Cinema Volturno was built in 1923 in the center of Rome, a grand theater in an opulent time. For decades Cinema Volturno was a hot spot and cultural destination, showing films and live revue and variety shows. For a short period after the second world war, people gathered at the Cinema to hear the daily newspaper read out loud. The Cinema continued to be a center for mainstream film and theater until the 1970’s, when it became a porn theater and strip club. Finally in the early 1990’s Cinema Volturno was closed, boarded up, and left to rot.
In 2008 the activist group Coordinamento Cittadino di Lotta per la Casa organized an occupation of the run-down theater, to prevent its owners from developing it into a bingo hall. Soon students, activists and neighbors joined them to maintain the occupation. In 2007 Italy had passed a law that made it easier to develop casinos and bingo halls on unused historic property. By physically occupying the site, this group expressed the will of many city residents to prevent this historic theater from becoming a bingo hall. The conventional market had offered a solution for Cinema Volturno: make it a bingo hall. Now people were coming together to offer a solution better adapted to the Cinema, the neighborhood and the life of the city.
Urban Laboratory ReWorkshow is a collective of young architects based in Rome, committed to involving citizens and communities in the recuperation of abandoned spaces. At Cinema Volturno, they worked with the occupiers to devise a program for the Cinema, and design the renovations necessary to support that program.
Physically the Cinema was in poor shape, and there was no funding to support the renovation. Through a series of open meetings, it was decided to focus on three areas: the Lobby, the Kitchen, and the Grand Hall. The Lobby would be organized to serve several functions: as a space to hold meetings, as a lounge, and as an overflow space from the main theater. The Kitchen would be used to raise money during events. The Grand Hall is an immense space that needed formal subdivision and a modular and easily reconfigurable stage that could accommodate a variety of events. Each intervention was designed to be flexible and reversible, and to honor the grand space of the Cinema.
There was no budget for renovation, but there was a group of people who believed in creating a community space out of a neglected space, and who came together to build that space. An intense five day working period was planned. Volunteers worked continuous long hours. Lumber and wooden pallets were salvaged from the theater to reuse in the renovations.
Since the renovation was completed in December 2011, there has been a full program of events every weekend: theatrical performances, concerts, movie screenings, seminars, art exhibitions, and more. Coordinamento Cittadino di Lotta per la Casa, the group that spearheaded the original occupation of the Cinema, holds informational meetings and provides legal advice about housing rights, immigrant’s rights and women’s rights. Cinema Volturno is an immense space in a central location, close to the city’s main transportation hub. Since occupation and recuperation, the Cinema has become a point of reference in the neighborhood. Cinema Volturno is once again an active public space, a hot spot and cultural destination.
ReWorkshow is applying their model of participatory design and recuperation to other spaces in Rome. ReWorkshow will take part in the Biennale of Critical Living hosted by Forte Prenestina in May 2012, and are proposing a design for the interior of Cinema Palazzo in San Lorenzo, another occupied space for culture and cinema. ReWorkshow leads an open design process, powered by the energy of the individuals and communities who will use a space. ReWorkshow is a way for people to participate in the development of their city.
This essay draws from interviews with members of ReWorkshow and Volturno Occupato.