Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Suburban Surreal II: Parco dei Medici and the Esso Building

The first non-stop sunny day in weeks sent us off on one of our treasure hunts today (May 18), and we didn't return empty handed. After gassing up the scooter, we headed into Rome's core on two errands related to the marketing of Rome the Second Time. Both were reasonably accomplished,
though not without suffering the Centro's traffic; we were astonished at the difficulty of finding a legal parking place (and in the end, we didn't, in part because authorized scooter places were occupied by Rome's smaller commercial vehicles, as in the photo at right).

Afterward, from near Piazza Colonna we headed out to the Tevere, then toward the south end of the city, through the Marconi district and around Piazza Meucci to via Magliana, a curvy, 2-lane thoroughfare that more or less tracks the river as it winds through middle-aged suburbs and aging commercial and industrial sites.
On the way, we stopped to admire a curious structure, the "Ponte sull'autostrada [bridge over the thruway] Roma-Fiumicino alla Magliana" as it's referred to in one of the architectural books, or the "Viadotto [viaduct] alla Magliana," in another. Although the 1965 "bridge" appears to be without purpose, we later learned that it's an important work of civil engineering. It's there because the highway, forced at this point onto unstable, wet ground near the Tevere, required the structure as a way of stabilizing the pilings below its center. At the end of the span to the right, a massive, pontoon-like counterweight (not visible) drives the center columns down, holding everything in place. The process is known as the "Morandi Method," after the engineer.

Our goal was a building we had seen from the Fiumicino expressway. Occupied by the Esso corporation, designed by architect Julio La Fuente, and opened in 1977, it's a unique, even bizarre structure. We were surprised to find that it's located in an enormous industrial park, Parco dei Medici, named after the Medici family of Florentine fame. Besides the Esso building, the park contains about a dozen large and decidedly ordinary corporate structures, housing businesses we'd never heard of, with names like "Syngenics" and "Corpoform." An abandoned building was once home to Erikson, the phone maker whose business has fallen on bad times. Security is tight; every building is surrounded by hundreds of discrete concrete posts, forming a fence that's both effective and graffiti-resistant, and it's impossible to enter any of these corporate sanctuaries without some sort of clearance. We imagine hundreds of employees in every building, busily at work in secret laboratories on the next Italian household appliance that looks great but fails in the first week. Outside, small groups of men in dark suits stroll the sidewalks on their lunch hours, trapped in (or enjoying) corporate Pleasantville.

La Fluente's Esso building makes the trip worthwhile. It's rugged and physical yet light and magical, mixing the bold earnestness of the Aztec with the a sense of playfulness straight out of children's building blocks.
The big white beams seem to have a function, to hold the structure together, but it's not clear that they do anything of the sort; they might be made of plastic, or rubber, as if they were part of a kit of toy parts, fresh out of the box. Who knows? With our best Italian, we try to talk the guard at the gate into giving us five minutes inside to look around (we tell him we're authors of a book on Rome, the building's a structure of historic importance, and bla bla). He's sympathetic and calls his supervisor, but the answer is no.

To the south of the Esso building, and of moderate interest, is a spa/restaurant complex (below left), complete with pool and a "private" club: perks available to the traveling businessman. And aross the way, nicely designed apartments with circular balconies for those who find the nearby Holiday Inn not quite nice enough.

We're off, back on the nasty, treacherous via Magliana, all trucks and busses and traffic and potholes. An old road-house restaurant beckons, and we pull over. "Tavernaccia," it's called, and uncleared bottles and dishes make it clear that lunch is no longer being served on the large veranda, which is only a few feet from the street but protected from the noise and dirt by massive screens.
Still, the blond proprietress has no problem in providing a mezzo litro of vino bianco (E2), which we sip while noting the Christmas-motif tablecloths. The door to the restroom is covered with wallpaper designed to resemble bricks. Later, when we gave the owner our book card and asked for the restaurant's bigliettino (business card), she complied by writing the name and phone number on a piece of paper, but seemed preoccupied with playing the gaming machines inside.

Bill