Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Change and Continuity

A lot has happened since my last post. My wife Carlotta arrived, and I rented a car to meet her in Milano, revisiting some favorite places, seeing some new things in those places and finally visiting some new places I've long wanted to see along the way. More old favorite places, old friends and new discoveries on the way back, in time to celebrate our 26th anniversary just steps away from where we first met 29 years ago.

Our anniversary dinner highlighted how things had changed over those 29 years, but also illustrated elements of continuity that I find quite encouraging. We ate very well at La Cantina di Arianna, waited on by it's namesake, granddaughter of Domenica Medori, who was legendary for her cooking as a host mother to many Civita program students over the years. I have fond memories of getting wine from Domenica in the cantina that still flanks the restaurant and seeing her husband Mario's horses in the stalls now occupied by the dining rooms, when Arianna and her older sister Antonella (who also works at the restaurant) were young girls. One might lament the lost of those traditional spaces and uses, but I find great comfort and hope in the fact that they remain in the family and have been beautifully transformed to provide the locals a way to make a living from Civita's ability to attract tourists and vacationers from all over the globe.

Even more encouraging is the fact that Domenica and Mario's daughter, Rossana, and her husband Antonio have moved into the old family house above the restaurant. It is true that they are one of just two couples who remain full-time Civita residents, along with Tony (the other being Ivana and Mario Loretti, who live above Ivana's souvenir shop). But several old Civita families have kept the family homes and use them for vacations, weekends or festival celebrations. It has been surprising how many of the "civitonici" I met 29 years ago still have a strong presence in the town.

That was very apparent this past weekend, one of the two main feste held in Civita each summer featuring La Tonna, the donkey race around the main piazza. I was surprised to see my host "brother" Sandro Medori, still riding 29 years after he won the race in '84 (and many more before and after that, I hear). While there were still many tourists in town for the festa, it was the old Civita families gathering in their family homes that struck me as a sign that the town was returning to the civitonici after the summer crush of tourists.

As we ate our anniversary dinner at the corner of the main piazza that night, I was also touched to see Raffaele Mostarda - grandson of Signora Agnese, who ran the one and only restaurant in town for many years - playing soccer in the piazza with his young son Lorenzo. I remember watching Raffaele playing soccer in the piazza in '84, when he was a bit older than Lorenzo. Now he carries on the family tradition with his wife Manuela, running the Osteria al Forno di Agnese, one of three excellent restaurants in town run by longtime Civita families (see my second post about the other, Alma Civita).

The restaurants, bruschetterie and bars have struggled the past couple weeks since some damage was discovered in one of the beams on the bridge, causing it to be closed to the motorbikes and mini-tractors that have replaced the donkeys to haul goods up the bridge since '84. It has been nice to experience a return to the quiet of the town in those days (though the business have been shuttling goods up before and after the guard is posted at the foot of the bridge). Seeing the donkeys in town made me think of the changes and trade-offs. Instead of dodging donkey dung on the streets, we have the noise and exhaust of the motorbikes and tractors - at least the noise fades and the fumes blow away.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Civita Institute

I've been remiss in not fully explaining these properties I'm trying to document, and I won't pretend to do that in this post, but wanted to give a little more background. NIAUSI was founded in 1981 by Astra Zarina, Tony Costa Heywood and some of the early students of the UW Architecture in Rome and Italian Hilltowns programs to build on the cultural exchange those programs fostered. Over the years, NIAUSI has sponsored dozens of fellowships, sending architects, planners, artists and writers to Italy, and bringing a few Italians in the design fields to Seattle.

Earlier this year, The properties that Astra and Tony have purchased and renovated over the past 50 years were transferred to NIAUSI, part of an incredibly generous donation by Astra and Tony that also includes the furnishings, artwork and program archives. The properties are known as the Civita Institute, and include 3 homes that are available to members and for special programs, as well as the Sala Grande, where the bulk of the library resides, the Garden Apartment, and Tony's current home in Il Ruderone. The sketch below shows the entrance to the properties.

Much of my work to date has been searching through the archives for old drawings, sketches, photographs and other documents that tell the story of these remarkable properties. There are many fascinating distractions. One that particularly struck home was the clipping below from the Roman daily Il Messaggero, featuring the program in 1984, with two photos of yours truly (with the dark hair and beard, lower and bottom left). Sitting with me at the studio table is Lyle "Lilo" Bicknell, and standing in the background is Mei Hickman. The other students in the photos are all from Carnegie-Mellon, I think. I vaguely remember this article coming out during the program that summer, but never saved a clipping myself (or if I did, it's buried who knows where). The archives hold many, much more valuable documents than this, some of which would otherwise be lost. I'll be sharing other finds in future posts.

One constant over all these years has been Tony, who has continued to support NIAUSI in many, many ways, and who oversaw the transfer of the properties this spring, along with current NIAUSI president Steve Day. Among NIAUSI fellows, Tony is best known as our long suffering host, patiently putting up with our clumsy attempts to learn life in an Italian hilltown. These days, he can be found most days enjoying pranzo at the neighboring Alma Civita, usually with the ever-present and often entertaining Sandro Rocchi. Here, the two old friends sit down to a plate of gnocchi al pesto. Buon apetito!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Lo Studio

The first of the homes you encounter on arrival at the Civita Institute is Lo Studio, where Astra and Tony lived for about 20 years, from the early 80's to 2003, when they moved into Il Ruderone. During much of that time it doubled as their home and a studio/library space for the program. Between Melissa Henry's visit and my fellow fellow Anita Lehmann's imminent arrival, I've been exploring it (and using it's ground level spaces to help keep my adjacent Il Nuovo space cool). Here's a sampling of my documentation, so far.

I appreciate the comments received to date, especially my friend and fellow Rome Program alum Greg Andrews' email saying simply SEND MORE SKETCHES. That spurred me to break out the sketchbook again, so I'll start with a couple of quick studies of two of my favorite features of Lo Studio.

When I sleep in too late to enjoy breakfast in the east facing window featured in my previous post, or the stoop outside the entry, Lo Studio has a lovely little terrace off the south end of the library, overlooking the main street. A well-established grape arbor and the house to the south provide shade until mid-morning, and the basaltino steps make a perfect seat. I decided to make this sketch a sort of self-portrait to give it some scale and in keeping with my effort to take more photos with people in them, not just buildings. My figure drawing needs some work...

Another feature of Lo Studio and all the homes that I admire is the design, detailing and placement of windows, providing compelling vistas while maintaining an amazing degree of privacy in such a tightly-packed town. This sketch from the northeast window of the upper, bedroom level, also shows how the shuttered casement windows expand the view and light by capturing reflections when open. This view, similar to my earlier breakfast shot, shows my neighbor Signor' Oscar's house in the foreground (and reflection) and the Sala Grande beyond.

To give a bit more complete picture of Lo Studio, these "working" photos show the main spaces. The approach shows Oscar's house on the right, Il Ruderino in the center, and the steps to Lo Studio's main entry on the left. Beyond and to the left is another entry, directly to the kitchen. 

The studio shot is looking toward the terrace door from the in the sketch above, showing the space set up much as it was in '84. This is taken from the lower steps of the stair, just inside the main entry to the left of the shot. Behind this view is the kitchen and bathroom.

One example of the skillful design, especially of the early houses, are the tight little bathrooms and kitchens. The Studio bathroom is so tiny I resorted to a new iPhone fisheye lens, which accentuates the feel it has of being on a boat. The window over the tub doubles as a mirror, and a mirrored window into the adjacent kitchen provides both small rooms with extra light and virtual space, while maintaining privacy.

The kitchen manages to fit a custom eating table into a tight but very functional space, with built-in open shelving.

Upstairs, this bedroom shot shows the window from the sketch above in the distance, and the connection to the foyer shared with Il Nuovo. It also shows the typical palette of materials, clay tile floors, white plaster walls and chestnut beams and woodwork. All of the spaces have ample and beautiful pieces of art - above the drafting table here are some exquisite presentation drawings for one of Astra's student projects.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I have a tendency to overthink things (partly why I'm at least a couple weeks behind on this blog), and was trying to organize my entries in a logical order. I've decided that organization can come later, so I'm just going to start dumping stuff on here, including a couple pieces some may have already seen on Facebook that give a bit of an idea of my new "micro-neighborhood." These were all taken during my first week, as I was re-familiarizing myself with the town, finding all haunts that remained virtually the same, and some new changes.

This is a clip of the 7am ringing of the bell in Civita, from the main street in front of the "Ruderone" or big ruin (see the first post in this blog), that I did on one of my first mornings here. To the right is a series of shots of the morning light and full moon over the east end of town, showing the approach from the "back entrance" to the Civita Institute properties, where I shot the video.

Here's another clip of some cliff stabilization work being done just east of the Civita Institute properties, from the terrace just outside the Sala Grande where I'm doing most of my work. In between sessions of drilling into the cliff to anchor a wire and jute mesh fabric, I caught the workers singing a somewhat raunchy ditty. It's been interesting watching this work proceed, and I'll post more on it later.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Settling in...

The first few days were spent reacquainting myself with Civita and settling into my new digs in il Nuovo, the newest of the Civita Institute home renovations (which wasn't even part of the properties I'd gotten to know in '84). I woke in time to have breakfast as the sun rose outside the entry.

Initially I had a neighbor in lo Studio, the house next door that had been Astra and Tony's home back then. Melissa Henry, granddaughter of one of the first NIAUSI fellows, was there for three days. We hiked down to Bagnoregio for a jazz concert under a full moon, and she snapped this photo of a full moonrise under Civita.

Melissa profited from a ride down the bridge in Tony's Ape, a little 3-wheeled truck that enables him to negotiate the bridge and remain here as one of only a handful of full-time residents left. Not a service available to most visitors, but he happened to be heading to town for some errands. The ever-present Sandro Rocchi looks on as Melissa, Tony and his Ape  head down the main street.

The Ape and new restaurants like Alma are just two of the many changes since I was last here in 2002, much less since my student days in '84. Folks like Sandro and the basic fabric of the town remain welcome constants, however. More on that in a future post...

Thursday, August 8, 2013


The view of Civita as you arrive at the base of the bridge never fails to amaze. Thanks to our good friends Lucio and Rita, high school classmates of my wife Carlotta's, I arrived in style on July 22, getting a ride from Rome and avoiding the train / bus / shuttle bus or hike option. The bridge, of course, still needs to be hiked.

We all had lunch at Alma Civita, a fairly new restaurant right under my apartment. I didn't do this sketch until a few days later, but it shows the view of the arrival to Alma, just around the corner to the left, and the Civita Institute properties, up the next little vicolo, where the little girl is pointing.

After lunch we said goodbye to Lucio and Rita, here with Sandro Rocchi, who owns and runs Alma with his family. Sandro was the first civitonico that I met in 1984 when he spotted me and two or three other students walking from the bus to Civita, took me by the arm and walked with us. He's still the same outgoing, friendly guy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Twice in a lifetime...

I was honored, thrilled and extremely grateful to have been chosen for the 2013 Astra Zarina Fellowship by the Northwest Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in Italy (NIAUSI). Here's the drawing I did in 1984 as a student in Civita di Bagnoregio that was the seed of my proposal to document the remarkable collection of properties that my late professor Astra Zarina and her husband Tony Costa Heywood assembled and renovated over the last 50+ years.

When I was here for two months as part of the University of Washington Italian Hilltowns Program 29 years ago, I remember thinking that it was a once in a lifetime experience - and it was. But now I have an amazing opportunity to spend another two months in this tiny town, perched precariously on a promontory of volcanic tufa, reached only by a footbridge and built on layers of Etruscan, Roman and medieval inhabitations.  
The drawing above depicted the "existing conditions" of my project site in 1984, known as "Il Ruderone" - the big ruin, which is what it was at the time. It is now the home of Tony Heywood and one of five homes he and Astra Zarina acquired and renovated in this part of Civita, including the one I'm staying in these two months.
I returned to Civita just over two weeks ago for the first time since 1984, except for a couple of day trips. In these two weeks I've been acclimating myself to the heat and culture, reconnecting with people I met 29 years ago, delving into the archives and starting to document the properties, which were transferred to NIAUSI (also known as The Civita Institute) just this spring. In the remaining weeks of my fellowship (and following my stay here) I'll be sharing my observations, discoveries, photos, videos, sketches and drawings (some of which I've already posted on my Facebook page and  NIAUSI's).