New Italian landscapes
“I have found limits to my imagination, but in the end I saw what I wanted.” This is the off-screen voice accompanying a framed shot of Massimiliano Fuksas at the wheel of a Renault Scénic. A compact white cloud drifts into view against the blue sky. Fuksas, black marker in hand, stops the car and traces the outline of the cloud on the windshield of the car. He borders it with a frame. Then the sketch is materialised as the architectural vision of a gigantic, diaphanous hangar with a cubic shape. Immense, full-height reticular portals give it rhythm at broad intervals. It looks like the interior of the Fun Palace imagined by Cedric Price, but leaner and dreamier, with a Piranesian je ne sais quoi. Black silhouettes circulate in that hangar. They go up and down on escalators paired in battalions, rising to meet an ample platform under the immobile ‘cloud’ hanging in the air. With this amicable, elegant and indubitably new formula for an architect (and for an automobile maker), the TV commercial from 2001 communicated in a nutshell the qualifying element of the project presented by Studio Fuksas for the international competition held by the Municipality and EUR Spa in June 1998 for a new Congress Centre in Rome’s EUR district. In early 2000, a prestigious jury headed by Norman Foster proclaimed the Fuksas entry as the winner. At the time of the commercial, the design process had just begun, to be completed almost six years later. Construction began in March 2008, and in October 2016, the complex was inaugurated. The now-famous cloud had finally materialised under the eyes of everyone, accompanied by the usual mix of praise and protest seen with every architectural endeavour that is out of the ordinary. The idea for the design was made up of three discrete elements: two isolated parallelepipeds on a public piazza (the Forum), with the figurative names of Lama (‘blade’) and Teca (‘shrine’), and inside the latter, the most precious element, the free volume of the Nuvola (‘cloud’). The Lama is a slim quadrangular prism 55 metres tall, made of metal and reinforced concrete cladded with black double glazing. It hosts a 439-room hotel, a spa, a foyer and a restaurant. The Teca has an analogous structure, but is covered on the outside with laminated extra-clear glass and louvres. On the inside, there is double glazing. Its volume measures 70 x 175 x 39 metres tall, and contains public space for conferences, exhibitions and events, besides the characterising element of the whole complex, the Cloud. Massimiliano Fuksas prefers to call this iconic fulcrum of the ‘The Floating Space’, but the vox populi baptised it as the Nuvola from the start. Not even an international competition organised ad hoc succeeded in modifying this original denomination. Composed of a metal framework covered on the outside by a white, semi-transparent membrane in micro-perforated glass fibre, the Cloud is suspended in mid-air inside the Teca, with which it is connected by escalators and suspended walkways. The Cloud contains a 1,800-seat auditorium with five main levels furnished with Dora chairs, designed by Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas and made by Poltrona Frau. The large congressional room is panelled with curved American cherry wood, like a soundbox that promises optimal acoustic conditions. The international team of specialists that flanked Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas for the project of the Nuovo Centro Congress Centre in Rome included XU-Acoustique from Paris; A.I. Engineering from Turin; the Massimo Majowiecki office from Bologna; and the Gilberto Sarti office from Rimini. Together, they saw to it that the complex attained excellent performance levels in structural results and energy sustainability. The high expectations roused by this big complex, the most relevant one to be built in Rome in many decades, are justified by the numbers: over 55,000 square metres of new exposition space; 300,000 attendees per year; and an estimated 300-400 million Euros per year of returns in the tourism and congress sectors. Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas have given Rome a cloud levitating over the earth and made it inhabitable. It is a precious icon encapsulated in a geometrical, diaphanous shrine. Along with the hotel wing, it sits next to the dazzling rationalist marble volumes of what was to have been the 1942 World Exposition in Rome. All that is needed now is adequate, modern management so that the city as well as the architects can see what they wished for come to life functionally.
Above: view of the main hall and the twin escalators that access the Nuvola. At the entrance level and from the elevated foyers, the enormous glazed wall offers continuous views of the surrounding city, creating a feeling of protection without being closed inside a sealed space