The Villa and the synthetic Arcadia
Advance graduate theory seminar
UIC School of Architecture
Kassandra Alvarez, Rachel Birdsell, James Carter, Nathan Gawlinski, Martin Murungi, Henry Prendergast, Isabelle Reford, Yingqian Ye, Roya Zanjani
Virgil’s Bucolics, also known as the Eclogues, is a collection of ten poems of various length but based on a unique structure and theme: the frugal life of peasants and shepherds in a rural setting, clearly inspired by the Greek Idylls of Theocritus, composed in Siracusa two centuries before. Despite being set in a unknown location probably in the flat landscapes of the Pianura Padana, the Eclogues have been written during the turbulent years of the I century Civil Wars, first between Julius Cesar and Pompeo (49-44 BC), and later between Marco Antonio and Ottaviano Augusto (44-31 BC), which marked the gradual dismantling of the Roman Republic toward an authoritarian regime.
In this sense, the Eclogues could be considered an erudite literary composition necessary to exorcise the dread and the violence of the war, through the harmony of a virgin nature and the hexameter verses of the shepherds. And yet, neither the ideal return to a peaceful relation with nature nor the serene conversations of the herdsmen tending their flocks were able to completely remove the conflicts and the anguish of the urban life. Thus, the mythical garden of Arcadia and the serene life of the otium — a life withdrawn from the daily business of the city and dedicated to contemplation — contributed to ideologically cover the violence of the class struggle occurring in Rome and the exploitation of the rural countryside through forms of colonization. Not by chance, as troubled background for the very first Eclogue, Virgil adopts a coeval reform of the Roman Senate issued by the emperor Ottaviano Augusto: the expropriation of a number of small landholders, including Virgil himself, to reward the military veterans coming back from the campaign against Marco Antonio in Macedonia.
Virgil narrates his own experience through a dialogue between two shepherds: Tityrus, who has successfully petitioned for the return of his land, and Meliboeus who has just been evicted. The first Eclogue clearly describes the act of separation of the shepherds from their pastures or, in other words, of the workers from their means of production, of the producers from their collective resources. New geometries of ownership striated the innocent chaos of the rural landscape, legitimizing the extraction of surplus-value by means of a different jurisprudence. Such a concrete and juridical construction of the territory established the conditions of what Karl Marx notoriously defined as “primitive accumulation,” or the process for which large masses of dispossessed farmers were forced to sell their labor-force and migrate towards urban settlements; common grounds and traditional rituals were replaced by private enclosures and calculated productive cycles; human bodies, daily habits and customary rhythms were violently fine-tuned to the necessities of the rising economic forces; women’s labor and reproductive functions are subjugated to the reproduction of the work-force.
The seminar examines the conditions of capitalist accumulation through the lens of a very specific architectural type — the Italian suburban villa — focusing on a few crucial phases of its formal evolution: from the organic compounds of the Roman villa rustica and villa urbana, to the rationalization of their internal distribution and the integration of the surrounding landscape in the XIV and XV centuries; to the progressive reduction and typological standardization of the XVIII century, to its revival and declension across the world during the XIX and XX centuries.
By means of a series of written and drawn assignments, students will be asked to question how specific architectural forms, functions, and uses of the suburban villa have been progressively absorbed within the present forms of production, as well as how Virgil’s nostalgic idyll of the Arcadia has been today perversely repurposed to nurture the domesticated nature of endless Bürolandschaft plans, corporate suburbs, office parks, tech-campuses, learning centers, wework and welive entrepreneurial hives, company towns and the like, in a progressively refined and synthetic fashion