Some call it monster, some call it monument, some call it il serpentone, the big snake, even though it is perfectly straight. Some say it is a failed utopia, some say it blocks the ponentino, the western wind that once used to reach Rome from the sea. Some think it is beautiful, some find it so ugly as to be offensive and has to be demolished.
Artists, filmmakers, theater directors and photographers have turned Corviale into a necessary stop in the contemporary Grand Tour of suburbia and informality—all fascinated by its dimensions, its contradictions, the conflicts, and the endless negotiations between the initial design and the following spontaneous adaptations. Among this lot, there is Otto Hainzl and his newly released photography book, Corviale. This is a collection of about fifty photos—both in color and black and white—that gather an architectural documentation of the building and of the residents’ interaction with it.
Angelika Fitz, who wrote the first essay in the section of the book called “Et in Arcadia Ego” (“Even in Arcadia, there am I”), has never visited Corviale. She states that her imagination of the place is shaped by Hainzl’s photos and keeps referring to its monumental nature with frightening certainty. In her text, she writes that Hainzl “foregoes the distance, which would have left a door open for sentimentality, and puts himself at the very heart of the situation. He becomes a temporary resident of Corviale and provides us with images produced by an ‘embedded artist.’ In place of the great myth, there are stories that leave us puzzled.”
When looking through the book, what actually left me puzzled was the discovery that the photographer spent a significant amount of time in Corviale, that he experienced the place as an “inhabitant.” The images as well as the essays contained in the book—except for that of Gabriele Kaiser, which is remarkably lucid and knowledgeable—in fact seem to indulge in the tropes that have nurtured years of stereotypes. Sadly this happens without any irony, as it does not seem to be the provocative intention of the book. What emerges is an album of beautifully framed, melancholy postcards of what appears to be a soulless place. The “monumental” nature of the building is immortalized alongside details that disclose traces of people’s lives: from graffiti to living rooms, from architectural details to clothes hanging to dry. There are traces, but there is no life. This approach is not new and has a long history in architectural photography. And so it is that the people who live in Corviale are intentionally and remarkably absent from Hainzl’s work—in fact the only living beings are sheep on the cover of the book and a pony in the last photo of the series. The absence is so prominent that Angelika Fitz feels that the only evidence of the residents’ existence is a “handful of antennas and satellite dishes.”
This is an unfortunate mystification of the reality on the ground, which, on the contrary, is loud and dynamic, rough and humorous, full of human tensions and social and political conflicts. Such a point of view places the book in the 2000s tradition of the “travel diary” of artists visiting dejected urban peripheries across the world.
Corviale, the book, belongs to a kind of visual and textual narrative that says more about the exotic curiosity of the author than about the place itself.