Terrain Vague (and Pasolini’s Rome)

Please post your comments regarding Ignasi Solà Morales’ Terrain Vague and Francesco Careris’s Transurbance texts for Monday’s session here.

After our round-table discussion during the first half of our session, guest speaker Luca Caminati will be discussing the notion of terrain vague in Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962). Previous viewing of the film and  Chapter 5 of John David Rhodes’ Stupendous Miserable City are required.

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6 Responses to Terrain Vague (and Pasolini’s Rome)

  1. elisabethbouchard says:

    The proposed methods of reading the city exposed in both Terrain Vague and Transurbance are consequential to the political and economic context of the mid-nineties. In this sense, their authors are perspicacious witness of the era they were living in. Indeed, the economic crisis initiated by the Asian stock market crash was following years of economic stability close to stagnation. The urban form was therefore affected by slower changes than the ones we see happening today. I would be interested to do the same stalking of Rome than Carreri did in 95 to see if we would still find these fields, holes in fences and such. I have the impression that the voids have been filled and we ought to wait for another decade of post economic crisis to see new voids appearing. Maybe we would find new, smaller voids. The form of urban development follows the movement of the economy – expansion, compression, expansion, compression – as a respiration. Maybe we would find new shapes of void in the form of abandoned buildings, maybe whole neighborhoods.

  2. cambedard says:

    In-between and undetermined spaces are hot topics in architecture. Their inherent flexibility makes them highly attractive to anyone interested in structuring the urban environment. Nonetheless, as Morales notes, the actions of the architect in such context can be problematic, either too agressive or abstract. It is thus essential to acknowledge the history of the terrain vague, in architecture but in the visual arts as well, in order to intervene intelligently.

    The urban fascination for empty, fragmented and abandoned spaces has a long history. The French terminology of terrain vague refers to an undefined, vacant territory. But ‘vague’, in French, is also a wave, thus evoking the rolling tide and constant evolution of the built environment. Carreri argues that voids are fundamental elements of the urban system, as they introduce dynamism in already structured ensembles. Robert Smithson’s land art interventions, especially his entropic landscapes, highlight the evolving nature of the city and, more importantly, its periphery. The danger with such undefined spaces, however, is precisely their undeterminacy. With the rationalist ideals of order and structure, urban voids are perfect victims of large-scale territorial surgery, which fill the voids with any kind of building – anything, as long as it is tangible – to cure their terrifying emptiness.

    Freud’s notion of the unheimlich or Kristeva’s concept of ‘strangers to ourselves’ can be transferred to Pasolini’s Mamma Roma and its peripheral architecture of alienness. Rhodes argues that earlier movies of Italian Neorealism such as De Sica’s Umberto D were criticized by Pasolini for their lyricism and sentimentalism. Umberto D is far from a cheesy, romantic Hollywood movie, but compared to the disquieting feeling of Mamma Roma, it seems much more optimistic. In his movie, Pasolini juxtaposed ruins to the peripheral cityscape in order to portray the sublime within the periphery. The terrain vague reminds me of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog(1818): both are intriguing and sublime, as mutating and ungraspable landscapes.

  3. jacdeguire says:

    This notion of « terrain vague » is interesting for me in a way that it is closely linked to my previous subject of investigation on the ABC-MTL exhibition. As showed in my analysis, those empty spaces, are a major point of importance in the inhabitant’s lifes. It a focal point of meeting for shared public activities and therefore, become improvised public spaces that have a major role to play in the community building process.

    In the text “Transurbance”, I specially enjoyed the metaphorical representation of those interruptions and unbuilted zones that the author does, firstly using the image of an « archipelago of islands in an open sea » and further on, making reference to « a sort of leopard-skin with empty spots inside the constructed city and full spots in the  middle of the country side».

    We can clearly observe these sporadic « voids » in Mama Rosa movie. Indeed, most of the movie take part in an undefined historical area in the middle of the built settlements which somehow become a strong case study for the representation of the dwellers everyday lifes.

  4. tsouthcott says:

    Both Terrain Vague and Transurbance reflect new ways of understanding or coming to terms with an urban environment that defies a unified or coherent vision of the city as well as traditional methods of quantifying or mapping it. Rather than the static or the built, they focus on the voids and the movement between. In Carreri’s words “the city turns out to be a space of staying entirely crisscrossed by the territories of going”. As sites of potential and expectation, these urban voids both defy preservation and become the force that propels the city’s evolution.

    One interesting point of comparison between the texts is in the relationship that these voids in the urban environment have to memory. For Morales, these are empty and abandoned spaces “in which a series of occurrences have taken place”. They seem forgotten, outside of systems of production and representations of power. Here “the memory of the past seems to predominate over the present”. Morales argues for an architecture of continuity, that respects the “rhythms established by the passing of time”, that builds upon the memories of the past rather than obliterating them through violent transformation. For Carreri, these spaces are nomadic by nature, relocating “every time the powers that be try to impose a new order”. He refers to them as ‘urban amnesias’, without memory, open to be filled with new things and meanings. This is their attraction – the last spaces where it is possible to get lost in the city, where it is possible to continually reinvent. For both, however, they refer to the transformative power of the city, its infinite unfinishedness, and its ability to captivate the imagination.

  5. zamila says:

    The notion of voids in the urban-scape is interesting for me not just as physical voids but those that are occupied by the invisibles of the city – the undocumented, the immigrants, homeless and undesirables and so forth. These spaces are also where the invisibles find refuge away from the constant gaze of the surveillance camera, Carreri calls it “the voids are a public space with a nomadic character, that lives and is transformed so rapidly that it eludes the planning schedules of any administration.”
    Urban planning is tied to economic growth and the cycles that support it must be questioned around social and spatial justice for all. The example of renewal of parks and recreation by reclaiming dilapidated spaces in the city center is an example that sheds light on the privatization of public spaces. Major cities across America that had railroad tracks running through it found it obsolete after highway construction of the 1950’s. These dilapidated urban voids, New York Highline and Atlanta Beltline have become revenue generating urban renewal public projects funded privately. These public/private partnerships are robbing the cities of its public spaces for all citizens, thus infilling the voids for capitalistic gains. The challenge is that the production of public space whether they exist in the voids or the edges of the city, risk being hijacked during peak economic growths – how do we as architects/urban planners put policies in place to salvage these in-between spaces i.e. voids as cultural assets for all to be part of and enjoy as Careri suggests through the tactics of Stalker.

  6. Terrain Vague

    Through images and videos of a city it is often easy to create a mental map of how a city should be laid out. You start to create spaces, fill in the void between major land marks based on descriptions or images. These unknown spaces are often not completely seen in photos but can be seen through glimpses; a roof top, an alley way, a red door in the corner. When all these images are put together and through the use of our imagination, we start to create a map, get a sense of how a place is laid out. Giving us a notion that we have already been there, and that we would be able to navigate our way about if we were ever to visit, however, this is a false hope. A trick of the mind. We often set up expectations of a place and they are often never what we imagined. That moment that you realize that your knowledge has deceived you is known as the terrain vague, which is the indication of what you thought cities were and what our experience of them is. Reality either exceeds or disappoints our notion of the terrain vague, rarely does it match it. Our imagination or delusion of a space often creates a false void of the space. This also holds true for places that we tend to visit as a child, when these places are revisited as an adult, these spaces do not seem to match up. The majority of this has to do with the notion of scale. As a child, buildings and streets seem to be a lot bigger and longer, as an adult these spaces appear closer together and much smaller. In the eyes of a child everything seems oversized.

    Architectural voids are seen as depraved dark places were the outliers of the city go to hang out, such as bridges, overpasses, abandon buildings, train tracks, alley ways, even some metro/bus stations. These places receive a negative connotation and we feel the need to fill these voids with more buildings. If we don’t we feel that the city and the society is incomplete, unfinished. However, this thought process is more of a projection of how we feel about our own lives, and our fear of the unknown.

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