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Rome – 1982 – five weeks

by Steve McKee on April 22, 2007

In the spring of 1982 I got to go and live in Rome for five weeks with nine other UCLA grad students to study architecture in the most amazing city in the world.  No adventure of mine since has surpassed it in tone or texture, or had such a perfect blend of fun with a-sense-of-purpose that all the most fulfilling adventures seem to have.

Those were heady times, at age twenty-three and off to study and play with likeminded comrades in such an architectural treasure trove.  There were so many layers to Rome, and we had all those days to explore them.

We arrived separately on the Friday before Easter, Good Friday, a very good Friday, and Rome seemed imbued with extra energy with young Catholics filling up the town to see John Paul II.

We students, after settling in to the two different pensione hotels we had selected, assembled at the request of our teacher Vincenzo for a ceremonial first dinner together at a favorite restaurant of his.  He sat at the head of the long table and introduced himself to us.  For our projects he had in mind two different design challenges we could choose from.  One involved the site of Caeser Augustus’ large ruin of a tomb, the other involved the big oval left by the ruin of the Circus Maximus (a former site of chariot races.)

Vincenzo’s English was not perfect but pretty good.  Because all our professors at UCLA had grown stale to us, it was exciting to have new talent with a fresh viewpoint and some depth to offer.  We were stoked. “You must learn to see with your eyes,” he explained.  The wine flowed.  Dinner went till eleven that night.

The next day we were walked about the city by our new teacher, shown the two different project sites, and then returned to the ancient neighborhood known as Trastevere where two rooms of Vincenzo’s apartment had been filled up with ten drafting boards and would serve as our studio for the next five weeks.  This study program was a one-time deal, put together by Vincenzo.  It was fine with us. We drew straws to see who would get which drafting board.

For the next several weeks we worked on our projects and got to know Rome.  For my project I decided to design a museum that would half cover the big tomb of Augustus while repairing the city fabric of the surrounding streets that had been damaged by sterile urban planning by fascists in the 1930’s.  Where my building met various surrounding streets I attempted to create street-fronts that supported real Roman street life.  My building helped shape a new piazza at the back of a nearby church.

Always in the mornings I would walk about Rome exploring and sketching buildings and details of things and then join my mates in the studio for a long afternoon at the drawing board.  A favorite of mine was to sit in the Pantheon (the two-thousand year old building with the circular plan and the open oculus in the middle) and sketch the variety of ways the circle of sunlight fell on different details inside at different times of the day.  I loved the way that building acted like a kind of big sundial.

Settling down at my board one morning, I was approached by Vincenzo.  “This walking around Rome,” he said.  “It’s basta.”

Was he telling me to quit exploring and come in earlier every day?  I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Basta,” he repeated. “Finito.” Yep, that’s what he meant all right.

Wow, thought I.  Why should he care about such a thing, as long as I got my work done by the end?  He doesn’t know me, I realized; he’s worried that he won’t get anything substantial from me.  He doesn’t know that I always come through.

I continued to see Rome in the manner I wanted.  I knew I was on track to finish just fine.  My knowledge of the streets of the city was serving to make my project stronger.

By the third week, our excitement for Vincenzo had begun to dim.  And it wasn’t just his lack of English.  Limitations to his intellect were becoming more apparent to us.  One afternoon after reviewing progress on our projects, he was holding forth, attempting to offer us insights.  “You must learn to see with your eyes,” he added.

Oy!  Again with the “eyes” thing!  What was that supposed to mean anyway?  Like we’re currently trying to sees things with our elbows?  During our first meeting that cryptic statement had been filled with promise, the words of a master who would show us new ways to see the world.  Now the words just lay there lifeless.

As our final week approached Vincenzo became obsessed with the need to have copies of our projects that he could keep after we left.  The more he became preoccupied with this, the more we speculated why.  A favorite theory was that he wanted to be able to use our drawings simply to look like a big-shot at his university, to show that he was the kind of guy who handled international students, from a name-brand American university no less.

At the final presentation, we all took turns showing our schemes, pinned up on the walls of our studio and it was all very nice.  Vincenzo invited a venerable professor from his university as a guest critic who seemed to enjoy commenting on our designs in very basic English.  Wine was served and most of us wore our nicer clothes.  My scheme was just fine. Of the four of us who did the Augustus tomb option, mine was probably the most complete. (It’s not bragging if it’s true, right?)  So I pulled it off after all, despite all my morning walks. Vincenzo never did get very many copies of our drawings like he wanted, and none of us chose to worry much about that.

So, in the end, Vincenzo had not been able to live up to our high expectations for him. Roma, though, had not disappointed.  Even with all our weeks there, we had barely begun to know the eternal city.  More than one fellow student later told me they wished they could go back and spend less time in the studio and more time exploring like I had done.

I count it as one of the best chapters of my life. (Thanks Mom and Dad! I’ll be doing my best to “pay it forward” to the kids.)  The intervening twenty-five years has taught me just how valuable these unique opportunities are.  If you have a chance for an adventure at all like this, something exotic and fun and once-in-a-lifetime and with a sense of purpose to it, you should not just say yes, you should rush forward and seize it, hug it tightly to your breast and thank your lucky stars.

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