31 October 2008

Porta Portese

the evolution of a Roman street marketDanielle Wiley
Each Sunday morning, the Porta Portese market overwhelms the Portuense neighbourhood of Rome, spreading through streets, sidewalks and squares. Although its architecture consists of lightweight bancarelle, the market is one of Rome’s densest spaces. There are 1000 official vendors, but the Comune di Roma estimates the actual number to exceed 30 000. While the surrounding neighbourhood gives shape to the market, the market reciprocates by actively shaping its milieu. Over the past six decades, bus and tram lines have been deflected, segments of streets have been widened into piazzas, and the municipality’s ambitions to redevelop the neighbourhood have been stymied. The city and market are mutually constitutive, on a very tangible physical level as well as on a cultural one.
Porta Portese is Rome’s largest Sunday-morning market and also one of its youngest. When in 1943 the main avenues into Rome were bombed and blockaded, a spontaneous group of black market carrieri materialised, running private cars with contraband food and goods into the city. By 1965 the demography of vendors at the market had shifted. The new majority were Neopolitans who would spend six days trolling the Campagna region for wares, sifting through local beaches and farmhouses abandoned during the war. They would then arrive in Rome at midnight on Saturday to secure the best spots along Viale Portuense. Today, most clothing stalls along Viale Portuense are managed by recent immigrants from North Africa and India. Along Via Ippolito Nievo, established vendors of predominantly eastern European origin sell furniture, while contraband peddlers compete for space on the sidewalk, laying out CDs on sheets of cardboard. A recent wave of Chinese vendors selling home electronics and digital novelties reflects Italy’s new political relations with China. The shifting demographics, activities, wares and territorial boundaries in the Porta Portese market describe a facet of the city’s evolving identity.
The Porta Portese market is a loose space – relatively self-organising and highly adaptive. The market might serve as a vernacular precedent for the kind of event space that is de rigeur in contemporary architectural theory and practice. More deft than a formal piazza, the market responds to changes in the city’s cultural, political and economic conditions. This responsiveness may stem from the market’s paradoxical status as a marginal space within the city’s centre. The market negotiates many boundaries: the ancient Aurelian wall and its seventeenth century portal, an industrial riverbank of the Tevere, an edge of the mediaeval city and tracts of modernist post-WWII palazzi. Many contemporary urban scholars, including the Rome-based Osservatorio Nomade, argue that the peripheral zones of historic European cities have the greatest capacity to generate new urban forms, experiences and identities. The Porta Portese Market, although embedded in the city centre, has the qualities of an urban edge. The market’s generative capacity becomes apparent through its weekly transformations. Each Sunday morning produces a new iteration as the stall keepers negotiate their territory and adjust their wares according to season and fashion.
The idea of a street, square or market as an archetypal public space becomes contentious in view of transnational and cross-cultural dynamics in places like the Porta Portese market. Even the most basic precepts of public space come into question: what it is, where it is, who is it for, what it should do. Since the late 1990s, the diaspora of people between and within Italy, the EU, Africa and Asia have caused rapid shifts in the make-up of local districts in Rome, particularly in Esquilino and Portuense. This intense movement of peoples, at a global and a city scale, is paralleled by transnational flows of commodities, information, images and ideas — in Rome, which once maintained a mono-cultural image in the face of all contrary evidence, nowhere is this transnational mobility as evident as in Porta Portese market.
Those who participate in street life now carry with them a much greater diversity of historical models and different, possibly conflicting, symbolic expectations of public space. Some fear that the public sphere might become too fragmented to sustain a dynamic yet cohesive street life. Over and above the pressures of absorbing so many multiple interests into urban public space are the challenges that an expanding digital public realm presents to the street as a primary scene of encounter. The permeation of the city by communications technologies – which, in fact, make this mobility between the global and local possible - transforms our sense of place. Contemporary urban theorists suggest that the new role of public space is to reassert a sense of place by expressing local identities in relation to a globalised public domain. What does this prescription for public space mean for architects, who take the front line in making public spaces?
Vernacular precedents are valuable models for architects to study how these broad concerns play out in ways that are in fact very material and case-specific. The Porta Portese market, for example, demonstrates how layers of permanent and temporary structures, everyday practices, regulatory policies, and changing economic and cultural conditions can create a vibrant and resilient public space – one that is, in the end, very particular to Rome. Porta Portese also raises questions for how such sites are observed, mapped and, finally, interpreted in an architectural design. Architects might consider what investigative and representational strategies would be appropriate to a public space that, like the Porta Portese market, is best understood as an encounter between a place and its inhabitations – one that is extended through time and embedded in a specific cultural milieu.

Wiley, Danielle. 'Porta Portese:the evolution of a Roman street market' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Danielle Wiley and On Site review

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