American architect brings Roman influence to College of Design

Kiana Brincks

Iowa State University invited Tom Rankin, American architect working in Rome, to speak to students and faculty about Rome as a laboratory for sustainable urbanism. Rankin has been working and studying in Rome for the past 26 years, and has been involved in Iowa State programs for 10 years teaching design courses in Rome.

 “Rome is the most resilient city,” Rankin said.

 He used the word resilient meaning that it has undergone changes- the city is bent but not broken.

“Try to find another city that’s been going strong for years but still manages to act as a city,” Rankin said.

Rankin opened up the lecture by discussing working assumptions, one being how cities are a part of the solutions for environmental problems. He then went on to talk about how limits make us smarter. According to Rankin, “the greenest building is one you already have.” 

There is much complexity to the city of Rome. Urban fabric, one of Rankin’s themes, is about the shape one discovers in Rome. Rankin also said that Rome is all about elements that connect to sustainability, and seeing Rome as a laboratory to understand from the past, see what works and then apply that information to build the future.

Rankin wanted the audience to understand how development or growth can come from the old. He stressed how one does not always have to build new, but rather reuse the old.

Some specific categories Rankin covered included water, greenspace, urban fabric, energy, mobility, waste and community.

Rankin does a lot of work on the Tiber river. Water is an important issue to focus on as it greatly affects city living. The water aqueducts that are designed and built have major impact on citizens.

In addition, Rankin talked about the importance of green space in Rome- how urban agriculture is huge and feeds both the people and the land they farm. The farmer’s market has an abundance of seasonal product to offer to citizens, and the idea of green space focuses on combining food and agriculture.

 “When there’s a drought, green is challenged” Rankin said.

 Energy in a climate like Rome’s used to be self sufficient or all natural. However, Rome has lost the ability to retain the self sufficiency today.

 “Rome would have great opportunity for solar energy. But there are no solar panels in Rome. It appears Rome is still behind on contemporary solutions for energy,” John Cunnally, professor of art history, said.

Rankin also discussed waste, and how it is actually a resource failed to be recognized. Demolished buildings are being wasted. The buildings can be renewed not by starting from scratch but by recognizing what is renewable from the original building.

The idea of mobility is also crucial in Rome because it is how the first inner city roads were made. Rankin sees Rome as a walkable city.

 All of the themes are tied together by one last theme- the theme of community, which allows for participation and communication in cities.

 “The goal is always using the themes to reunite and build a new economy based on renewable economy,” Rankin said.

 After discussing main themes, Rankin talked about his focus of work on the Tiber River. He was involved in a placemaking project where he brought in an African artist to create a piece of art to go all along the river. Placemaking projects show how to find what is already there and make them visible.

 “I believe in slow architecture,” Rankin said.

Rankin understands people want to build bigger and faster but really people should go at a slower pace which will allow better decision making and better outcome.