The Berlage


Will to Build: SGI, the Vatican, and the Making of Postwar Rome

Davide Spina

In the twenty years following World War II, Italy was gripped by a veritable building frenzy. Thousands of small developers and contractors worked at a breakneck pace first to restore, and then to expand, the country’s building stock. Rome was the epicentre of this activity, and the Rome firm Società Generale Immobiliare, or SGI, was its protagonist. Created in 1862, in the postwar period SGI emerged as the largest real estate developer and contractor in the country, with a staff of nearly ten thousand and a built portfolio of more than seven hundred schemes nationwide. Some of Italy’s best architects were often on SGI’s payroll—including, most famously, Luigi Moretti and Ugo Luccichenti. And, with the Vatican as its major shareholder, the company enjoyed unparalleled political, financial and economic connections, both in Italy and North America. This tentacular reach earned SGI the Hobbesian moniker of “Leviathan” and was most evident in Rome, the company’s home turf and where the conglomerate de facto exercised an influence on architecture and planning comparable to that of an early modern patron.

The lecture will examine SGI’s role in the expansion of postwar Rome from several angles: land politics, architectural typology and language, Americanisation, construction technology, labour, and professionalism. The paper will thus afford an alternative account of this pivotal moment in the history of the Italian capital and of modern Italian architecture at large. As part of this discussion, the talk will raise questions about the challenges and opportunities of taking developers, contractors and speculative building more in general as objects of research in architectural history.

This lecture is part of The Berlage Sessions, a thematic Friday afternoon seminar series entitled “Architectures of Speculation,” which considers architecture’s historical and contemporary relationship to real estate speculation, from urban developments associated with nineteenth-century London, fin-de-siècle Paris, and postwar Rome; to land ownership, the spatial ordering of property, and buildings as financial instruments. Lecturers will include Gabriel Cuéllar, Patrice Derrington, Florian Hertweck, Forbes Massie, Andrew Saint, Davide Spina, and Alexia Yates.

Davide Spina is a doctoral candidate at ETH Zurich, where he is exploring the postwar activities of the Rome real estate developer and contractor Società Generale Immobiliare (SGI). Prior to this, he completed the architectural history MA at the Bartlett, UCL. Davide was a recipient of the Collection Research Grant at the CCA (2016), a Visiting PhD Scholar at the Columbia GSAPP (2017) and the Architecture Fellow at the Swiss Institute in Rome (2018-19). At ETH, he co-organises The Architecture of Research, a yearly symposium on research methods, and Doctoral Talks, an international online platform for graduate students in architectural and urban history. Some of his essays have appeared in the AA Files.