Though in Italy, Trieste is not Italian. The port city has been passed between nation states like a weary child between foster parents. As national borders have advanced and retreated, Trieste has flown the flags of the Venetian, Austrian and Austro-Hungarian empires, has joined, left and rejoined Italy, was once part of Yugoslavia, and an independent city state before that.
With a population that has shrunk steadily since the ’70s, this schizophrenic history has left Trieste without a civic sense of itself. The walls of quiet piazzas are marked with lonely pieces of political graffiti – a swastika here, a hammer and sickle there. But the place feels lost, without cultural allegiance. Perhaps this is what James Joyce, one of Trieste’s few notable residents, meant when he described it as an existential place – somewhere confused by its own purpose and questioning its existence.
Into this vacuum, Matthew Stewart proposes a scheme tapping into an older culture, one that has survived the vagaries of European geopolitics for over a thousand years but is often marginalised and maligned by its hosts. His Roma citadel outside the city takes the aesthetic values of contemporary Roma vernacular architecture and applies them on an urban scale.
An imposing fortress rises out of the ground topped with elaborately decorated houses clustered around a grand industrial recycling facility. In a notable parallel to 2013’s GAGA runner-up Rob Taylor, Stewart has embedded the economics of recycling at the heart of his project.
Attempting to subvert the consensus that sees this labour fall to the most disadvantaged, he instead celebrates recycling processes with an architectural treatment akin to that more usually applied to a cathedral or town hall.
The architecture of the individual houses takes cues directly from nearby Roma settlements, both architecturally and socially. Stewart’s research suggested that four basic types were required, which should be highly customisable to reflect the needs of the changing status and make-up of the families they house.
Each dwelling is constructed from a concrete frame, left deliberately unfinished in keeping with local tradition. Customisation is possible by combining elements from a menu of extravagant timber roofs which can be dismantled and rebuilt easily over time.
This project is a piece of sociology as well as architecture. It sheds light on the little known and less celebrated world of Roma communities, their tastes, values and organisation, without the trappings of sometimes inert, stuffy academia.
It is a whimsical but earnest example of cultural appropriation at its most potent, challenging tepid, shrinking Trieste to serve its own culture and that of the Roma better.
This is a project that understands architecture as a simultaneously cultural and formal act. Through its beautiful research into the architecture of Roma villages, it elevates the vernacular act of building into serious and poignant evidence of a culture so often under threat. The project studies are particularly striking, but so too is the attempt to extrapolate architectural and planning strategies. Like all good projects, it’s through the specificity of a subject, through close observation that the wider world is illuminated