Rome: Altar of Peace or an Eye-sore?

Posted on December 14, 2006


by moscerina

“All he does is stand there!”
“Yeah, but it’s the way he stands…”
— Paul McCartney arguing with John Lennon about Stu Sutcliffe, in Backbeat

Every so often, I hear how ugly Richard Meier’s home to the Ara Pacis (the Altar of Peace) is – what a mistake, it ruins the cityscape of Rome, it’s too white. Blah blah blah…

First of all, the cityscape isn’t ruined, it’s a flat bed roof, low and hidden beneath Rome’s domes. Second, it’s practically open. Sitting in lungotevere traffic, zipping by on motorino, chilling on the bus or just strolling, no matter what you get a direct peak at the Ara Pacis*, direct interaction with Augustus and Ancient Rome, just as it was originally planned 2000 years ago. Third, it’s a contemporary building smack in the center of Rome which always sparks a beautiful, enriching and heated discussion of the confrontation between classical and contemporary architecture. Even if you think it sucks, you will still talk about it.

For me, the beauty is found in the windows.

“All they are windows.”
“Yeah, but it’s the way they reflect….” to paraphrase Backbeat.

It’s the way those windows reflect that makes me love this building. The reflections, the “Through the looking glass” feeling, the transparency, the movement through time found by looking through the windows from one side (chaotic traffic) to the other (crumbled mausoleum).

Richard Meier is not my favorite architect. I distinctly remember my various rants against the Getty Center, circa 2000. However, I can safely say I do not hate this structure as basic design. I find faults with some components like the obvious “travertino face”(cheap), casts of Emperor busts from a collection in Copenhagen (no one in Rome had a spare Tiberius?!), and the North East corner.

The North East corner, aka The Shoe Box, are two chalky white walls devoid of windows. Approaching the Ara Pacis from Piazza del Popolo (via Ripetta), there is a hint at deja vu. All that is missing is the “Staples Office Supply” sign. Yes, it is ugly, wrong and confusing. What was Meier thinking? Or better yet, what is he waiting for?

I’d like to think that Meier is inviting public art (aka Graffiti) to decorate and thus fully meld Ancient Rome with its future. My fantasy is old school, intricately detailed graffiti as seen on train cars, underpasses and in high falutin art galleries. At present, I can’t envision Mayor Walter Veltroni heralding a public art campaign where top graffiti artists are invited to compete for the Ara Pacis mural. I can only hope. While I wonder about its graffiti potential, I find it curiously interesting that the Shoe Box walls have remained virgin white for 8 months. Secretly, I imagine an Ara Pacis security team trained in Singapore and well versed in Kurt Vonnegut. Once a lid is flipped off an innocent spray can, armed guards appear…

This is not an request to tag the Ara Pacis, just a suggestion: Think about how beautiful those walls could be with some contemporary urban art to integrate the past and the present.

* A bit of background to those of you not familiar with the place:
The Richard Meier building houses the Ara Pacis, the altar of Peace dedicated to the Emperor Augustus in 9 BC.  What is inside is a permanent exhibition of this “altar” – a rather large marble structure with detailed bas relief depicting the Julian family (e.g. Julius Caesar, Augustus, Livia, Agrippa, etc).

The Altar disappeared with the fall of Rome, but was refound in the 1600 under a palazzo in Rome and also in the Louvre (yes, the French stole some of it).

Cool things inside include casts of busts of the Julian family (Tiberius, Livia, Augustus, Caligula, the usual suspects) from a collection in Copenhagen. Along with the intricate Julian family tree.

Museo dell’Ara Pacis
Lungotevere in Augusta
Tuesday through Sunday 9 am to 7 pm
24 & 31 December 9 am to 2 pm
Ticket office closes an hour before closing
6 euro

Closed Mondays, 1 January, 1 May, 25 December