The origins of Piazzale Augusto Imperatore in a Fascist master plan, and its being carved out of a thick and dense part of the city, raises an interesting design question for Museo dell’Ara Pacis: since not only the location of the altar and the precedent of having a building to house it were Mussolini’s decisions but also even the fact that a piazza is there to house it in the first place, when does the contextual argument stop being spatial and start being temporal? One of the main criticisms for Richard Meier’s museum (while deliberately ignoring larger political issues that may be at play) is that, stylistically, it is an extracontextual construction; the palette is too cold, the decoration too spare, et cetera. But is it not perhaps also the case that, stylistically and functionally, it is being considered entirely within the wrong context?
Invoking some willful reductionism: there really isn’t that much of a difference between the original, designed by Vittorio Morpurgo, and the current: both are, essentially, glass boxes that serve to enclose the altar and protect it from the elements. Of course, the program is simple, but the spaces don’t have to be. The problem may lay in the choice of architect: Italian Fascist architecture is noted for its lack of adornment, ostentatiousness, and rational principles (there are some brilliant examples bordering Piazzale Augusto Imperatore). Richard Meier’s architecture is similarly noted for its lack of adornment, ostentatiousness, and rational principles.
The real contextual problem isn’t the colors, or the fact that it is Spartan in adornment, or that it lacks pomp and grandiosity – it is that, although Meier was commissioned by then-Mayor of Rome and liberal Francesco Rutelli, he proceeded to build another Fascist building in the center of Rome. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with fascist architecture; many fascist works are in fact well-receivedi, e.g. the buildings of Giuseppe Terragni famously championed by Peter Eisenman. However, maybe the temporal association isn’t the greatest for a major Roman monument?
On the other hand, it may be the perfect association – after all, the altar is only there because Mussolini moved it. He aligned himself with Augustus, another man of power who had considerable influence on the Roman fabbrica della cittàii, who had the altar created in the first place specifically to celebrate the peace that war brought. Similarly, Italy’s engagement in World War II was in part influenced by imperial ambitions of the fascist regime, which sought to restore a “Roman Empire” in the Mediterranean region. Presumably, this would also bring peace, or at least respite from what is remembered as the most dramatic war in modern history. Whether Italian military ambitions were justified or not, it would be remiss to not address this important period of Italian history.
It is a little absurd to suggest that Meier had in mind the idea to generate controversy with a major landmark design as a sort of performance art masquerading as architecture in order to frame the entire debacle as commentary on Italians’ relationship with their past, but it is an interesting thing to consider. After all, there is room enough in the world for argument.
iAlthough always with an amusing rush to explain that “While this reviewer disagrees with fascist policy…”
iiAugustus is famously the emperor that “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”