Mattia Balsamini

For the past six months, Adam Nathaniel Furman has been the lone architect ensconced with a host of artists and academics at the British School at Rome, as the recipient of the academy’s 2014–2015 Rome Prize in Architecture. During his stay, he has drawn on a range of influences—from Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings to Italo Calvino’s novels to meanderings with an architectural historian through the city’s dodgiest districts—to create a mixed-media evocation of the city, which was on display at the British School in March. Here, Furman, who is also the co-director of two London-based firms, Madam Studio and Saturated Space, discusses the drawings, computer animations, films, 3D-printed ceramics, and capriccios that make up his exhibition, the complex legacy of a forgotten fascist-era architect, and how Rome’s many architectural layers make it “the urban version of the Internet.”

Mattia Balsamini

The Rome Prize Experience

It’s like one huge Oxford college here, with artists and academics going every which way, like an M.C. Escher drawing. I’ve become close with an architectural historian, Aristotle Kallis, who’s just finished a book on the fascist architecture of Mussolini’s “Third Rome.” He introduced me to the architect Innocenzo Sabbatini. We visited every one of his projects in Rome, like paparazzi. It’s amazingly high-quality architecture, with good urbanism that deals with history in a progressive way. It’s creative, flexible, modern, and doesn’t reject the past. At the same time, the works were built for a fascist government. But I’m critical of tying architecture to any regime. Architectural forms have lives of their own. Another architect I discovered was Armando Brasini, a somewhat misunderstood, ridiculed figure who has been wiped out of history. I like characters like that.

My approach is this: How can a city be taken apart and put together again in your mind’s eye? Walking around, you might see a renaissance lookout on top of a medieval tower, built over an imperial market above a clutch of republican villas. At the end of the day, you ask, what are the most evocative memories? What stories occupy these spaces? How can they be made understandable? The objects, the drawings, the capriccios—they all came out of those questions.

Formative Years

From the age of nine I thought of nothing but architecture. My auntie, a professor at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, gave me a love of Modernism and of cities. She explained to me every street corner, how it related to the topography. I was friends with an American girl whose father was a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in London and whose mother was a fabulous artist, and passed on her love of drawing. And then there is my father, who started out as an engineer. He always had a passion for buildings, and loves every detail of what I do—down to the fire escapes in an office skyscraper. 

Mattia Balsamini

Then I went to London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture—a strange, wonderful beast. I set a rule for myself: Every year I would choose a unit as wildly different as possible. I had a wonderfully mad experience at OMA between 2005 and 2006, working until 6 a.m. every day. I got to work with Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, on the Serpentine Pavilion, and saw how he developed a concept on the trot with Cecil Balmond via faxes, and how it became such a layered, ambiguous piece of architecture.

On the City of the Future

In 2005, I was in Rome on a scholarship, and had an epiphany: This city is the spatial equivalent of the Internet—there are so many interconnected layers that they no longer mean anything. Rome wears her history like the lightest scarf. There’s an incredible drive toward newness. They’re running forward with the past.

Mattia Balsamini
Courtesy Adam Nathaniel Furman