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Olmsted Scholar Feature: "Beyond Pompeii" - Designing with Archaeology

by Bryan D. Harrison, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

This semester I had the opportunity to participate in a design workshop with several other US and Italian universities in Castellammare di Stabia, Italy. The eight-day seminar in September was hosted at the Vesuvian Institute and coordinated by the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation. Stabiae was an ancient Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD along with Pompeii and many other cities around the Bay of Naples. The RAS Foundation is raising public interest in the greater archaeological and cultural district of Vesuvius, beyond the popular tourist destination of Pompeii, to revitalize this economically depressed area with high unemployment. You may remember last year’s ASLA awards and Tom Leader’s Stabiae Archaeological  Park Master Plan; this is the same place.

09-bharrisonitalyseminar01Representing Cornell University at the seminar, members of Kathryn Gleason’s design studio divided into two groups. One worked with architecture students from the University of Maryland on the Castellammare di Stabia Archaeological Park, the second traveled down to Sorrento to develop design proposals for the Villa of Pollio Felix. I was in that second group.

With archaeologist and architect Professor Thomas 09-bharrisonitalyseminar02Howe, the Director of RAS, we took a beautiful drive along the coastal cliffs from Castellammare to Sorrento. The once sumptuous villa of Pollio Felix is now a fantastic ancient ruin. Unlike Pompeii or Stabiae, the zone of destruction of Vesuvius did not extend to the site of this villa, which has fallen slowly into decay over the last 2000 years. There is still a significant portion of the villa platform remaining as well as large terraces which are currently in used for agriculture and olive groves. What makes the place breathtaking is the way the villa juts out into the sea, separated from the mainland by an enclosed cove with a bridge over one side. This cove is used by 09-bharrisonitalyseminar03tourists and locals alike as a swimming hole, giving the site its local name as the Baths of Regina Giovanna — a one-time medieval queen of Naples. You just can’t beat the atmosphere.

Our design challenge lay in increasing accessibility to this secret gem without destroying the character of the place. The difficulties are a steep half-kilometer walk to the site and narrow paths with few railings, but it is magical to be able to wander through the ruins, unguarded, having a tactile experience of history. This has led to some further degradation of the site, but these ruins have been getting extensive use by locals for a very long time, and they have lasted for over 2000 years.

I hadn’t considered the crossover opportunities of archaeology and landscape architecture before this project. The cover of this month’s issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine, opportunely timed, has a design incorporating ruins in Sydney. Cornell Landscape Architecture has two professors with degrees in archaeology, and I’m absorbing as much as I can while I’m here. The whole Italian experience and being immersed in Mediterranean culture and archaeological history was fantastic. Our design proposals are being reviewed by the local mayors and communities right now and in the spring we’ll hear back about the next phase of this ongoing program. My recommendation is to get involved in something that interests you; find a non-profit or international organization and dive in. 

Bryan D. Harrison earned his undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Rhode Island and is currently pursuing his MLA at Cornell University with a concentration in Landscape History and Ecology. He can be contacted at:

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