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A TALE OF TWO CITIES 

The Royal College of Art

A research project carried out in the first year of my master's programme

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Project overview

The Ponte Rotto located on the River Tiber (Rome) and the New Welfare Island (Manhattan) serve as microcosms reflecting the triumph and failures of their retrospective cities. Both projects can be represented through naval metaphors with “Tiber island portrayed as a ship” and “The Raft of the Medusa” referencing both states of the Rome and Manhattan city models respectively. Both city models epitomize contrasting approaches to urban living.

Rome was built upon seven hills, taking advantage of its natural landscape, prioritising proportion, spatial relationships and ceremonial rituals within its urban fabric. In contrast, Manhattan, famously defined by it’s city grid, imposes order on the chaos of the city, with individuality only achievable through each block’s vertical axis.

My research examines both the Ponte Rotto and Welfare Island as isolated islands detached from the mainland on which they comment. This research investigates the unique city typologies and their utilisation of the landscape’ one leveraging it advantageously, the destroying it for spatial control.

As a result, the project encompasses a series of comments on both cities, culminating in speculative projects such as “The Connection” which envisions the fusion of fundamental elements of each city in a spatially controlled manner.  “Romehattan” reimagines Ancient Rome’s defining architecture within the natural topography of Manhattan, whilst “Manhattan consumed by the grid” disrupts the city’s natural landscape with a network of interconnected bridges, inverting the current grid system. Additionally, “New Tiber Island” envisages Tiber island as the nucleus for reconstructing the “lost elements of Ancient Rome”.

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The Diptych

The Ponte Rotto on the River Tiber in Rome and New Welfare Island in Manhattan serve as microcosms reflecting both the successes and failures of their respective cities. They can be likened to ships navigating the urban landscape, with "Tiber Island" symbolizing Rome's historical trajectory and "The Raft of the Medusa" representing Manhattan's urban complexities. Rome's organic growth, rooted in its seven hills and emphasis on proportion and ritual, contrasts with Manhattan's ordered grid system, striving for control amid chaos. My analysis views these islands as detached observers, highlighting Rome's symbiotic relationship with its landscape and Manhattan's imposition upon it. 

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Interpretation

The Pons Aemilius, initially celebrated as a symbol of Roman innovation, spanned the River Tiber, enhancing trade and marking the empire's expansion. It was the first stone bridge ever to have been built. However, its precarious location led to frequent maintenance, and as Roman influence spread, similar bridges emerged. Neglect and damage followed, earning it the name Ponte Rotto, or "Broken Bridge." In 1853, efforts to revive Rome's lost wonders reconnected it via an iron footbridge, briefly restoring its function. Yet competition from other bridges challenged its significance. Structural weaknesses persisted, leading to partial demolition in 1887 for the Ponte Palatino. Now a solitary arch, reclaimed by nature, Ponte Rotto's fate reflects the rise and fall of Rome. It's incacessibility now seemed to define its individuality. Despite its tragic tale, its central position in Rome hints at potential for revival, symbolizing the empire's enduring legacy.

The New Welfare Island project by OMA offers commentary on 1970s Manhattan, aiming to revive its unique architectural features.

“its ability to fuse the popular with the metaphysical, the commercial with the sublime, the refined with the primitivewhich together explain Manhattan’s former capacity to seduce a mass audience for itself.” - Rem Koolhaas
 

The project maps Manhattan's typologies, extending the grid across the East River to create new "parking spaces" entrusted to independent architects. These spaces serve as a laboratory for experimenting with new ideas. This culture of congestion was initiated by an explosion of the population, information and technology. Retroactively built structures, including Malevich's Architecton and Bel Geddes' art deco yacht, complete the island's architectural history. Vacant spaces were left posthumously to a future generation, symbolize Manhattan's ongoing evolution. An elevated travellator connects the blocks, facilitating exploration. By reimagining Manhattan's features, New Welfare Island inspires a fresh examination of urban design, merging modernity with historical legacy.

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References

Tiber Island reimagined as a ship

A close neighbour to the Ponte Rotto, Tiber Island sits between two bridges, echoing their role as pivotal connections to the city. It has striking similarities, both being connecting points on path to the mainland, a landmark to connect other landmarks together. Yet, detached from the mainland, both Ponte Rotto and Tiber Island face identity crises. Devoid of their city context, can either be distinguished as a landmark in its own right? Tiber Island, once home to the temple of Asclepius and later hospitals, evokes a maritime theme due to its boat-like shape and temple's arrival by ship. This metaphor extends to its architecture, with structures resembling ship components.

 

By reimagining Tiber Island as a ship, it has managed to bestow an image outside of its primal function.  It symbolizes voyage and freedom, , the vessel metaphor signifies its breakaway from the restraints of what it is expected to be as an element of the city. Similarly, transforming Ponte Rotto into a symbol of rebirth and liberation aligns with this maritime imagery, envisioning it as a beacon of a rejuvenated city, reborn and relinquished from the constraints of the past. 

Plan of the raft of the Medusa / At the moment of its abandonment

As referenced in the “New Welfare Island”, on the East River between Manhattan and Welfare Island sailed a gigantic Radeau de la Méduse, described by Koolhaas as “a synthesis and illustration of the convulsion in the midst of which lies the Manhattan – the metropolis struggle. The raft represents a symbol of the necessity to escape and the impossibility of doing so”.

 

Inspired by the 18th century painting depicting the wreckage of a raft at the moment its survivors view a ship approaching from the distance, its inclusion in the “New Welfare Island” represents the need to “rescue” the prominent features of the lost and “chaotic” city of Manhattan, rebuilding and resuscitating the characters and elements that help to define its individuality and greatness. The plan of the raft itself can be viewed as symbolising the disorder and destruction caused by the asphyxiating implementation of the Manhattan grid system, and the resulting struggle of city life contained within it.

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The raft

Since both the New Welfare Island and Tiber Island can be considered as a microcosmic representation of the essence of both the cities of Manhattan and Rome, their similarities positioned as islands both connected and detached from their respective cities can be represented in a comparable fashion. The raft drawing is a representation of both islands symbolised by their naval inferences of “Tiber Island Imagined as a Ship” and “The raft of the Medusa”. Collectively, both “ships” seem to be working from afar [in plan] but upon closer inspection they represent the ominous state of both cities in decline, and in need of resuscitation [in axonometric]. The raft is an amalgamation of what happens, when the city in its natural state is destroyed for control, or a city expanded loses the quintessential qualities that made it great, accordingly, the boat is broken up into a raft.

The bridge

With its entire perimeter surrounded by the River Tiber, the Ponte Rotto has decayed from a functioning member of the city; a landmark and structural element that previously provided access to Rome, into a disconnected inept object - an abandoned and inaccessible island devoid of meaning and purpose within the urban fabric. Consequently, the Ponte Rotto has two choices based on its prevailing condition - it can either remain a sad shrine to the great monumentality of the Roman Empire; a candle to a past life, or it can take advantage of its newly found freedom from the constraints of the city as an opportunity to reinvent its value and function within the urban context. Inspired by the new representation of Tiber Island into a majestic spectacle, a grand ship sailing away from the pre-defined rules of city life, the Ponte Rotto decides to follow suit and formulate its new identity as an object facilitating a pioneering and novel way of living.

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The city of the captive globe

The City of the Captive Globe celebrates Manhattan's vibrant urban density, with each city block embodying diverse values and philosophies, including avant-garde movements like Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin and Dali's Archaeological Reminiscence of Milet's Angelus. It serves as a metaphor for Manhattan's bustling diversity, highlighting the paradox of its uniform grid accommodating myriad functions and desires. Koolhaas coined the term "Manhattanism" to describe this dynamic, where hyper-density fuels both splendor and misery, yet remains the foundation for a modern culture. Manhattan's architecture exemplifies how extreme metropolitan density fosters extraordinary innovation, bounded by both the island's geography and the rigid grid structure of its streets.

Captive cities

In "The City of the Captive Globe," each base adheres strictly to uniformity in form, scale, and material. However, the structures atop these blocks, which shape the urban fabric, are not bound by these rigid rules. Around the catalyst of urban revival, Ponte Rotto, they are free to express themselves creatively within the block's perimeter. This freedom raises questions about their role in the cityscape:

  • What are the fundamental elements that make up a city?

  • Can these elements be defined in terms of their individual function?

  • Is it the architecture that defines the place or the rituals that make a space?

  • Can the architecture be interspersed and represent a multitude of meanings or does each block capture its own perspective of a city?

  • What is the architecture that defines both Rome and New York?

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The grid

The story of architecture as told by the grid

 

A series of possibilities about the relationship between architecture and how it engages with the spatial “control” of the grid system.

 

  • Architecture formed using the grid

  • Architecture divided by the grid

  • Architecture forming the grid

  • A city defined by the grid

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Destroying the landscape - "generic" city connection

Both the Ponte Rotto and Welfare Island, disconnected from their respective cities, are unaffected by the identity crises of Rome and New York. Instead, this shared isolation unites them in a mission to create a new city model. "The Connection" bridges the gap between Rome and New York, linking Tiber and Welfare Islands to facilitate a collective urban revival. Dividing both cities into equal-sized "parking spaces" and placing architectural elements on rafts allows them to transcend city constraints. Free to travel between islands and "park" as desired, these elements express diverse architectural ideologies without reservation.

Destroying the landscape - Manhattan conquered by the grid

Manhattan's culture of experimentation can be exemplified by the  grid system, implemented in 1811, which destroyed all of the island's natural hills and contours by evening out the topography with landfill. flattened the natural topography, Koolhaas criticizes this as a "negative symbol of the short-sightedness of commercial interests". Exacerbated by the advent of vertical ascension technologies like elevators and skyscrapers provide a means of escape through mass ascension. The "New Welfare Island" extends this grid, exaggerating its impact. In this speculative drawing, aqueduct-like bridges divide Manhattan's landscape into uniform lots, echoing the grid's spatial control. Similar to the "City of the Captive Globe," the forms of the bridges are free to fluctuate liberally within their vertical axis, as long s they are contained within the 1811 grid boundaries, maintaining a harmonious juxtaposition of autonomy and suppression. While dominating the natural terrain, they offer equitable access to Manhattan's natural state, prompting reflection on alternative living possibilities.

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The hills

Reference: Piranesi's Campo Marzio

This plan of the Campo Marzio by Piranesi depicts an argument against the rigid rules of architecture. Having extensively surveyed and analysed the city of Rome, Piranesi formulated his own study using a combination of existing architecture and invented forms to reimage a greater vision of Rome. The Campo Marzio plan can be viewed as a precursor to his later critiques against rules and hence a product of imagination freely depicting an ideal city without constraints. 

 

Using the landscape: Rome built on seven hills

 

The study of "Rome Built on Hills," envisions Rome as an ideal city by selectively including the prominent architecture, like the Temple of Jupiter and Circus Maximus, and analysing their relationship to one another through the lens of proportion and scale. Inspired by Piranesi, it recreates Rome's urban fabric at its fundamental core.

Key elements include:

  1. Clivus Capitolinus: A significant road starting from the Forum Romanum, culminating at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, symbolizing Roman triumphs and axis relations.

  2. Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus: Built in 509 BC, a monumental structure symbolizing Rome's supremacy, situated on the Capitoline Hill.

  3. Insulae: Mass housing units with shops on the ground floor, representing community and urban living, featuring a central courtyard.

  4. Roman Baths: Leisure and socializing centers, supplied with water from aqueducts, showcasing Roman reliance on natural resources.

  5. Roman Forum: The heart of Rome's daily life, hosting events, speeches, trials, and commerce, surrounded by important structures and monuments.

  6. Palatial Headquarters: Imperial residences atop hills, symbolizing dominance and control over the city.

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Using the landscape

Romehattan

By considering the origin of the word "Manhattan" can be translated as "the island of many hills", the creation of the 1811 grid which destroyed the natural landscape, indicates an extreme indifference by its creators to the existing typography driven by an insatiable need for spatial control.

 

To counter this, "Romehattan" proposes an alternative vision for the city, inspired by Rome's prestigious design principles and elements from the "New Welfare Island." "Romehattan" presents a novel approach, respecting the terrain and integrating architecture harmoniously with the existing environment. Golden geometry, proportion, and scale dictate building placement, prioritizing landscape integration over grid adherence. Additionally, features from the "New Welfare Island" are incorporated to embrace Manhattan's culture of freedom, experimentation and individuality. 

New Tiber Island

“The question is: is it to be a true part of New York - with all the agonies that implies - or is it to be a civilized escape zone, a kind of resort that offers, from a safe distance, the spectacle of Manhattan burning?” - Rem Koolhaas

 

“New Tiber Island” provides Rome with a different perspective of the city based on the same objective defined in the “New Welfare Island” – with an aim to re-establish the city’s greatness by featuring the very principles that defined its status.

 

As the location of OMA’s project on the Welfare Island was due to its position in the midpoint of the River, it had the option of becoming either a new and active participant of Manhattan – an extension of the city, or rather an impartial observer of the city with the capacity to comment on its successes and failures due to its proximity to Manhattan and its lack of attachment from it. Both contrasting features enabled the project to become the catalyst for the recreation of a new regenerated prototype of a model city and therefore “New Tiber Island” is named accordingly, an island detached from Rome, the centre for a re-invention of the city.

 

In a similar fashion to “Romehattan”, New Tiber island will employ the fundamental elements defined in the city of Rome; the public political and social space, and the insulae residences and amenities for leisure and trade.

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A tale of two cities

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