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Thread: Meier's New Home for the Ara Pacis

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    Default Meier's New Home for the Ara Pacis

    April 24, 2006
    Richard Meier's New Home for the Ara Pacis, a Roman Treasure, Opens

    A housewarming for the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, of Augustus.

    The architect Richard Meier on Friday at the inauguration of his modern housing for the Ara Pacis, a 2,000-year-old altar in Rome's historic center.

    ROME, April 22 — Since this city was not built in a day, it is perhaps unsurprising that a plan to house Caesar Augustus's Ara Pacis, or altar of peace, in a new museum has taken 10 years to be realized. Romans, after all, feel possessive about their city. And, in this case, the idea of inviting Richard Meier to design a dazzling white modernist building for Rome's historic center was the stuff of heated debate — and multiple delays.

    Rome's mayor, Walter Veltroni, went ahead with its scheduled inauguration on Friday because April 21 was, at least in theory, the city's 2,759th birthday. But even now, work is continuing on the $24 million glass and travertine marble structure, which stands between a busy highway overlooking the River Tiber and the Mausoleum of Augustus. A 300-seat auditorium and a lower-level exhibition space may not be finished before the fall.

    Still, the museum's spacious, naturally lighted main hall was ready, and this weekend, for the first time in seven years, the 2,000-year-old altar and the remarkable friezes on its surrounding walls was available for public viewing.

    Few people ever visited the Ara Pacis: in its previous crumbling home, it had become a forgotten treasure. Now, however, it is very much in the spotlight, and Romans are finally able to judge the new building for themselves. To judge by first impressions, opinions are divided. There is widespread satisfaction with the presentation of the Ara Pacis. But some visitors were unhappy that the museum's entrance interrupts the view of the façades of two adjacent churches, San Rocco and San Girolamo dei Croati.

    To this, Mr. Meier, who flew from New York for the opening, responded with a sigh. Mr. Veltroni's predecessor, Francesco Rutelli, first approached the architect in 1995 with the idea of building something to protect the Ara Pacis. "Then they said, we'd also like an auditorium, extra exhibition space, offices, a book shop, a ticket desk," he recalled. "It became something else."

    The controversy that has accompanied the planning, construction and inauguration of the museum is as much about politics as about aesthetics. Specifically, Mr. Veltroni's conservative foes are using the museum to attack his bid for re-election in upcoming municipal elections. On Friday, for instance, 40 members of the ultra-rightist party, Alleanza Nazionale, waved flags and chanted to protest the opening ceremony.

    Five years earlier, before similar elections, Vittorio Sgarbi, then deputy culture minister in Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government, also opposed the planned museum. His protests contributed to a year's delay in construction. Mr. Sgarbi is no longer in government, and Mr. Berlusconi has lost his job as prime minister, but Mr. Sgarbi has returned to the fray. "It's the worst monument ever built in Rome," he said.

    The Ara Pacis itself, though, has its own political history.

    The altar was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 B.C. and inaugurated in 9 B.C. to honor Augustus for "pacifying" Gaul and Spain. In one frieze, the emperor appears in a procession with priests, loyal aides and family members. Other reliefs identify him with the heroic Aeneas and with Romulus and Remus, the city's mythical founders. Carvings of cattle, swans, insects, flowers and fruit underline the message that, under Augustus, Romans enjoyed peace and prosperity.

    The altar, which was placed in the Campus Martius, or the field of war, was probably destroyed after Rome fell to the Barbarians. But early last century, parts were traced to museums in Florence and Rome (as well as the Louvre in Paris) and other pieces were found in excavations. In the late 1930's, Mussolini ordered the altar's reconstruction and installed it in a building designed by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo beside the Tiber.

    Mussolini's motivation was unambiguous: he saw himself as a new Augustus. A wall of Morpurgo's building carried the text of "Res Gestae Divi Augusti," or "Deeds of the Divine Augustus," the emperor's memoirs recounting his triumphs. (This wall is the only piece of the old building retained by Mr. Meier.) Such was Mussolini's pride in his "new" Ara Pacis that he included it in Hitler's tour of Rome in 1938.

    In that sense, then, the Ara Pacis has now been rescued from its Fascist association, if not from politics. Mr. Rutelli, himself a center-left politician, invited criticism when he chose Mr. Meier as the project's architect without an open competition. The city council eventually approved the plan, but things moved slowly. Finally, in 2000, after a protective structure was built around the Ara Pacis, Morpurgo's building was demolished.

    But, partly in response to Mr. Sgarbi's campaigning, lengthy archaeological studies brought fresh delays. Finally, after Mr. Veltroni became mayor, construction began in spring 2003. The Ara Pacis, which remained in place throughout, was unwrapped in ceremony in September.

    Mr. Meier, who three years ago built a modern church in a Rome suburb, said he felt confident that the new museum would in time be fully accepted. "There's a lightness here that is different from that of old museums," he said. "You see the city in a totally different way from this building. The city becomes alive from your experience of being here."

    Certainly, Mr. Veltroni could not be happier, not least because he sees this "marvelous work," as he put it, as a precursor of a still more ambitious modernization of Rome.

    In fact, much is already happening. While situated in a suburb, Renzo Piano's new Parco della Musica auditorium is now generally applauded. And among other big-name architects, Zaha Hadid is building the Maxxi contemporary art and architecture center outside the city walls, and Santiago Calatrava has designed a new sports complex in the suburb of Tor Vergata.

    "This is a city where you can go from Bernini to Michelangelo to Julius Caesar to Meier," Mr. Veltroni said. "This is what we want to protect, Rome's double identity. There is no contradiction between the beauty of the past and the beauty of the present."

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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    Shades of De Chirico:

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    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    I'm looking forward to seeing this when I get back to Rome.

    The prior Mussolini-era enclosure was a wreck -- dark and dreary.

    Somewhat silly that Signor Sgarbi wants to blow up Meier's new building when in the other article he talks about excavating what he hopes remains of the staircase of the Porta di Ripetta leading down to the Tevere. The roadway and raised walls along the river (the "Lungotevere") were built in the early 1900s to control flooding from the Tevere into the center of Rome. So, given Sgarbi's statements one would have to assume that he would prefer to see il Centro de Roma sporadically underwater.

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    The Ara Pacis museum, on the inauguration of its reopening Friday, has been the focus of a bitter political and cultural debate.

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    When in Rome ...
    ... don't listen to the Romans. Especially when they burn models of your building and call it a cesspit. Richard Meier tells Steve Rose about his controversial new museum

    Steve Rose
    Monday May 1, 2006

    When it comes to high-profile public architecture, Richard Meier is about as safe a pair of hands as you could hope for. For the past four decades, he has been turning out restrained but conspicuous buildings that speak of pristine sophistication. He is the height of good taste. Meier seems to have decided very early on in his career that there is no architectural problem that can't be solved through some composition of simple geometric forms, executed in huge sheets of glass, blank surfaces, grids of enamelled steel panels - and no colours except white. Always white.

    To his admirers, Meier has the most consistent portfolio of any architect alive; to his detractors, the most repetitive. You can identify one of his buildings in an instant, yet they tend to go with everything. This has made him the ultimate centrepiece architect: he has work in almost every major city, from Barcelona to Atlanta to Paris to Frankfurt to Los Angeles - the latter being the location of his colossal $1bn Getty Centre, the sort of commission most architects this side of the Renaissance can only fantasise about.

    Currently, Meier finds himself at the centre of an almighty controversy. His new Ara Pacis Museum is the first significant structure to go up in Rome's historic centre since Mussolini's time, and as such it has attracted a great deal of attention, mostly negative. Its enemies have likened it variously to a petrol station, a pizzeria and a giant coffin. Vittorio Sgarbi, a celebrity art critic and former deputy culture minister, publicly set fire to a model of the building, and recently declared it "an indecent cesspit by a useless architect". He has talked of forming an anti-Meier committee. The day before the museum's opening last week, Gianni Alemanno, the rightwing candidate for Rome's mayorship, pledged that he would tear the museum down and put it up somewhere in the suburbs, should he be elected.

    Public projects inevitably have their detractors, but the Ara Pacis Museum has been caught in a perfect storm of politics, culture, history and nationalism. The prospect of any new construction within Rome's city walls was sure to be met with vehement opposition. The success of the preservationist lobby in keeping Rome's ancient centre ancient is evident to - and validated by - the millions of tourists drawn to the Eternal City every year. The construction of the Ara Pacis Museum was delayed repeatedly by demands for archaeological digs of the site.

    But equally contentious has been the fact that this building is the work of a foreigner. In about 1999, the then mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, commissioned a swathe of high-profile projects to rejuvenate the city, starting with the Rome Auditorium, a new concert venue by homeboy Renzo Piano. Britain's Zaha Hadid is currently at work on Maxxi, a gallery of 21st-century art just outside the city centre. Odile Decq, from France, is extending another Roman gallery, and Dutch-born Rem Koolhaas is turning the old general market into Rome's answer to Covent Garden. Other big names, such as Norman Foster and IM Pei, are at work across Italy, but the fact that Rutelli personally invited Meier to design the Ara Pacis Museum - rather than holding a competition - made this different. Last September, 35 Italian architects wrote an open letter demanding more support for home-grown talent, and complaining about the "invasion" of foreign designers, who they believed were ill-equipped to handle Italy's unique context.

    It was a different story last time Meier worked here. His Jubilee Church, a striking assembly of giant curved planes, opened in 2003 to universal approval. But the location was an isolated housing quarter well outside central Rome and, more importantly, the client was the Church, an institution few Italians will openly criticise.

    The Ara Pacis Museum concerns both public funds and a national treasure. The Ara Pacis itself is a finely carved sacrificial altar, built in 13AD to mark Emperor Augustus' victories in Spain and Gaul. Originally it stood to the south-west of the city, on the Campus Martius, but was only fully restored by Mussolini in the late 1930s. In his zeal for appropriating Rome's Imperial heritage, Mussolini moved the Ara Pacis to its present location next to Augustus's derelict tomb - where Il Duce imagined he would also be interred. He recruited Vittorio Morpurgo to design a simple box-like building around it, which has been gradually falling into disrepair.

    Last week Romans got their first chance to judge Meier's design for themselves - or at least the parts of it that are finished. Even the opening date has been the subject of controversy: it is unlikely to be completed before September, but the official opening took place on April 21, Rome's official birthday (as well as four weeks before the mayoral elections).

    On the morning before the opening, as the rightwing candidate was pledging to tear the museum down and protesters dressed as gladiators prepared to march on the building, Meier jetted in from China to oversee the many finishing touches. Despite his fatigue, the white-haired 72-year-old still has the energy for an enthusiastic but relaxed advance tour. As he shuffles through the hectic, dusty space, stopping to sign autographs and pose for photographs with the construction workers, local politics seem far from his mind.

    When we speak, I ask him what he made of the controversy. "I think in Europe there's more discussion about public buildings," he says. "It's not a private building, it's a public building, and therefore people who are running for office use it as a way to discredit the people who are for it. It becomes a political football."

    Did it bother him? "No. You just do your work. You do what you think you should do."

    The museum, which houses only one exhibit, is a relatively simple structure. The altar could not be moved from its original position between a historic wall and a busy road along the bank of the Tiber, so the options were limited. Like most of Meier's buildings, his solution could easily be dismissed as a big white box - but there is more to his big white boxes than meets the eye. The building is based on the scale and proportions of the surrounding ancient structures and the altar itself, Meier explains, and despite what his detractors say, he has given great thought to the museum's context.

    "It kind of embraces everything that's around it," he says, standing in the museum's terraced corner entrance, which will eventually contain a pond fed by a wall of water. "I wanted to make it a public destination, a new piazza space in Rome that people can come to whether they're going to the museum or not, and just sit in the sun - that's what Romans like to do. It's bringing life to what was not a vital or active area before."

    It's not really all white, either. Meier has been judicious with his use of travertine, the porous local stone from which much of Rome is built. Running from the entrance plaza deep into the building's interior is a huge wall clad in rough slabs of it, in which fossilised plants and leaves can still be seen. The floor of the main hall, housing the Ara Pacis itself, is a polished version of the same stone, while the sides and the ceiling of the main, 13m-high volume that houses the Ara Pacis are predominantly glass.

    Meier says that he wanted nothing to detract from the monument itself, and he has undeniably achieved that. The busy road on the other side of the glass is inaudible, and while the room is flooded with light, direct sunlight will hardly ever hit the Ara Pacis. Meier's knack for discreet detailing and spatial economy means there is a minimum of clutter. The building also houses a cafe with a roof terrace, plus a lecture theatre, offices and other back rooms. But it all comes across as a coherent and animated space, combining unexpected views with clear navigability.

    These are Meier's skills, and most critics' objections centre on the way he has chosen to dress his spaces, rather than the spaces themselves. Where contemporary architects have explored more challenging realms of visual and spatial form, Meier represents the old school. He may once have been part of the New York Five, grouped with radicals such as Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves, but his work is directly linked to the purism of the original European modernists such as Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus (he worked for Marcel Breuer as a young man).

    His style may be a relic of the 1980s as far as current thinking is concerned, but as he approaches the end of his career, Meier must be thinking of his legacy - especially in a place such as Rome, where past architectural fashions are charted on a scale of centuries rather than decades. More than most architects, he seems to be intent on amassing a body of work that is durable, distinctive and definitive of its era. So when he brushes off the political controversies, construction delays and style debates of the day, you can genuinely believe that these are trivial matters to him. Meier is building for eternity, and the more doggedly he sticks to his formula, the more important his work becomes.

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    This was the only new building I saw going up in Rome.

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    Mayor Walter Veltroni...summed up the optimistic feeling of the assembly. "The special characteristic of Rome is the casualness with which it exists alongside its antiquities without fetishizing them," he said. "I hope it can maintain this lack of intimidation."
    Some folks have the intelligence to accurately summarize a city's character in a brief sentence. He should export some of that intelligence to the sputtering fools in Brooklyn who oppose Atlantic Yards.

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    I can never seem to get down to Rome for a few days...I really want to see this. The design looks soooo right. Rome has countless beautiful buildings built in the 40´s, 50´s and 60´s...they really set the city´s style in a way (I think just as much as the antiquities)..... and this works beautifully with them.

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    Is there a new building that you guys DON'T fawn over ?!

    I see little readability, no grace, no sculpturality and only stodgy articulation in that minimalist barn.

    It could easily be a car showroom off a ring-road. I'm not familiar with the preceding sructure, but this is hardly something to be proud about...

    It is also extremely sad that posers like Veltroni and gadflies like Sgarbi (though I agree with him) are turning architectural stylesinto signifiers of political/ideological allegiance.

    For eh Ara PAcis I would have much preferred some sort of glass dome with self-regulating shutters, soemthign as transparent and non-structural as possible. That mediocrity just hides and dwarfs it.


    And of couse never mind that the majority of Roman taxpayers opposed it. Everyone knows that the only good architect is one that erects buildings hated by the common (philistine, outside-the-magic-circle) people.

    I know to some people a building is just a building, but I find this actually depressing. Damn!

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    "Is there a new building that you guys DON'T fawn over ?!"

    Do actually read the forum?


    This building looks like Rome to me. It´s very Italian...mediterranean. I find it chic looking. I love it from the view that Ablarc posted. De Chirico indeed.

    A glass dome? ....with regulating shutters (shudder) in a city of truly magnificent domes?... no thanks.

  14. #14
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Luca
    I'm not familiar with the preceding sructure ... but I find this actually depressing.
    The preceding structure would have driven you to despair -- truly a horrid, dank, crumbling Mussolini-era POS.

    The 1938 building that housed the Altar, demolished in 2001

    (Yikes ^^^ Lincoln Center??? )

  15. #15
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    An Oracle of Modernism in Ancient Rome

    Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times
    The Piazza Augusto Imperatore in Rome has a new modern neighbor, the Ara Pacis Museum, at center,
    designed by Richard Meier.

    September 25, 2006

    Architecture Review | Ara Pacis Museum

    ROME — The opening of the Ara Pacis Museum should have been cause for celebration. The first major civic building completed in the historic center of Rome in more than a half-century, it trumpets this city’s willingness to embrace contemporary architecture after decades of smugly turning its back on the present.

    That the building is a flop is therefore a major disappointment. Designed by Richard Meier for a site at the edge of a Fascist-era piazza overlooking the Tiber River, the museum boasts a muscular main hall built to house the Ara Pacis, an altar erected as a symbol of Roman peace — that is, military conquest — from around 9 B.C. The building’s glistening glass and travertine shell has all of Mr. Meier’s usual flourishes, from the expansive use of glass to obsessive grids.

    But in its relationship to the glories of the city around it, the building is as clueless as its Fascist predecessors. The piazza, designed in the 1930’s, was a blunt propaganda tool intended to invest the Fascist state with the grandeur of imperial Rome; Mr. Meier’s building is a contemporary expression of what can happen when an architect fetishizes his own style out of a sense of self-aggrandizement. Absurdly overscale, it seems indifferent to the naked beauty of the dense and richly textured city around it.

    That kind of insensitivity tends to reinforce the cliché that all contemporary architecture is an expression of an architect’s self-importance. The building is bound to give ammunition to architectural conservatives who clamor that there is no room for bold new architecture in the eternal city.

    But if you’re going to fiddle with ancient Rome, there are few better places to start than this site, the Piazza Augusto Imperatore. Designed by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, it is a prime example of how the Fascists used architecture to reshape and distort history.

    Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times
    The Ara Pacis, an altar symbolizing Roman peace and erected around 9 B.C., now rests in a new museum
    in Rome, where it is bathed in natural light.

    The Ara Pacis was excavated from its original site and carted in pieces a short distance to its present location in the 1930’s. Mussolini reinstalled the altar in a new glass-and-stone building by Morpurgo next to the ancient tomb of the Emperor Augustus (63 B.C. to A.D. 14), implying the dictator’s supposed bond with ancient emperor-conquerors. The symbolic link between a modern Fascist state and a heroic classical past was fortified by the flanking buildings, with their abstracted facades and shadowy arcades.

    Like other Fascist-era planners working in the city’s historic heart, Morpurgo callously razed the decrepit old neighborhoods that once surrounded the ancient mausoleum, as if to liberate the city’s repressed imperial history. But he ignored the essence of the city’s beauty, the wondrous way you suddenly press up against the facade of an unfamiliar church, for example, or enter an airy piazza that appears out of nowhere.

    Although Mr. Meier speaks eloquently about the architectural past, his buildings can be stubbornly oblivious to physical and cultural context. In Barcelona, Spain, the enormous glass facade of his Museum of Contemporary Art inexplicably exposes the interior to the blazing sun. His Getty Center turns its back on the car culture of Los Angeles in favor of the themed fantasy of an Italian hill town.

    The New York Times
    Ara Pacis was excavated and carted in pieces
    a short distance to its present location in the 1930’s.

    The Ara Pacis Museum rises between a roadway that runs along the Tiber and the enormous weed-encrusted drum of the ancient mausoleum of Augustus several yards below. Anchored by the main entrance at one end and an auditorium at the other, the museum’s main hall is sheathed in glass on both sides so that motorists can catch glimpses of the Ara Pacis and the mausoleum just beyond it as they speed along the river. A pleasant marble stairway near the main entrance leads up from the piazza to the river embankment.

    The building’s best features reside in the interior, along the carefully calibrated approach to the tomblike altar. Just inside the entry, for example, a long, low window extends along the base of the wall to remind you briefly of the world outside. From here a few shallow steps lead up to the altar, which is bathed in natural light.

    Mr. Meier has also responded deftly to the Roman altar, supplying a structure that stands up to the sculpture’s weight and stark power. The main hall is supported by four heavy white columns that rise to meet a grid of deep beams. The contrast between the rough finish of Mr. Meier’s travertine and the ornate stonework works just fine.

    There are other nice details. At the back of the hall a stair drops down behind a towering travertine wall to the theater lobby, which acts as a hinge separating the room housing the celebrated altar from the bustle. Above the theater an outdoor terrace juts out slightly to afford a view up toward the Piazza del Popolo.

    Yet in Rome context is inescapable, and Mr. Meier’s building seems intent on shunning the city’s seductive charms. Like most new museums, the Ara Pacis is stuffed with unnecessary add-ons: an overly formal lobby, a bookstore and a 150-seat theater that seems a wrongheaded fillip in a museum with a single work of art.

    The museum’s bloated size was not entirely Mr. Meier’s fault; the government client had something to do with it. But he compounds the problem by playing to the piazza’s monumentality rather than countering it with the quietness that its pomposity demands.

    There is nothing lighthearted or gentle here. The formal symmetry of the two white blocks framing his building at either end, for example, gives the structure a self-important solemnity. The thick slab of a roof only adds to the composition’s oppressive weight.

    Still worse is Mr. Meier’s treatment of two churches, San Rocco and San Girolamo dei Croati, at one end of the piazza. To root his building in the city’s ancient fabric, he created a long travertine wall that extends from the museum’s main entrance to the roadway beside the river. Viewed from the road, the wall chops the churches off at half height, so that you don’t feel the full effect of their coming into view as unexpected treasures. And Mr. Meier’s project overwhelms the piazza below, pressing in on it disrespectfully so that the church facades almost seem to recoil in embarrassment.

    In the end his building may be as telling about the sins of our era as Morpurgo’s design was of his. While Mussolini’s architects can be faulted for trying to reshape the city’s history for their own propaganda aims — and to satisfy the egomaniacal drive of a despot — the museum reminds us that vanity is not unique to generals or politicians.

    It may be another half-century before Romans go down this road again.

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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