Monday, September 25, 2006

Just what you have not exactly been waiting for.

The new museum housing the Ara Pacis in Rome is open, such as it is. By most accounts, the building, open after delay after delay, which have kept the ancient monument hidden, is no success, making no attempt to engage with its context.

Or, perhaps one should say no better attempt than that designed by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo for Mussolini. That building, opened in 1938, was one of the finest examples of how Mussolini made his mark on the city of Rome: for its construction, old neighborhoods of buildings were cleared, and the building was one piece of several composing an entire cluster celebrating Augustus--and Mussolini's admiration of him.

The reassembly of the Ara Pacis itself was no small feat. Fragments of it had been excavated for centuries when Mussolini's archaeologists figured out that by freezing the soil in the area where the remains were buried, they could be sure they had it all.

That building's construction was not the best, and in a post-World War II half-century when Italians were less than gung ho about Mussolini's legacy, it was allowed to deteriorate and folks decided to replace it.

And Richard Meier was to do the work.

In all the times I have been to Rome, and mind you, many of those trips have been for the express purpose of seeing what Mussolini did to the city and documenting the fascist past and its present legacy, I have never been able to see the Ara Pacis. And this lack of access goes back to well before I was working on this material.

The last time I was there we were able to tour the building site, see something of the planned design and how the spaces were to be used. It was nearly impossible, though, to visualize how it would work in its context--which includes not only other remnants of the fascist-era Piazza Augusto Imperatore, but also the Mausoleum of Augustus and two domed churches. How to integrate all that, without making a cliche-ed passeist eyesore?

Or at least without creating instead a hyper-contemporary monument to oneself?

Now it is open. I have to see it. But is this architectural solution really an improvement?

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