Roman Identity

About two months ago, I met a Roman when I was at the top of Aventine Hill to sketch. He is a computer game designer and lives in the center of Rome. We talked about my study abroad program, the different life style and living habits among Italy, America, and China, and the architecture in Rome. He told me that he really liked the ancient buildings in the city and enjoys staying in Rome. Considering this semester’s studio project to redesign the Ara Pacis Museum, which was designed by Richard Meier and opened in 2006, I asked him about his thoughts on the only contemporary work of architecture in the center of Rome. I had learned the background about the designing processes of the museum, so I knew that there were lots of controversies behind the building ever since Meier was announced to be the designer of the museum.  Many Roman architects and critics hate the project and refused to visit it when it was built. I wanted to know the public’s opinion today — if they already have now accepted the modern architecture designed by a foreign architect or still feel uncomfortable about visiting the white dazzling box that looks like most Meier’s buildings. He told me that the new building was just okay, and he preferred the original that was built in the Fascist era and was demolished in 2001. He said that the old one was clean, simple and classic; indeed, it was better to house the Ara Pacis and to represent the history. I recognized that, unlike tourists who appreciate a building just because of the appearance, Romans emphasize the identity behind the building.

In antiquity, the Roman Empire was glorious and prosperous under its emperors’ governance and it dominated most parts of Europe. Nowadays, people still can imagine the prosperity of ancient Rome by looking at the Colosseum, Forum, and Pantheon at the center of the city. The ruins were preserved well, and not just for archeological reasons: more importantly, they convey the history that romans are really proud of. As one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, the ruins in Rome reflect Roman identity, which is the best way to introduce the city and the people to the world. After the imperial period, even though the development of architecture and urban planning was influenced significantly by the different periods, it always maintained a noticeably Roman identity.

In Antonella De Michelis’s article The garden suburb of the Garbatella, 1920-1929, she illustrates the characteristics of the neighborhood which fostered the sense of community and Roman identity during its different periods. The specific features of the different buildings in the area emphasize the unchanged identity; as a result, the Garbatella kept the essential styles and functions as the original plan, even though new types of building had been added due to the population’s expansion in the later years.  The author concludes that “although strikingly different, both styles clearly defined the Garbatella as a Roman neighborhood, and one sensitive to the heritage and social identity of its residents; an identity that still distinguishes and defines the Garbatella today”. [i] But what about contemporary architecture in Rome today? Thinking about the Ara Pacis Museum, MAXXI, Parco della Musica, and MACRO, are they representations or reflections of the modern Rome through their modern appearances and high-tech systems?  Can they be rebuilt in other cities without change?

In my opinion, because of the different architects’ specific concerns of the background of the architecture in Rome, the buildings have already embodied the identity of the city. Related to the history, culture, politics, context and other issues, any modern building in Rome couldn’t be replaced by others due to their links to Roman identity. Actually, even though each of these projects are very different, they all convey the city’s identity in a modern, experiential way. As reflections of Roman identity, I believe that more and more people will accept the modern buildings that describe the new life style in Rome.

[i] Michelis, Antonella De, The garden suburb of the Garbatella, 1920-1929: defining community and identity through planning in post-war Rome, Rome Study Center, University of California, 2009, p. 518.  

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