Ara Pacis Museum — you like it or hate it?

1A re-design of the Ara Pacis Museum, the first major contemporary architecture built in the historic center of Rome by Richard Meier in 1995, is our studio’s primary project at this semester. We visited the museum on Wednesday. Challenged to build a museum to house the Ara Pacis and to connect between the ancient monument and the twenty-first century, Mr. Meier’s individualistic work has not satisfied the public. Since it was completed in 2006, harsh criticism has never stopped. Many critics complain that this product of modernism is indifferent to the rich and glorious urban context.

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“What do you think?” That is definitely the first question others asked me when I stood at the center of the museum and considered the interesting but unusual sunlight and shading. I told others I liked it without any hesitation. I enjoyed the spatial experience not because the precious monument in the building, just because of the building itself. Indeed, the interior space was absolutely the most attractive part of the whole building. Following the long monumental path, the Ara Pacis stands at the center of the building. The east and west sides’ long windows extend along the base of the wall to the top, which transfer the different views between the bank of Tiber River and the Mausoleum of Augustus. People couldn’t ignore the gigantic glazing, and at the same time, they would notice that how those windows absorb the surrounding into the building to connect to the monument. Above the symmetrical main hall, the skylights maximize natural lighting into the interior space and enforce the power of the building.

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There are so many nice details you shouldn’t miss. Meier is definitely an expert on employing points, lines, spaces and light to create an amazing spatial experience. You can see how the horizontal lines and the vertical lines connect to each other, how the Ara Pacis’ corner matches to a grid of deep beams, and how the different materials produce a different story altogether. Utilizing natural lighting, four heavy white columns, and a monumental stair, the museum is really peaceful but dramatic. However, the dramatic light happens to be a main point many people complained about. Meier explained his approach, “In all of my work I treat light as a building material as tangible as plaster or glass, and in the Ara Pacis a variety of spatial experiences has been achieved through such strategies as the contrast between the subdued lighting of the entry hall and the expansive lighting in the top lit great hall.”

With the other contemporary buildings constructed in Rome recently, like the MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid and the Auditorium by Renzo Piano, questions about how to develop the city and restore the city arise again and again. For me, I feel that no matter how much effort people expended, we couldn’t rebuild or reshape the old city any more. The only thing we can do is respect the history then create the new building to be alive in the old city.

Do you like the building or not? What’s your thinking about the relationship between the historical city and contemporary architecture?

In the end, let’s watch an interview to hear Meier’s response to these questions.

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