Merging architectural and urban dimensions

An experiment in social housing. Some places question and disrupt long-held concepts of beauty.

How may one define beauty? As with many other abstract concepts we humans alone seem to be concerned about, beauty exists only in our imagination, and there could never be, nor there should be, a universal definition for what is beautiful. Let’s take a beautiful building, for example. What features does it need to possess to be considered aesthetically pleasing? Different people will have different ideas, but larger groups tend to share similar views … Why? Because we tend to agree with others. And that is where our imagination is stifled. Occasionally, a few are able to trespass the borders we collectively set. A few, like the architects who radically altered the appearance of buildings, experimenting not only with shapes and materials but, most importantly, with our very idea of home. Their aspiration, in fact, was to revolutionize the way we live thanks to the inexpensiveness and speed of construction afforded by concrete, the material that the dream of 20th century mass housing was made of. More than that, this social utopia would also create interconnected spaces where a sense of community could be formed. A break away from the bourgeois aspiration of owning a detached house in a residential suburb, where one would spend the day protected from the look of others. A movement born to provide everyone with the opportunity for housing, while also offering shared living spaces to develop strong human bonds. A house turned into a city. A city turned into a house.

It is a frosty morning when we climb up the hills where one of such experiments was made. Suddenly interrupting the view of bare winter vegetation, the even more gelid, even more desolate façade of the austere building complex known as the quadrilatero (quadrangle) of Rozzol Melara appears in front of our eyes. Two L-shaped elements, one twice the height of the other, form the shape of a square, evoking the idea of a city, as does the cross of streets running through the central space, conceived indeed to reproduce a central city’s square. The complex, covering an area of 89,000 square meters, was originally designed to accommodate 2,500 inhabitants living in 648 apartments. Built in the 1980s, decades after the completion of Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, and after the brutalist movement that characterized the 1960s in the United Kingdom, this complex is a project of the local Autonomous Council Housing Institute (an organization overseeing social housing), which commissioned its design to architect Carlo Celli. 

We enter the labyrinth of galleries to meet our tour guide, Claudio Calabrese, one of the first residents to move into this giant dwelling (or small town) in the 1980s, whose life has been dedicated to maintaining the original spirit of this place. He walks us through stairwells, garages, collective facilities, and a promenade along the entire perimeter of the roofs with breathtaking views, overlooking the city and the Gulf of Trieste, in northeastern Italy, as well as the Slovenian coast. From here, his love for this city-house appears more solid than these rugged pillars. He is proud of living in a community with everything at its fingertips: a post office, a civic and social center, health facilities, a supermarket, an elementary and a middle school, a church. And he is proud of being neighbor to people from all sorts of backgrounds;, nobody is rejected here, whoever meets the criteria for social housing will find a home. Claudio’s devotion counteracts the stigma around this and other places like this. Recently, more projects have been introduced to restore deteriorating facilities and improve social cohesion. The latest, called Prius Melara, involves the residents in co-designing sociocultural activities and in taking collective care for the most degraded parts of the quadrangle. Reviving the original utopia of sharing for better living, projects like these provide opportunities for maintenance work and for jobs in community development for the residents.

Geographically and ideally separated from that city, this city-house stands tall, ignoring the question we ask. While some find this mass of concrete inhuman and terrifying, others make pilgrimage to witness the disruptive beauty of brutalist architecture. The dilemma of beauty is not solved. Daunting yet fascinating, il quadrilatero continues to attract and repel.

Images by Cristiano Capuano