Letter from Rome
– Patrick Düblin

Walking along Via Prenestina in the east of Rome, we are approaching a yellow brick building behind a lonely roundabout. Its shutters are down, the doors locked, and a steel fence is signalizing the permanent abandonment of what used to be a train station facility. The place is deserted, even though a hundred meters away city life is thriving. No doubt we have reached a threshold. Past the station and a collection site for dumpsters, an unofficial footpath suddenly appears in the thicket. It leads to a grid fence that someone had broken open in such a way that a gateway to the wild nature now opens. As I share my amazement of the inviting gesture with Giulia, she responds: “We are never the first ones. There has always been someone before Stalker.”

Stalker is a group of architects that interacts collectively with marginalized urban terrain—similar to the three protagonists of Andrei Tarkovsky’s eponymous film. In the picture from 1979, a poet and a scientist with their guide—the Stalker—wander through a mysterious and seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape, the Zone, in search of its center where one’s wishes are supposed to come true. By crossing the barrier, we indeed enter the Zone. By chance, the sun sets at the same time as we dive into this urban wilderness with idle silos and rows of construction waste along a stony path. The blue and red lights of the dusk fall on the area of this former quarry for railway works and create a magic and almost otherworldly atmosphere.

Neglected or abandoned spaces that make up a large part of the city of Rome are the primary domain of Stalker. Since the early nineties this creative collective has been exploring, mapping and artistically intervening in such spaces, intrigued by the encounter of otherness—be it the unconscious becoming of the terrain vague, or the stranger, the migrant, the nomad, and their alternative perceptions of the city. Walking serves as a key to access and to understand these urban realities. Moreover, for Stalker, this fundamental way of locomotion is a creative act, and a means to arouse the potential of the disused and dormant territories of Rome.

Rome. Everyone has at least a vague idea of the “eternal city,” usually referring to its ancient heritage, its art and architecture from Renaissance and Baroque times, or the treasures of the Vatican. Many countries run an academy in a classy Roman villa that grants residencies to selected artists and scholars to study the marvelous heritage of this city which is, as a matter of fact, unique in the world. However, what I have been experiencing during my one-month research stay in the Italian capital is beyond the stereotypical perception of the city.

It’s already dark when we reach the goal of our journey: Forte Prenestino, a giant fortress that was built at the end of the 19th century, among many others, to secure the city limits. Over thirty years ago it was squatted, and since then it has served as a venue for cultural events. On the night of our arrival, there is a festival of drawings and prints taking place in the vast underground tunnel system. Places like these are not an exception in Rome—quite the contrary. At the entrance of the fort, maps indicate the locations of the many autonomous places in the district and beyond, telling a sort of anarchic narrative of a city where underneath the surface of the political order an alternative world of self-organized lifestyles emerges.

On another day at the city’s periphery: We are striding through a field of flowers, the sun is burning, and the seeds of wild barley are cutting into my shoes. In the beginning, we are walking in circles because the desired opening in the barrier is not detectable; the fences are all intact. As a consequence, we decide to climb over, one by one. Whether we are entering or leaving private grounds is hard to tell. The territories remain ignorant about their owners. Having overcome the obstacle, we encounter a peculiar landscape of earth piles, an involuntary piece of land art. When stepping on it, the ground gives way, and my feet sink deep into the dirt. As I am holding on to take a picture of the scenery, my fellow walkers proceed and spread across the masses of soil, at times each one occupying his or her pile, and in so doing creating a theatrical event of sorts. It was one of the rare moments when the act of walking as a physical permeation of the territory merged with the creation of a poetic experience. Spontaneously and only for a brief moment, a collective work of art materialized.

The physical interaction with the territory, as well as Stalker’s radical bottom-up approach, allows for a reciprocal exchange between actors and terrain, between the walkers and the Zone, as if it were living and able to act. “Spaces are active indeed,” Lorenzo, another member of the collective, believes, “we have lost the consciousness of that.” Such an understanding of terrain could indeed be an appropriate contemporary approach in times of ruthless exploitation of the earth’s resources—what some call the age of the Anthropocene.

The irreversible imprint of human action in nature’s strata was something that land artist Robert Smithson was also interested in when, in 1969, long before the coining of the term, he let a full truckload of asphalt flow down an embankment of a Roman flint quarry. In 1996, Stalker performed an Homage to Asphalt Rundown on the same site. It is our next destination after the playful crossing of the earth piles. Half an hour of walking, and another half an hour of convincing the janitor to grant us access to the private property, and we are on the site. A wall of uninviting blackberry bushes is covering the place, but we are going in regardless. It is yet another abandoned quarry that is being taken back by nature. However, there are no traces of Smithson’s intervention, no hint whatsoever to this work that went down in the annals of art history. What can a place tell you about an event that happened forty years ago? The terrain remains silent.

Later in the evening, I’m sitting in the courtyard of the American Academy, a grand palazzo from the 17th century. Everything is perfectly maintained and beautiful. Waiters with ties are serving wine for a lively scene of appropriately dressed art lovers. I look down on my shoes. They are covered in dirt, the laces torn by the blackberries. I’m exhausted—physically as well as cognitively. The places I encountered on the walks are hard to reconcile with the grande bellezza in front of me. And yet they are part of the same political construct called Rome. Eternal in time but rather endless in space.

Patrick Düblin is an art historian and currently writing his doctoral thesis on the practice of Stalker. He has taken many walks with Francesco Careri, Giulia Fiocca, and Lorenzo Romito, the core members of the group. In the excursions mentioned above, students from the architectural faculty of Roma Tre and the University of Umeå were participating. Email: dueblin@arch.ethz.ch


Volume 2, No. 2 October 2019