Rome's Urban Landscape

Avant-garde bridges, repurposed spaces, and innovative infrastructure prove this ancient city’s landscape is more than just ruins and relics.

Rome’s identity is firmly rooted in antiquity, its intrigue found in dark catacombs, underground churches, and rediscovered ruins. Unlike many other European capitals, Rome is rarely associated with the contemporary, partly attributed to the fact that it’s downright difficult to build here: strict laws preserving the city’s historic center (a UNESCO World Heritage site) mean little new has been added, while construction on the city’s Metro C line has been endlessly stalled due to unearthed archaeological findings. Despite its obstacles, the Eternal City is a constantly evolving and dynamic landscape, illustrated in a slew of contemporary art museums, inventive architecture, and even the city’s skyline itself. While the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, and Roman Forum are included in its panorama, so are modern marvels like the looming Gazometro, cobra-esque Garbatella Bridge, and sky-high water towers, hints that while Rome will always be linked to the past, it hasn’t forgotten the present.

Cavalcaferrovia Ostiense

Although a brand new addition to the city, the Cavalcaferrovia bridge has been on the wish list of locals for decades. There’s evidence it was proposed in the 1930s, and again in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that construction officially began, only to be inevitably interrupted by the city’s Archaeological Society. Finally debuted a mere two years ago, the Cavalcaferrovia connects the historic Via Ostiense in Garbatella with the Ostiense neighborhood’s bypass. The brainchild of engineer Francesco Del Tosto, the bridge is composed of a series of interconnected white arches that has earned it the nickname “the Cobra,” an aesthetic inspired by Seville’s Puente de la Barqueta and Valencia’s Puente de Alameda. Illuminated with environmentally friendly LED lights and equipped with state of the art technology that prepares the structure for potential earthquakes, the Cobra is thoroughly modern.

Gazometro

While it may not rival the opulence of St. Peter’s, there is a certain stark beauty to Rome’s beloved Gazometro. A short walk from the banks of the Tiber river, the gasometer is a round cylindrical structure that stands 92 feet, making it the tallest in Europe. Perhaps most importantly, the structure speaks of Rome’s industrial-age. While no longer technically in use, the Gazometro has transformed into a “mascot” of sorts for Roman nightlife: below, parties, concerts, bars, and exhibitions ensure the area is always buzzing. In the warmer months, the cylinder is lit up with fluorescent lights, by now a symbol of Roman summer.

Torri Del Serbatoio Di Acqua

Designed by the Fascist government’s engineer and architect Angiolo Mazzoni, the water towers of Termini Station once played a vital role in the city’s transportation: cold water was delivered to waiting locomotives, which was then heated and used as fuel. Due to Mazzoni’s support of Fascism and Benito Mussolini, his importance in Rome’s architectural history (he was also the first to begin construction on the station itself) has gone largely unacknowledged by scholars. His towers, however, serve as a vestige of the Mussolini era and a monument to the Futurist art movement.

Tangenziale Est

Rome’s Tangenziale Est was first conceived in the 1950s during the city’s post-WWII urban development, when a transportation route connecting the northern to the western neighborhoods was proposed. Inaugurated in 1975 and finally completed in 1990, the elevated highway immediately proved controversial. Due to the Tangenziale’s proximity to residential neighborhoods, locals protested against disruptive noise, smog, and pollution from the cars. Eventually, the city built a new, underground highway, and much of the former is now abandoned, but hopefully not for long: many have proposed transforming the route into a sort of elevated urban oasis, complete with gardens, a skate park, and bike paths.

Ponte della Musica

Inaugurated April 21, 2011, the 2764th anniversary of Rome (that is, if the Romulus and Remus myth is to be believed) the Ponte della Musica-Armando Trovajoli, or bridge of music, shares a birthday with the city itself. The bridge was eventually named in memory of Italian composer and conductor Armando Trovajoli, and spans the river at the level of the vibrant Auditorium Parco della Musica. From there it connects to the Foro Italico, an arresting Fascist-era sports complex. Suspended by steel arches, this avant-garde structure was originally conceived as a bridge solely for pedestrians and cyclists, but the design now accommodates trams and other vehicles.

Everything Old is New Again

Rome is legendary for its countless museums, but none are quite like our next three picks. All housed within once obsolete structures (an abandoned beer factory, a former slaughterhouse, and an industrial-era power plant), these museums are a far cry from the winding halls of the Musei Vaticani. Best of all, they demonstrate how the city has taken to recycling dormant spaces into groundbreaking cultural hubs, with exciting results.

Centrale Montemartini

First constructed in 1912 as Rome’s public electricity plant, the Centrale Montemartini Museum (Via Ostiense, 106) initially came into being as a temporary solution to overcrowding in the Capitoline Museums. The following exhibit, entitled Machines and Gods, quickly became a favorite of locals and visitors to the city, so much so that the museum was permanently established a decade ago. The gallery’s quirky contrast of classical art and industrial archeology is delightfully unexpected: delicate marble statues and mosaics juxtapose boldly with hulking turbines, steam boilers, and diesel engines, machinery that has been silenced for decades. While the Montemartini has it’s own collection (look for a portrait of Cleopatra and a mosaic from Santa Bibiana) it also hosts temporary exhibits.

MACRO

Established with the hopes of bringing attention to Rome’s overshadowed contemporary art scene, both branches of Rome’s MACRO museum (Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome) have unusual venues. The first, located on Via Nizza, is housed within a former Peroni beer factory, opened in the nineties, and later revamped by French architect Odile Decq. The museum concentrates primarily on contemporary artists from the 1960s to the present, but may be best known for its extensive collection of postmodern painter and collagist Mario Schifano’s works. Memorable quirks include bathrooms with translucent sinks that flash different colors, and the remains of an excavated Roman house in the museum’s car garage.

Macro Testaccio

Built between 1888-1891 by architect Gioacchino Ersoch, this former mattatoio, or slaughterhouse, once had an enormous impact on Rome’s industrial and economic scene. At the time the biggest abattoir in all of Europe (it’s said the space could accommodate roughly 17 American football fields) the mattatoio employed over 800 of the city’s men. In the mid-’70s, as the neighborhood surrounding the slaughterhouse grew increasingly residential, the complex decided to close its doors. Happily, the space is still utilized today: a series of nightclubs, a music school, and a university architecture faculty call the sprawling complex home, as does the second branch of Rome’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Officially opened in 2002, the museum still retains vestiges of its past (meat hooks still hang) and features a constant rotation of contemporary art exhibits with an emphasis on up-and-coming artists.