Alessandra Lai interviews Francesco Careri, the article is published on: Antonino Di Raimo, Steffen Lehmann, Alessandro Melis (eds.) Informality through Sustainability Urban Informality Now, Routledge, London 2020
In the Global North, informality is seen as a positive break to the rigidity of the traditional forms of housing and workplaces. That’s because it is considered capable of enhancing the individuals who, being them free to move in time and space, can use their own creativity without limits. When it comes to facing the issues of housing affordability, informality commonly recalls images of problematic urban reality, born out of the rules, therefore perceived as illegal. And this works both for the Global South and for the Global North. However, another interpretation of the same urban phenomena is gaining ground as expressions of the tenacity of marginalized social or ethnic groups that resist social, economic, political and geographical exclusion. Some case studies, framed as actions for the right to housing and the city, in Rome, challenge this dichotomous interpretation, overcoming it through virtuous practices that inspire new ways of thinking about the urban scene to open it in unexpected cohabitations, generating intercultural condominiums open to exchanges with the city. This contribution investigates these attempts of informal experimentation of new urban places: this happens through an interview with Francesco Careri, Associate Professor and co-Director of the Master Environmental Humanities at the University of Roma Tre, co-founding member of the Urban Art Laboratory Stalker and active witness of this emblematic transformations.
Keywords: Informality, Hospitality, Cooperation, Nomadism, New Urbanism.
As is well known, the world population tends to move to cities, which, together with their metropolitan areas, represent today the centre of economic production. Living in or around cities means increasing opportunities to escape extreme poverty. However cities do not seem equipped to accommodate and manage this very rapid urbanization process, so more people than ever before are now responsible for creating their living spaces, and they do so within different economic contexts, different climatic and cultural conditions, which generate a wide range of solutions to the problem of living (Pojani, 2019). These are spaces, places and communities where residents adapt to the circumstances at hand using locally based rules, processes and governance. These actions are generally 'outside' the structures and processes that guide order and control in the formally planned city (Jones, 2017). Therefore it has become common practice to define them as “informal”.
As Lefevre reminds us, illustrating the concept of "right to the city", "[people in informal settlements] are excluded, so they take; they are not seizing an abstract right, they are taking an actual place. And this act to challenge society's denial of place by taking one of your own, is an assertion of being in a world that routinely denies people the dignity and the validity inherent in a home "(Neuwirth, 2005).
This chapter illustrates, through a passionate interview with Francesco Careri, the events, tools, problems and perspectives that have characterized some emblematic attempts to accompany the creation of alternative living models to those formally defined by the system of rules that would like to design the contemporary city, but which prove to be unable to provide the conditions for dignified living and enjoying the opportunities of the city for the weaker segments of the population.
In particular Careri, with Stalker and other associations, worked on the themes of the intercultural city and nomadism, in Rome, recognizing the importance of informal settlements as an alternative expression of contemporary, otherwise prosaic, artificial and sanitized urbanity (Cummings 2013 ; De la Hoz 2013).
Careri's building activity focuses on the intangible. Rather than modifying the informal spaces of the city, he is interested in "building situations" to make them visible, to transform the perspective from which we observe the communities that inhabit them, to recognize their identity and values. To affirm the “right to difference” (Gissara, Percoco, Rosmini, 2018).
The purpose of this contribution is not to enrich the case studies on informal settlements, neither from the point of view of the economic, social, legal and political aspects, already widely debated by other scholars, nor from the point of view of the formal analysis of the design solutions that have been adopted. Instead, the interest of the authors is to offer, through the story of Roman cases, new opportunities for reflection on the plurality and equal dignity of forms for contemporary living. If the right to housing and the city were recognized as one of the expressions of the "right to difference", a more fertile rethinking of the fate of the spaces of the contemporary and future city could be launched. And in fact the image of informality is already not uniformly negative: dystopic, poor settlements simultaneously attracts and repelle visitors (be they researchers or "slum tourists") (Pojani, 2019).
LAI - The climate emergency represents, at a global level, the strongest push for the search for new forms and new languages to design the cities of the future, but also to outline more responsible behavior. However, the 17 objectives contained in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development remind us that the climate change is not the only threat: common urban challenges include the lack of funds to provide basic services and the lack of adequate housing.
In the big cities, which welcome a fluctuating population, with increasingly heterogeneous characteristics in terms of culture, education, language or religion, the ordinary challenges are joined by those related to the search for new forms to encourage a fruitful coexistence between new or temporary citizens and old citizens.
The consolidated urban space planning models reject any element that lies outside their own schemes and the traditional assistance tools complain of insufficient endowments to manage the dimension of the social transformations taking place. Is it possible to introduce informal appendices to the consolidated model to make it more porous and flexible or the time has come for a radical rethinking of the system of rules on which the growth of the city is based?
CARERI - To the word Rome our brain immediately associates that of ruins and immediately the stereotyped image of people who inhabit them in a picturesque, "informal" way we would say today, appears to the mind. For external and internal tourists - even for those who live in the city but superficially - Rome appears as an opaque marsh from which few islands of ancient ruins emerge, freed, for some time now, from their inhabitants and enhanced for the tourism show.
All around, on the surface of the pond, nothing moves, everything floats inert. No brave burst of urban audacity moves the surface of the water. But if you dive deeper into the contemporary city we still find the Eternal Rome, that of ruins and poor people, old and new poor, old and new Romans, all always foreigners.
The city is again the one portrayed by Piranesi and the Grand Tour landscape painters. Discarded lives who live among the waste: poor, homeless, migrants, Roma and unwanted people of all kinds, who rebuild their lives no longer among the ancient ruins but in the ruins of the contemporaneity. It seems that they have always been there, that they are part of the local fauna. Here, in fact, the city must be invented because otherwise no form of life would be possible.
In recent years with Stalker we have started to re-read the eternal theme of ruins and foreigners. I must say that it was in particular Lorenzo Romito, in the early months of 2015, who proposed to all of us at Stalker the myth of the foundation of Rome, of the pagan gods, of the imperial myths ... the fact of getting to re-read the Aeneid of Virgil seemed crazy to me: I thought he was joking! Then I understood the depth of the operation: undressing the fascist and imperial rhetoric that has always appropriated all this and affirming that the Genius Loci of Rome is founded on the hospitality of the foreigner, that Rome has always been a great multicultural capital, that in eternal history they were the foreigners who cyclically re-inhabited the ruins and re-founded Rome.
With Stalker we have done two actions to re-read and reactivate the ancient myths: a first walk On the Ruins of the Contemporary to witness the new costly architectures of the archistars left unfinished, and a second, Xeneide to go over the traces of Aeneas: progenitor of Romulus and Remus. Aeneas, the Trojan, arrives in Rome as a refugee, runs away from the war, has lost many companions in the dangerous journey in the Mediterranean, lands on the Italian beaches, among the ruins of the Palatine (there were already ruins before there was Rome) meets another foreigner, Evandro the Greek, to whom he is bound by a previous bond of hospitality, the xènia. Aeneas will bring his foreign blood to mix it with that of the Latins and the Etruscans to give life to Eternal Rome, a city cyclically in ruins and reactivated by foreigners who live there.
Despite the myth, and I come to answer the last part of your question, today in Rome neither ruins nor foreigners are recognized as a resource to reactivate the wheel of the Eternal city and bring down the waters that have flooded the marsh. We want those waters to keep still and to hide what cannot yet emerge. Here it is not possible to make the consolidated model more porous and flexible although it would be necessary and although the virtuous informal experiences from which to learn exist and are also many. And it also seems to me that the turning point for a radical rethinking of the system of rules you are talking about is actually taking place, but that it is taking place in the opposite direction. It is an authoritarian turn that is changing the rules of civil and democratic coexistence, increasingly intolerant toward any form of resistance to the dominant model. For a different change today there are no political conditions, even if there are physical, economic and human resources. Although what is happening at the bottom of the marsh is well known to the administration, it is not intended to proceed towards the legalization of informal experiences, nor to offer spaces and opportunities in which to experiment with alternative formal models.
LAI - Your answer seems to suggest enormous potentiality and then burn them permanently. Yet I have read that you had started to conduct a census of he places of degradation in Rome (perhaps referring to the ruins of the contemporary). Here it came to mind the self-management experiment of Torre David, the abandoned skyscraper of Caracas following the death of its builder and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, which later became an improvised home for over 750 families. Where some saw only a failed project (a ruin of the contemporary?), others saw an opportunity and a laboratory for studying informal vertical communities, which drove to the conclusion that the future of urban development lies in the collaboration between architects, private companies and the global population of slum dwellers. No mention of administrations or political forces. Is this collaborative scenario with private companies a utopia, a provocation, or there are elements that give hope?
CARERI - I'm sorry that it seemed that I wanted to burn all hope, but it would actually be easier to operate on these issues with other political scenarios than the current ones, and if politics does not follow us we would go on as you say, as architects-artists, private companies and population. Unfortunately, in fact, it does not seem to me a historical moment in which the public could be the only solution. And I do not exclude the possibility of collaborating with private actors at all: it is not a problem of ideological barriers. I think private capital can and should be stimulated, educated and convinced of the fact that in some cases decreasing profit to support welfare is important for everyone, even for private individuals if they do not want society to collapse violently, bringing them into the abyss as well.
Today there are some solutions for he lower-middle class, the so-called Social Housing Policies for those who can afford to pay at least 500 euros per month. I believe that this type of operation should be also extended to those in emergency and often paupers, perhaps leveraging on their constructive, organizational and evolutionary abilities, and this is possible by understanding and favoring the microeconomies and mutual aid systems that are created, for example, in housing occupations. Given that, however, I believe that also with regards to the public, the time has come to reverse the course: we have to stop with selling off and "securitizing" public housing, we need to start expanding the public real estate assets again, starting to experiment on an ever-growing range of increasingly differentiated public solutions. This cannot be invented from scratch as a table, and can only be done by observing and understanding the reality and urban life that surrounds us, which in order to survive finds infinite solutions.
LAI - In 1971 Victor Papanek wrote a book, Design for the Real World, which revolves around the question: how is it possible to "design for the real world"? You did it, facing the exceptions that our rule system rejects. How do you deal with informality without pretending to bring it back, by distorting it, within rigid and formal schemes? What can be transferred from your experiences in traditional planning or assistance tools and what is holding back this “transfusion” process?
CARERI - Yes you are right, for twenty years now we have been dealing with informality with Stalker, and we have ripened a certain awareness and attitude towards the problems of relational approach and cultural appropriation that they propose. But after so many experiences we have not succeeded neither in having a real mandate to work in a formal way, nor in transferring what we learnt in our experiences to the traditional instruments.
With Stalker we have worked not only to design for the real world, but also to “build” with the real world, and always addressing the theme of ruins, foreigners and informal living. The first realization was the Ararat center, an abandoned building of the former slaughterhouse in Testaccio, which we occupied and reactivated together with Kurdish activists and refugees in 1999. It is still the only place created for the hospitality of refugees in the city center, inside the Roman walls and not in the unattainable metropolitan suburbs. It is entirely self-managed and more than twenty-five thousand refugees have passed through it, without ever burdening public funds.
For years we have also dealt with the issue of the Roma, and with them we have worked in the slums, we have built a model house, Savorengo Ker - which means the house for everyone -, we have made proposals to the administrations to overcome the system of camps. But the house was burned, the Roma were evicted and locked up in mono-ethnic camps, and no reasonable policy came from the successive administrations to overcome a situation that has always been absolutely unacceptable for a European capital.
After the experience with the Roma community, we worked with the Civic Arts Laboratory on the theme of housing occupations, in particular with those of Metropoliz and the Porto Fluviale, witnessing yet another world that inhabits the ruins and makes them the garrisons of the fight for the right to housing. They are people with a lucid political awareness that comes from the struggles of the Seventies, but whose discourse has changed profoundly. They have made many important steps, such as that from the struggle for home towards a wider struggle for living, that is not only to have a roof but a set of services, spaces, relationships and policies that coincide with the city itself.
The movement in the last twenty years has greatly grown in number, from the few hundred people of the Eighties to the many thousands today. It has diversified in its composition: first they were almost entirely Italian and today there is a large foreign majority; and the way of presenting itself to the city has changed: no longer only antagonist but also proactive and with a great ability to create alliances with previously unthinkable actors, for example the Vatican, and to solve the problems that administrations do not even want to face. The movements of fight for the right to housing are managing to bring out from the marsh what in the perception of the city was previously invisible. But they still lose a lot of energy in defending themselves from threats of eviction and live a daily precariousness that does not allow them to evolve into formal models.
LAI - Cases of occupations and self-managements are ways of appropriating urban space perceived with diffidence as parasitic, at least in the today's sense of the word which indicates as a parasite someone "who lives behind others". In the experiences you mentioned like Ararat, the Roma community of Casilino 900 and the mixed-race communities of Metropoliz, Porto Fluviale, and now Spin Time, it seems that it is possible to recover the original sense of the term, where the nickname "parasite" was referred to "those who participate in a banquet without having a defined role (without having organized it and without having particular merits to be invited)", positioning themselves “around the food or the source of sustenance", but, gladdening the hosts with games and jokes. In short, it testifies to the willingness to exchange.
What kind of exchanges can we expect to observe between new communities settled in residual or abandoned spaces and the neighborhood or the city? What kind of resources can the new inhabitants bring into play, to start establishing fruitful relationships of reciprocity with the context in which they settle?
CARERI - Today, apart from the hostile gaze of a few, even ordinary people begin to understand that the many buildings occupied in Rome are a barrier to degradation and a solution which, although precarious, is not only capable of offering spaces for a dignified and human living, but also services and innovation for the rest of the city. They are places where intercultural living is experimented in different forms, where people are not numbers and bodies to manage, but women and men free to express their culture and desires. Even institutional politics sometimes look at them with interest, as in the case of R-Home, a day in which administrators, occupants, activists, artists and intellectuals made a long bus tour to understand the phenomenon more closely.
The academy also did its part to make the phenomenon read from a different point of view. There are increasingly studied experiences on which many degree and doctoral theses are made. In short, I would say that the exchange exists and it is getting stronger.
I like your definition of "parasite" and it is very suitable for the C.I.R.C.O. project, an acronym that stands for Casa Irrinunciabile per la Ricreazione Civica e l’Ospitalità. It is a project that proposes to put together, as eternally happened in Rome, the ruins with foreigners, learning from the occupations how the institutional reception machine could be replaced with a network of places based on hospitality. The acronym explicitly refers to the imagination of the circus: that colorful, magical, nomadic place and alien to the city, proud of its diversity, which is installed in waste land and where the circus performers have skills to put together in a project common.
First of all, we elaborated the theme of the ruins with a mapping that is divided into different layers: military barracks, Atac remittances, cinemas, theaters, schools, sports facilities, health facilities, ecclesiastical goods, factories. All abandoned. The proposal is to inhabit and recover wastes as hybrid, porous, inclusive, original places, in which to relaunch culture by giving space to the Other: to the Roma, to the migrant, to the off-site student, to the seasonal worker, to the artist, to the craftsman, to the traveler, to the homeless and also to tourists.
Later we proposed several projects that pivot on the O of the acronym Circus, hospitality (in Italian “Ospitalità”). As I said before about the Xeneide project, this takes up the Greek word xenía, the gift that the host gives to the guest, but more generally concerns the complex of reciprocal rules that underlie the hospitality, which was sacred to all the ancient world and which today has lost its meaning and has been replaced by the word “Reception”. While "Reception" is a one-way word, which refers to needs, to blankets, hot meals, legal and health assistance, to looking after bodies and not people with their desires; "Hospitality" is based instead on a mutual exchange, looks at the guest as a bearer of the gift, of culture, of resources. Rome continues to be a city where you are not hosted, but also where hosting is prevented by all means, as it was evident in the Baobab Experience, a city network of solidarity and hospitality for so-called migrants in transit that organized a space informal reception next to the Tiburtina station which has been periodically cleared for years.
The migrant issue is complex and varied: some are economic migrants who prefer not to be registered in Italy and try to reach Northern Europe, others have refugee status but when the reception period is over they have nowhere to go, others are Dubliners, those that Europe sends back because of the Dublin Treaty which obliges to apply for asylum in the country where they landed. Until the city realizes that migrants are a resource and not a problem, they will not make great progress.
Careri's Roman lessons on informality are upstream. There is no interest in regulating informality by reporting it within formal canons. On the contrary: his research focuses on building opportunities to reveal its characteristics and values. Careri is a scholar and an explorer: with his students and different associations, he travels and crosses Rome, not the eternal city of the imperial ruins, but the ephemeral city of the voiceless people who today, as in its glorious past, reach the capital through different life paths.
The first lesson we learn from tese cases studies is that on “building together”. It can assume different meanings, like building spaces, architecture, homes, relationships, or social, cultural and economic opportunities. The focus lies in the word “together”, where active listening represents a very powerful tool to know other worlds and to make other worlds known, because it invites the Other to express himself and tell about his differences. Listening evolves into sharing knowledge when the exchange is not one-way, when nobody excels, when all voices have equal dignity. As Senneth (2013) reminds us “Cooperation is a lesson that needs to be learnt, by listening. Not by showing hyper-empathy (the reception), but by becoming curious, and accepting that we cannot all be inside it in the same way, but we collaborate the same despite the fact that people do not really understand each other at all“.
The construction of Savorengo Ker, the house for everyone at the Casilino 900, had many values, but above all, it gave space to the comparison on the ways of thinking about the meaning of house and the ways of building it.
This is also linked to the concept of hospitality as a guiding attitude in approaching the theme of informal living and more generally in establishing fertile exchanges between the guest and the host. The Italian word "guest" derives, in fact, from the Latin hospes-pitis and alludes to the reciprocal duties of hospitality; therefore in the Italian language a guest is a person who receives in his own home and a guest is a person who enjoys hospitality and presents himself in the house. This is so clear in the case of Metropoliz, the abandoned factory that houses families belonging to different ethnic groups and in the free and collective spaces welcomes the works and installations of various artists. On Saturday the doors of this world open to tourists and citizens allowing them to understand who the Other is and what the Elsewhere is.
Roman experiences also tell of the ability of these new citizens to resurrect otherwise forgotten spaces and buildings simply by inhabiting them. Hence the other project, C.I.R.C.O., dedicated to the mapping of the ruins of the contemporary, of those spaces that the formal city, with all its political, administrative, professional and common citizens components, ignores. To ask oneself about the fate of these places means to ask oneself about the fate of Rome. Perhaps it is in the resources of the ephemeral city that eternal Rome could find the strength for its re-foundation, especially now that news tells us of a city out of control, unmanageable and decadent. Rome is a city that, like many other capitals, sees its national and international influence very weakened, and needs to find new perspectives and new motivations to recover. Perhaps through works such as Careri’s one it becomes possible to imagine the rebirth of Rome as a real re-foundation by recovering "his Genius Loci founded on the hospitality of the foreigner. Rome has always been a great multicultural capital, which in eternal history were the foreigners who cyclically re-inhabited the ruins and re-founded Rome".
In the end, the project C.I.R.C.O. invites to re-think the global approach we’ve always had towards informality management: instead of trying to legalize informal settlements and occupations, why don’t we imagine a radical completely change of the paradigm? Why don’t we explore the opportunity to open the city’s elements to welcome new models of living, new ways of housing? This type of operation would be able to activate new social housing policies to include people in emergency and often paupers, leveraging on their constructive, organizational and evolutionary abilities, understanding and favoring the microeconomies and mutual aid systems that emerge, for example, in housing occupations.
Instead of a stereotyped capital that choose to compete with the others through high tech skyscrapers, we can think of Rome as a New Babylon fragment of Constant's utopia, which in 1956 imagined a "city for homo ludens", a "nomad camp on planetary scale”. Some fixed, immanent elements, such as the ruins of ancient Rome, the monuments of the Fascist era, the headquarters of the institutions that govern the country and a series of spaces in the making, built, inhabited and modified by a crowd in transit. A crowd made by the migrants, the students who come from the South of Italy, the regional delegates, the tourists, the artists, those who must request permits, the workers who have been sent to Rome but can't wait to return to their villages, the nomads and all the fragile segments of our society. What if we start to consider them a resource. Instead of looking at them as common “parasites”, we should start to imagine this crowd like those bacteria capable of preserving a healthy state of balance in the urban environment, by re-activating the metabolism of the inert spaces of the city.
Cummings, J. 2013. Confronting the favela chic: Gentrification of informal settlement in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Master thesis, Harvard University, USA.
De la Hoz, C. 2013. The favela typology: Architecture in the self-built city. Bachelor thesis, Princeton University, USA.
Careri, F. 2018. Poesia, architettura, ospitalità. Dialogo sui territori dell’informale. Intervista di Gissara, M., Percoco, M., Rossini, E., in Gissara, M., Percoco, M., Rossini, E. (edited by) Città immaginate. Riuso e nuove forme dell’abitare. Manifestolibri, Castel San Pietro Romano (RM).
Jones, P. 2017, Housing Resilience and the Informal City, Journal of Regional and City Planning vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 129-139, August 2017
Lefevre, H. 2009. Le droit à la ville. Ed Economica, Paris.
Neuwirth, R. 2005. Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, Routledge, New York.
Papanek, V. 2019. Design for the Real World.Thames & Hudson Ltd. London.
Pojani, D., 2019, The Self-Built City: Theorizing Urban Design of Informal Settlements, in Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architecture Research, available online at https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/ARCH-11-2018-0004.
Watchel, E., 2013, An interview with Richard Senneth, in “Brick. A Literary Journal”, n. 92.
Romito L. (2014), Walking out of Contemporary, in Mitrasinovic M. (Ed.) Concurrent Urbanities: Designing infrastructures of Inclusion, Routledge, 2015. (https://www.academia.edu/12089692/Walking_out_of_Contemporary)
Among the ruins of the contemporary is a Stalker project, developed on the occasion of the artistic residence Studio Roma, at the Swiss Institute in Rome, and it is the title of the walk between 18 and 20 March 2016 which led us from the Colosseum to the skeleton of the " white shark ”designed by Santiago Calatrava via the"beached whale "of Fuksas in EUR and the “city of moles "of Koolhaas in Ostiense.
Xeneide - the gift of the Other. Myths, Practices, Poetics of Hospitality is a project curated by Stalker and NoWorking in 2017. The project produced a first experimentation of the Gift Space at the AuditoriumArte and then, with the Civic Arts Studio, retraced on foot the journey of Aeneas from Torvaianica beach to the top of Monte Cavo on the Alban hills, the legendary Albalonga from which Romulus and Remus came to found Rome. (Https://xeneideblog.wordpress.com/)
On Ararat, today know as the Kurdish Cultural Center of the Ex Slaughterhouse of Testaccio, and on all of Stalker's experience at Campo Boario there is an unpublished book by Stalker Nomad Observatory, Circles. Campo Boario 1999-2009, available online (https://www.dropbox.com/s/uoe777ovcg9fmdg/librostalker%20campo%20boario.pdf?dl=0)
On the actions and projects made by Stalker with the Roma, cf. Francesco Careri, Lorenzo Romito, StalkerOn / Campus Rom, Altrimedia edizioni, Matera 2017. The film Once upon a time Savorengo Ker, by Fabrizio Boni and Giorgio de Finis on the house built together with the Roma of Casilino 900 in July 2008 is on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/showcase/1540238)
Metropoliz is a residential occupation of the Metropolitan Precarious BPM-Blocks, located on Via Prenestina and is now also home to the MAAM, Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere, designed by Giorgio de Finis. See Francesco Careri Autodialogo su Metropoliz, in Fabrizio Boni and Giorgio de Finis, “Space Metropoliz. L'era delle migrazioni
esoplanetarie ", Bordeaux Editions, 2015.
Porto Fluviale is a housing occupation of the City Fight for Home Coordination. On Porto Fluviale see the 2011 Good Buy Roma film by Gaetano Crivaro and Margherita Pisano (https://goodbuyroma.wordpress.com/) and Francesco Careri, Tano, Blu e il Porto Fluviale, in Giorgio de Finis, Fabio Benincasa, Andrea Facchi, “EXPLOIT. Come rovesciare il mondo dell’arte. D-Istruzioni per l’uso ", Bordeaux Edizioni, Rome, 2015.
CIRCO is a research developed since the autumn of 2017 within the Laboratory of Urban and Architectural Design of the Master's Degree in Urban Design of the Department of Architecture of Rome TRE, with the participation of Francesco Careri, Fabrizio Finucci, Chiara Luchetti, Alberto Marzo, Sara Monaco, Enrico Perini, Serena Olcuire e Maria Rocco (https://laboratoriocirco.wordpress.com/).