Architectural Studies

That’s So Classic: An Architectural Review

Rome’s most divisive building project of recent decades is surely the Ara Pacis Museum designed by Richard Meier. As the first major architectural addition to Rome’s ancient neighborhood since before World War II, this project became a political lightning rod while receiving tremendous scrutiny from the local community, the Italian media, and the international architectural press. Within Italy, approval or opposition for the project often followed partisan lines. Thus Walter Veltroni, Rome’s left-wing Mayor, found the building “marvelous,” whereas Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s right-wing Prime Minister, considered it “monstrous.” But even beyond the orbit of Italian politics, opinions drastically differed. Writing in The Architectural Review, London’s venerable design journal, its longtime editor Peter Davey gushed, “Meier has succeeded triumphantly.” But in the very same week, the architecture critic for The New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff, disappointedly announced that in his appraisal, “the building is a flop.”

Your task in this writing assignment is to inspect and assess the Ara Pacis Museum in person, to read about its history and the programmatic challenges the project faced, to arrive at your own conclusions about the relative successes or shortcomings of the structure, and to express this opinion in a short essay in the form of an architectural review. For background on the Ara Pacis Museum, and as examples of the literary genre of the architectural review, please read the two reviews mentioned above: Peter Davey, “Pax Romana: Richard Meier Triumphs in Rome, Creating a New Shelter and Museum for Ara Pacis” (The Architectural Review, vol. 220, no. 1316, 1 Oct. 2006) and Nicolai Ouroussoff, “An Oracle of Modernism in Ancient Rome” (The New York Times, 25 Sep. 2006). In addition, two longer essays, Maria José Strazzulla’s scholarly discussion “War and Peace: Housing the Ara Pacis in the Eternal City” (American Journal of Archaeology, Apr. 2009) and John Seabrook’s breezy chronicle, “Seabrook-Roman-Renovation” (The New Yorker, 2 May 2005), provide useful insights into the tribulations and personalities connected with the project. Below is some additional context.

The Ara Pacis Museum at night, from Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP.

Amidst an array of large-scale building projects launched around the turn of the millennium in Rome, the Ara Pacis Museum was singled out particularly for intense criticism. Much of the hostility came from conservative quarters, whereas the mayor of Rome who initiated the project, Francesco Rutelli, was a center-left politician with a background in radical leftist politics and environmental causes. Unlike other projects awarded to major architects around the same time by the same administration—such as Odile Decq’s MACRO, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rem Koolhas’s Mercati Generali, and Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica—Richard Meier’s commission stood out for several reasons. First and foremost, the building site was in the historic center of Rome, within the perimeter of the ancient Servian Wall. Second, the mayor directly approached Richard Meier to design the project without an open, juried design contest. And, third, the chief designer was American rather European—and not merely an American but a Jewish New Yorker.

The entire Ara Pacis Museum project proved to be highly politicized form the outset. Steve Rose described the context of the controversy in a 2006 article in The Guardian.

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…. 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.

At the same time, Meier’s design came in for stinging attacks. Writing in the American Journal of Archaeology, Maria José Strazzulla described the most famously hostile critic of the Ara Pacis Museum.

Attacks have also been leveled against the aesthetics of the new building. Perhaps the most vehement and sensational was that of the art critic and politician Vittorio Sgarbi, who described it as “resembling a highway rest stop (autogrill) or a pizzeria, good for the outskirts of Las Vegas, but certainly not for the center of Rome.” And in 2004, with great theatricality, he even set a model of Meier’s museum on fire in the Piazza Augusto Imperatore.

Indeed Sgarbi, a feisty television personality and an outspoken official in the Ministry of Culture, made opposition toward the Meier structure a centerpiece of his antagonistic stance toward both leftist politics and the contemporary art world. Never tiring of adding new hyperbolic insults to the project, Sgarbi called the Ara Pacis Museum “an indecent cesspit by a useless architect” as well as “the worst monument ever built in Rome.”


Model of the Ara Pacis Museum, from Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP.

Much of the most rancorous criticism stemmed primarily from partisan bluster. For example, while campaigning for Mayor of Rome in 2006, the conservative politician Gianni Alemanno visited the Ara Pacis Museum with Vittorio Sgarbi the day before its grand opening and announced that if elected he would dismantle Meier’s entire structure and initiate a new design competition. But after winning the subsequent mayoral election two years later, having repeated similar threats on multiple occasions, Alemanno eventually declared that budgetary constraints prevented him from removing the Meier building.

Perhaps the most significant rebuke, since it came from an influential source outside the partisan local scene, appeared in The New York Times review written by Nicolai Ouroussoff. For Ouroussoff, Meier’s museum is a ham-fisted and narcissistic intrusion into the historic fabric of the city.

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.

Such criticism was all the more stinging since Ouroussoff had greatly praised earlier designs by Meier for successfully handing similar challenges. Writing about the vast Getty Center in Los Angeles, Ouroussoff opined, “its scale and ambition may seem overwhelming, but Richard Meier, the Getty’s architect, handled a daunting task admirably.”

Interior of the Ara Pacis Museum, from Richard Meier & Partners Archietcts LLP.

This is not to say that condemnation of the Ara Pacis Museum has been anything near universal. On the contrary, many praised the structure as an elegant solution to an intricate architectural program. And many praised Meier for managing to remain sensitive to the complicated historic context of the vicinity despite numerous thorny problems. Peter Davey, writing in Architectural Review, noted that “Meier’s museum had the tricky tasks of fitting onto a long thin site, working round the altar which could not be moved, forming the fourth side of the stodgy square, providing a suitable setting for the altar’s majesty and, as far as possible, exposing it to external view.” Despite these challenges Davey declared, “Meier has succeeded triumphantly.” In addition, it might be added, Meier was asked to include a variety of auxiliary spaces for the museum, such as a large lecture hall, which necessitated a larger space than some felt was necessary. Davey praised Meier’s solution to this situation, noting that although the building is large, wisely “its massing is broken up, so it seems to be much more part of the haphazard nature of Baroque Rome than Mussolini’s stereotyped Neo-Classicism.” Davey was not alone in this positive view of Meier’s handling of the museum’s physical context. “With great integrity and skill, Meier has created a work that comfortably engages in dialogue with the historic city while at the same time exploiting to the full the important monument that presides over it,” declared the Spanish architect and academic Alberto Campo Baeza.

Plan of the museum and vicinity, from Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP.

Having read both stinging criticism and fulsome praise for the museum, how do you feel about the building? And why? Study the building for yourself. What is your assessment? It might be useful for the purposes of this essay to be clear (if not in the essay itself then at least in your thought process) about your assumptions and the bases for your judgments. What most influences your opinion? Are you more concerned with the building’s interior or exterior appearance? Do you weigh the view of the museum from far away or up close more heavily? How do you feel about some of the common points for criticism or praise? For example, is the museum too large for the site or out of scale with the Ara Pacis itself? Or, conversely, does it effectively create an appropriately ample environment for appreciating the Ara Pacis? Is it sensitively integrated into the piazza with its surrounding Baroque churches? Or does it overwhelm its neighbors? How successfully does it handle the awkward requirement to incorporate the Fascist-era foundations? Here, by the way, is the project page from the Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP website.

John Seabrook concluded his 2005 article in The New Yorker about the museum by posing a question: “Can Richard Meier undo what Augustus and Mussolini wrought?” Now that the museum has been open for a full decade, it is perhaps more possible to answer this question by assessing the structure itself without the distraction of the partisan wrangling. How would you respond?

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