipboard, and bronze. Image courtesy Alexander Robinson.

More than 2,000 years of built history along the Tiber River in Rome speeds by in Alexander Robinson’s landscape model “Feast of the Picturesque, Act X. Porto Ripetta, Tevere” and in videos Robinson made of the model, built in modeling clay, cardboard, melted wax, chipboard, and bronze.

Still photographs of the model as it advances through the ages combine to form the videos. Sometimes a tub of glue gets into a shot. And Robinson flits in and out of the making-of video like a wraith, cutting, gluing, and manipulating here and there. Robinson’s process makes clear that with 2,000 years of history on a site, a final, destined form is fiction. “Feast” revels in the continuous churn.

“[It’s] telling a story about ways in which the river is authored by human and natural forces in this not-well-choreographed dance between the two,” Robinson says.

Robinson teaches landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, and his studio operates as the Office of Outdoor Research and the Landscape Morphologies Lab. He produced this work as a Rome Fellow and completed it in 2016. It took a month to build and photograph, and is presented in both isometric and section views.

The seven-plus-minute videos blend major moments in the site’s history, starting two millennia ago and progressing to the near future. They begin with an undeveloped river prone to jumping its banks, which was quickly laced by early city walls. Alessandro Specchi’s Porto di Ripetta river port, with its wide terraces and grand semicircular plaza, was installed in 1704, and famously depicted by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. A larger embankment in the late 1870s sundered the Porto di Ripetta, and like many river channelization projects of the time, it cut off the city from its point of origin. The 20th century brought fascist revisions and a museum by Richard Meier.

Robinson’s model envisions a future installation on the site that partially excavates and rebuilds the Porto di Ripetta, and “creates a mixture of these moments in time,” he says. Rome would be protected from flooding by a weathered bronze floodwall, motorized in the model. Boats can dock and pedestrians can wander along the edges.

A bronze floodwall protects Rome from the Tiber jumping its banks, and allows pedestrian access when the waters are calm. Image courtesy Alexander Robinson.

Given the earthy hues of the model and the countless subsurface alterations to the site, the model demonstrates the role of digging in city building and human habitation. The model is mutilated, excavated, and regurgitated into what Robinson calls a “modern ruin.” Instead of a direct line from donkey carts to the latest Fiat, you get a sense of cyclical deconstruction and rebuilding. “The wildness of Rome is amazing. It’s this layer cake of these natural processes and grand human gestures and time.”

Robinson’s model lays bare the extent to which city building is an act of digging and excavation. Image courtesy Alexander Robinson.
A storyboard sketch of the Tiber’s progression through time. Image courtesy Alexander Robinson.
A sketch illustrating the myths surrounding the Tiber River in Rome. Image courtesy Alexander Robinson.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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