Ara Pacis Museum – Architecture – Review
ROME – The opening of the Ara Pacis Museum should have been a cause for celebration. The first major municipal building to be completed in the historic center of Rome in over half a century, it trumpets this city’s desire to embrace contemporary architecture after decades of smugly turning its back on the present.
That the building is a flop is therefore a big disappointment. Designed by Richard Meier for a site on the edge of a fascist-era plaza overlooking the Tiber, the museum has a muscular main hall built to house the Ara Pacis, an altar erected as a symbol of Roman peace, that is that is to say from the military conquest – from around 9 BC. The building’s glittering glass and travertine shell has all of Mr. Meier’s usual flourishes, from the expansive use of glass to the obsessive grilles.
But in its relation to the glories of the city that surrounds it, the building is as ignorant as its fascist predecessors. The square, designed in the 1930s, was a brutal 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 fetishes his own style out of a sense of self-glorification. Absurdly oversized, it seems indifferent to the naked beauty of the dense, richly textured city that surrounds it.
This kind of insensitivity tends to reinforce the clichÃ© that all contemporary architecture is an expression of an architect’s self-importance. The building is meant to give ammunition to architectural curators who claim there is no room for bold new architecture in the Eternal City.
But if you want to play with ancient Rome, there are few better places to start than this site, Piazza Augusto Imperatore. Designed by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, it’s a prime example of how fascists used architecture to reshape and distort history.
The Ara Pacis was excavated from its original site and torn to pieces a short distance from its current location in the 1930s. Mussolini reinstalled the altar in a new Morpurgo glass and stone building next to the ancient tomb of Emperor Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD), implying the dictator’s supposed link with the former emperor-conquerors. The symbolic link between a modern fascist state and a heroic classical past was reinforced by the accompanying buildings, with their abstract facades and shaded arcades.
Like other Fascist-era planners working in the historic heart of the city, Morpurgo ruthlessly razed the old decrepit quarters that once surrounded the ancient mausoleum, as if to free the city’s suppressed imperial history. But he ignored the essence of the city’s beauty, the wonderful way you suddenly lean against the facade of an unfamiliar church, for example, or step into an airy plaza that appears out of nowhere.
Although Mr. Meier speaks eloquently of the architectural past, his buildings can be stubbornly oblivious to the physical and cultural context. In Barcelona, ââSpain, the enormous glass facade of its contemporary art museum inexplicably exposes the interior to the blazing sun. Its Getty Center turns its back on Los Angeles automotive culture in favor of the thematic fantasy of an Italian hill town.
The Ara Pacis Museum rises between a causeway that runs along the Tiber and the enormous weed-encrusted drum of the former Augustus mausoleum a few meters below. Anchored by the main entrance at one end and an auditorium at the other, the museum’s main hall is covered in glass on both sides so motorists can glimpse the Ara Pacis and the mausoleum just beyond as they spin along the river. A pleasant marble staircase near the main entrance leads from the square to the river bank.
The best features of the building reside inside, along the carefully calibrated approach to the tomb-like altar. Just inside the entrance, for example, a long, low window runs along the base of the wall to briefly remind you of the outside world. From there, a few shallow steps lead up to the altar, bathed in natural light.
Mr. Meier also responded skillfully to the Roman altar, providing a structure that withstands the weight and power of the sculpture. 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 masonry works very well.
There are other cool details. At the end of the hall, a staircase descends behind an imposing travertine wall to the theater lobby, which acts as a hinge separating the room housing the famous bustle altar. Above the theater, an outdoor terrace juts out slightly to offer a view towards Piazza del Popolo.
However, in Rome, the context is inescapable, and Mr. Meier’s building seems to want to escape the alluring charms of the city. Like most new museums, the Ara Pacis is chock-full of unnecessary additions: an overly formal lobby, a bookstore, and a 150-seat theater that feels like a kick start in a museum with just one piece of art.
The inflated size of the museum was not entirely Mr. Meier’s fault; the government client had something to do with it. But he aggravates the problem by playing on the monumentality of the place rather than countering it with the calm required by its pomp.
There is nothing light or soft here. The formal symmetry of the two white blocks framing its building at each end, for example, gives the structure sufficient solemnity. The thick slab of a roof only adds to the oppressive weight of the composition.
Worse still is the treatment Mr. Meier gave to two churches, San Rocco and San Girolamo dei Croati, at one end of the square. To root his building in the ancient fabric of the city, he created a long wall of travertine that stretches from the museum’s main entrance to the riverside causeway. Seen from the road, the wall cuts the churches halfway up, so that one does not feel the full effect of their appearance as unexpected treasures. And Mr Meier’s project overwhelms the plaza below, pressing it disrespectfully, so that the church facades almost seem to recede in embarrassment.
In the end, his building may be as revealing of the sins of our time as Morpurgo’s design was of his. While Mussolini’s architects can be blamed for attempting to reshape the city’s history for their own propaganda purposes – and to satisfy the egocentric urge of a despot – the museum reminds us that vanity is not unique. to generals or politicians.
It may be another half a century before the Romans resume this route.