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Sewer Zeppelins for the Era of Infrastructural Anarchy & Other Roman Tales
Héctor Zamora

Last month, a cadre of guerilla architecture critics (or just plain vandals) splashed the white walls of Richard Meier's Ara Pacis Museum with green and red paint, thus rendering the Italian tricolor in an unintentional homage to America's greatest living painter, though permanent Roman habitué, Cy Twombly.

It was presumably the first outwardly visceral manifestation of popular distaste for the building.

Ara Pacis Museum

Many others no doubt would like nothing more than to deface the museum. The mayor, for instance, has been very vocal about wanting to remove it (minus the altar, of course) and then reconstruct it fuori le Mura. Whether this would mean that the original will be recycled for the new building or entirely torn down into unsalvageable detritus, these urbicidal fantasies of demolition, alteration and displacement are pretty much on par with the spatial history of the piazza.

The new building, for instance, replaced a pavilion partly designed by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo under Benito Mussolini to house the Ara Pacis, which was discovered somewhere offsite and relocated to its present location. This earlier building was dismantled, because it was deemed incapable of protecting the ancient monument from Rome's damaging pollution and summer weather. However, a stone wall containing inscriptions of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti was saved from total annihilation and incorporated into Meier's building design. A new temple built on top of the foundations of an old temple.

Meanwhile, the demolished pavilion itself was part of a Fascist program of erasure. Mussolini wanted to create a new piazza, the center piece of which would be the Mausoleum of Augustus. At the time, parts of the tomb laid buried beneath several layers of urban fill and topped with a concert hall, the latest in a long line of adaptive reuse programs. The tomb was further “hidden” by narrow streets and dense urban growth. To “liberate” it, Mussolini simply obliterated the surrounding neighborhood.

Left untouched were a couple of churches, one of which, San Rocco, is a fascinating impasto of Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical and Palladian styles. These survivors — together with Morpurgo's pavilion and a complex of new modern buildings for use by Fascist Party functionaries — were calibrated to frame the bounded space of the new Piazza Augusto Imperatore.

It's interesting to note here that embedded on the facades of the new buildings are friezes, mosaics and inscriptions, a decorative program no doubt intended to create a link with the sculptural reliefs on the Ara Pacis on the other side of the piazza. One of those inscriptions, apart from mythologizing Mussolini and Fascism, actually commemorates the restoration of the Mausoleum of Augustus and by extension celebrates the urban pogrom that had to be metted out in order to “liberate” the tomb from its shadowy grave. So perhaps if the mayor were to carry out his own pogrom, then he, too, may commemorate it with yet another set of friezes on the front of his new museum. And obviously these new friezes will also memorialize our liberation from starchitectural stupor.

In any case, to add to these violent, cross-spatiotemporal architectural critiques, Meier stated after the demolition of Morpurgo's pavilion but before the start of construction of his new museum that he wanted (and may yet still want) to tear down the other Fascist-era additions to the piazza. These buildings may have perfectly acted out Mussolini's urban scenography of Fascist ideologies but the resulting piazza is an incredibly failed urban space. It's inhospitable to everyday use and pedestrians avoid it. Meier presumably knows better. And if he gets his way, then there would be another occasion for textual frotteurism and iconographical link-orgy: a sculptural band of friezes in which we see the wannabe urban planner in the guise of the Angel of Modernism — Meier Dux, the liberator of the Eternal City from its own ancientness.

But we're obviously digressing.

Héctor Zamora

When reading about the incident, what grabbed our complete attention wasn't the paint job. What actually spurred us into confecting this post was the porcelain toilet and the two packs of toilet paper left at the scene.

Because these scatological implements aren't the most imaginative form of “activism” (or for no other reason than just because), we set about concocting less facile, though dubiously practical, strategies of protest. We used the following as points of departure.

1) As far as we know, no one has yet come forward to claim responsibility for the vandalism. The presence of Graziano Cecchini in the crowd of onlookers at the scene, however, elicited some very faint accusatory speculations. Cecchini, you might remember, was the artist and member of the neo-Futurist group, ATM Azionefuturista 2007, who dyed the Trevi Fountain red nearly two years ago, an incident which we covered here then. If you can also recall, he turned the fountain's crystal clear waters into a vermillion Nile as a way to protest the obscenely high cost of organizing that year's International Film Festival of Rome — like a self-righteous Moses preaching to a bunch of uber-consumerist Ramesseses.

2) Earlier that summer, another incident occurred at the Trevi Fountain and at other Roman fountains. You can say that it was similarly faintly Biblical: the waters parted — or rather dried up — which is probably the same thing. The culprits that time weren't hydro-anarchists venting out grievances with the hegemonic elite. Vandal-artists weren't enacting one of their staged happenings using the built environment as their canvas and minor urban disasters as their paint. As we reported at the end of last year, the water supply to the fountains was cut short when construction workers across town damaged an ancient pipe while building a private underground car park. The blockage was discovered when a waterborne camera was slithered through the city's rhyzomatic ecosystem of voids to pinpoint its location.

While the tired, sweaty tourists around the city didn't erupt into a riotous mob, this incident left us wondering whether they could be agitated into a pillaging horde, ransacking archaeological sites and museums, by strategically pinching the right combination of ganglial pathways of the city's infrastructural network.

3) Staying in Rome but venturing more than a century back in time: in the 1870s, we read in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, archaeologists dug up the floor of the Colosseum and exposed its basement corridors. This apparently upset so many people, including the Pope, because it meant removing the arena's religious paraphernalia, such as the Stations of the Cross, a huge crucifix in the center and a hermitage and its hermit. The recently unified Italian state, in other words, was seen to be trampling over sacred ground, and the birthplace of so many martyrs and saints, was to be converted into a secular artifact, an archaeologist's play pen.

But of greater interest for us here is the fact that during the excavation, drainage was such a problem that the sewers and underground corridors had filled with water. Harkening back to when it used to host mock naval battles, the Colosseum remained an artificial lake for many years until a new sewer was built to channel the water away.

4) Returning to the present but now venturing out of the city: decorating this post are CC-licensed photos of Stuck Inflatable Zeppelin, one of several installations collectively called Sciame di Dirigibili by the Mexican artist Héctor Zamora at this year's Venice Art Biennale.

5) Further afield: in an article published by The New York Times in 2003, we learned that public works officials in New York sent a self-propelled, submersible Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) down into in the 85-mile long Delaware Aqueduct that supplies New York City with half of its drinking water. Millions of gallons have been leaking, and they wanted to know where and how it was seeping out.

Leakage of up to 36 million gallons a day was detected starting in 1991. The leaking stretch lies somewhere between the Rondout Reservoir in the Catskills and the West Branch Reservoir, a way station for city-bound water here in Putnam County.

The escaping water is just a small percentage of the 1.3 billion gallons supplied by the system each day, but still equals the daily consumption in Rochester.

Water percolating upward hundreds of feet from tunnel leaks has created wetlands and damp areas in Ulster and Orange counties that endure even in the region's worst droughts.

The city's engineers have been periodically sending, as recently as last month, torpedo-shaped, deep-sea robots to monitor the cracks.

There are important lessons about crumbling infrastructure and the importance of surveillance and maintenance in an age of peak water and climate change that no doubt could be extracted from here, but we have to move on.

Héctor Zamora

So. Instead of leaving cute trinkets next to one's object of disgust, you go for the jugular.

First assemble together a fleet of self-propelled, subterranean dirigibles. Be sure that they can navigate through both water-filled tunnels and more airier ones. To be able to track their location and velocity, implant each one with an iPhone or any cheap, GPS-enabled mobile device.

With maps of the negative labyrinth on hand, you let them loose. At designated strategic nodes, you phone them. They pause in mid-flight. Seconds later, they inflate and wedge themselves very tightly in the tunnel. If the tunnel is too big, then several of your dirigibles will clump together to ensure total blockage. And then finally, using the sewers' miasmic vapour as a reagent, their nylon skins fantamagically fuse with the tunnel walls and turn metallic, nearly diamond-hard. An hour or two later, manholes and storm drains begin venting your furious critique. A further hour or two, an artificial lake lays stagnant next to (or better yet, surrounds) the target building.

Of course, the target needn't be a building. It could be a new plaza as anti-pedestrian as the Piazza Augusto Imperatore. Or an obscenely overbudget hyper-park. Or a grotesquely earnest memorial. Or a similarly ghastly public art installation whose aesthetics suggest it has time-travelled from the 80s. Whatever it is, you consider it a pestilential addition to the built environment in the same way your artificial lake is a deadly public health hazard.

Not surprisingly, others with their own beef and their own agenda will copy your tactics. Sewers all over the world will be swarming with dirigibles, buzzing with the amplified hum of their tiny propellers. Artificial lakes will bubble up and vanish, rising and falling in accordance to the perennially shifting climate of architectural taste.

Not surprisingly as well, officials will try to stop these acts of sabotage. They will take sewer maps out of the public domain. They will even request the federal government to classify them as state secrets. Consequently, all public works employees will have to undergo extensive background checks and sign non-disclosure agreements. Urban adventurers will be charged with espionage if found hiking through the tunnels. Or simply shot on site as they claw their out of the sewers like Harry Lime in The Third Man.

If the public before were oblivious to the vast underground landscape that makes their life possible, only getting a hint of what lies beneath when an underpass is flooded or when a boy mysteriously goes missing while out exploring an abandoned section, then they will now be utterly, completely, permanently ignorant.

When a boy does indeed go missing, there will be no search and rescue and thus no wall-to-wall television coverage of melodrama. There will be no prolonged national hysteria over the fate of the child, and there definitely will be no photogenic heros confected out of the whims of the masses. The missing kid will simply be censored from the day's news, and the parents will be told they never had that child.

The kid, like the sewer maps, will be redacted.

In response, sewer anarchists will outfit their dirigibles with DIY sonars or laser scanners. They will make their own maps.

As a counter-countermeasure, combat engineers will reconfigure the network into an even more bewildering jumble of tunnels. They will dug fake tunnels, tunnel that leads to dead ends, tunnels that impossibly knot into themselves, tunnels with sonar-cancelling pings, tunnels that lead to police headquarters, tunnels that effloresce into a thicket of infinitely bifurcating tunnels, and tunnels that lead to other dimensions.

Alternatively, they will de-tangle the network. Obsolete tunnels will be filled in, others consolidated. Certain segments will be expanded into rationally planned, naturally lighted, cathedral-like vaults. These tunnels will actually be more than what the city needs to funnel its wastewater and stormwater, but at least they will be hard to be barricaded. It's the Haussmannisation of the sewers.

The other side, of course, will simply hack their dirigibles into more sophisticated mapping tools and employ advanced computer modeling techniques to simulate alternative infiltration strategies.

It's one side always trying to outwit the other side.

Because whoever rules the sewers rules the city.
  • peacay
  • July 2, 2009 at 12:45:00 PM CDT
  • Well, the zeppelin appearance is certainly timely.

  • Alexander Trevi
  • July 2, 2009 at 12:52:00 PM CDT
  • Holy Synchronicity, Batman!

    I definitely didn't know that today was the anniversary of the first zeppelin flight.

  • joop
  • July 2, 2009 at 4:02:00 PM CDT
  • Very nice post, I love inflatable structures, as they give you a exciting feeling to be in. We've been collecting all sorts of inflatables at

  • Anonymous
  • July 4, 2009 at 3:46:00 AM CDT
  • Fun story about "sub"-terrain architectural urban warfare.

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