Sunday, 7 October 2007

Ara Pacis

On 21 April 2006 the new museum housing the Ara Pacis was formally opened, flanked on one side by the Lungotevere (riverside road) and on the other by the Piazza Augusto Imperatore, the square surrounding the enormous brick mound of the Mausoleum of Augustus.

The Ara Pacis Augustae is a triumphal altar erected in 9 AD some small distance from its current site in order to celebrate the triumphs of Augustus in Spain and Gaul. The 'peace' it purports to celebrate is one of conquest, but the scenes it depicts are peaceful enough, illustrating the civilizing power of religion, and doing a bit of vital dynasty-celebrating into the bargain. The work consists of a walk-in surrounding 'room' on an elevated dais, within which the actual altar is to be found. The surfaces of both altar and enclosure are lavishly decorated with reliefs of an astonishingly high artistic quality.

It was dug up in bits over the last few centuries and then finally re-sited next to the Mausoleum in the late 30s by Mussolini who was creating a kind of Ancient Roman theme park in the area. At the same time, another two sides of the square were filled with governmental buildings in a classic fascist decorative style. At the end of the twentieth century it became apparent that the building housing the Ara Pacis was woefully inadequate from the perspectives of both conservation and tourism, and American architect Richard Meier was given the brief to build a new home for the work. OK, let's get on with the photos:

This is a stock photo showing the altar and its surround as further enclosed by the new building. Meier's site describes his building as 'porous': I think that translates as 'glass walls'. This means that not only is the space wonderfully light, but more importantly the altar - originally an outdoor element - is still visually linked to its surroundings. And, all illuminated at night, it is visible to the streaming traffic on the Lungotevere.

The design has been met with a lot of very serious criticism: not least this is because there is almost no other contemporary architecture in central Rome and they don't know what to do with themselves. Indeed, the hostility was such that some elements of the original plans were 'softened' in response:

The wall to the left of the entrance, in travertine, was originally planned in aluminium, but was changed so as to be more harmonious.

Now, I quite like it, as buildings go: I like the indoor/outdoor thing, and I like how the lines echo the altar inside. The main question is: how does it relate to its surroundings? This is a tricky point, gievn that in the piazza are 1) a crumbling, tree covered imperial roman burial mound, 2) a baroque church and 3) some 1930s government buildings. Here are some pictures where you can see how it fits in with its surroundings, and even reflects them.

I do love the way the glass reflects not just the sky, but the dome of the adjacent church, and the verdance of the burial mound, I think it looks great.

Here, in the distance, you can just see the twin cupolas of Trinità dei Monti (that's the church at the top of the Spanish steps, btw).

To the left and directly facing, in this picture, you see glimpses of the 30s structures which I think are actually subtly echoed in the new building.

All that said, I understand why some people might not like it. It is rather a demanding edifice. But the level of controversy about it made Rome look frankly rather provincial: can they really not handle a single contemporary building, and one which is fairly small withal? Best not invite Norman Foster round just yet...


de vertalerin said...

That is a good building. The point being that we have a range of new materials which give us options - such as the 'porosity' of which you speak - which weren't available to earlier generations and we have a responsibility, I think, to explore these new possibilities. Otherwise it descends into pastiche, as approved by P. Charles.

ursus arctos said...

During our all too brief periods of residence in the Eternal City, we lived down the street from Trinita dei Monti or just off Piazza del Popolo, and therefore consider the Ara Pacis to be part of "our neighbourhood".

I like it a great deal, for all of the reasons you note, especially the way it succeeds in a very delicate balancing act i being both "porous" and yet sufficiently monumental as to properly frame the work it was built to house and protect. It also is a great addition to that side of the Tevere, which tends to suffer from comparison to its more architecturally-rich opposite number in that area of the City.

The success of the building can also be measured by the fact that one of the great pieces of Imperial monumental sculpture still in Rome has been brought to the attention of entire generations of Romans and visitors who had either never been able to see it before or didn't even know what was inside its prior pedestrian setting.

The shame is that it took so long to finish, almost entirely due to the misguided bitching, which always struck me as especially perverse given the sense of artistic primacy apparently given to the ponderous Fascist era office complex between it and the Corso. And yes, I agree that Meier knew exactly what he was doing in reference to that pile.

Richard said...

I like the building too. It's good to see some modern architecture in central Rome. It hadn't occurred to me how little there is. Perhaps that's why I actually like the fascist buildings nearby - they provide a bit of contrast.