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.  

The machines and the gods

“The machines and the gods”? I have never considered that these two things could be related, but the Centrale Montemartini, the second exhibition centre of the Capitoline Museums, makes it possible. Actually, “The machines and the gods” is the title of the museum’s permanent exhibition. As the first public electricity plant in Rome, the Giovanni Montemartini Thermoelectric Centre was re-imagined into the museum that we see today. From the start when it opened in 1912 until it was closed in 1963, the electric installation produced electricity for much of the city. During the 1997 renovations of the Museo Capitolini, many ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were moved to Rome’s oldest industrial area for temporary exhibit. The dramatic contrast between the delicate art pieces and the old industrial productions makes the museum and exhibit unique and provides a very special atmosphere. The success of the new exhibit made it become a permanent museum exhibition space to house the classical arts.

The main exhibition space is divided into two different rooms – motor room and boiler room. In the motor room, the elegant and precious art works are located in a spacious hall, which is defined by two large motors. At the end of the hall, there is the pediment of a Roman temple. Actually, it is only several pieces of the pediment, but they are resembled in an unusual way by using industrial equipment. In the boiler room, the huge, black boiler that rises from floor to ceiling becomes the backdrop for a number of white historical artifacts.  Seeing the monumental Greek and Roman sculptures set against the vast turbines, engines, and metal walkways, the stark contrast not only illustrates the differences between ancient Rome and today, but also reflects the different identities of the city. At the same time, the contrast makes the traditional gap between technology and art a blur, so that it is hard for visitors to tell which is which. The unbelievable juxtaposition balances the machines and the artifacts visually. I believe that many people will not only appreciate the ancient sculptures, but that they will also probably spend a lot of time looking at the equipment, installations, craft objects and other tools in the museum. Therefore, the industrial building itself somehow becomes the exhibit.

The museum represents the power of different ages through the histories behind the sculptures and machines. If the art pieces express the empire’s power, the electrical plants and their machines will reflect the fascist power. As the first power plant, electricity emphasized the development of the technology and the power of the government in the fascist era. The unique contrast and incredible balance of the white marble sculptures and the old industrial building remind of what I have read in Adam T. Smith’s book The Political Landscape. In order to stress the different expressions of political power, he compares The death pit of Queen Puabi of Ur that was reconstructed by A. Forestier to Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair. He emphasizes that “landscape must be understood not simply as space or place but as a synthesis of spatiality and temporality“.[i] Enclosing the Greek and Rome sculptures in the fascist power plant depicts the power of the fascist government. The powerful and ruling machines redefine the historical and monumental pieces and create a different political atmosphere. Moreover, the link between the machines and sculptures conveys the change of power from one period to another.

It doesn’t matter that the museum established and maintained political power successfully or not; it is a complex and contradictory place that is worth visiting. The unique interpretation of the different art works and industrial equipment endows the museum a different meaning which makes the museum itself into art.

[i] Smith, Adam T., The Political Landscape, University of California Press, p. 10.

Ruins in Rome

The first time that I explored the center of Rome, it seemed so strange that I couldn’t find any new or modern buildings that were built in twenty first century. Then I looked carefully at a map and realized just how antiquated the city is. What I learned from the map was that the whole city just looks like a gigantic, disorganized outdoor museum. The reason that I say it is disorganized is that it is full of the various periods of history, structures from ancient Rome to Baroque, then to the fascist era in a seemingly random order. You never know what you will see at the next corner when you walk along a street. It is probably a fascinating experience for tourists from all over the world to visit this historical city; however, what are these ruins’ authentic meaning for the public and the city itself?1

Have you thought that if the Colosseum was preserved perfectly instead of the partial ruin we have today, or the Forum was still as it was originally, how flat and monotonous the city would be? Maybe someone will argue that my opinion is extremely radical, but I have to say that the reason why such ruins are so attractive to numerous sightseers is that they are the “palimpsest of multiple historical events and representations”.[i] The dramatic and turbulent history behind the ruins endows them with eternal vitality, which requires us to recall the past and consider the alternative future. Standing at a ruin, you needn’t ask any question; instead, it will show you the truest answer by itself. 2The worn columns, the battered fragments, and the obsolete details present the age of the architecture authentically and intense the power of the authority in different times. Therefore, as reflection and representation, ruins provide people with more opportunities to deliberate the age, the relationship between the history and modernity, and the relationship between the ruins and people. It doesn’t matter that different people’s answers are varied. Even though ruins reflect some historical events objectively, different people always treat them in different ways. Therefore, as vehicles, ruins bring the imagination to the public to consider the history and themselves.

The imaginary function probably will explain why people need ruins and consider it imperative to keep them by preserving and restoring. In the article Nostalgia for Ruins, the author Huyssen concludes it as “nostalgic desire”. “The architectural ruin is an example of the indissoluble combination of spatial and temporal desires that trigger nostalgia”.[ii]  People protect ruins because they can reflect history and bring alternative futures. The public uses them as a means to articulate or emphasize self-identity and ideology. Moreover, that’s why even today people still really appreciate the amazing historical ruins of Rome and celebrate it.3

However, the other problem needs to be mentioned: how can ruins remain authentic if they are reconstructed? If a ruin’s decay was interrupted by some artificial factors, how can we hold it up as authentic? In my opinion, ruins cannot be rebuilt, because then something critical is lost – what ancient Romans called a genius loci. Ruins reflect the truth of historical events to the public; in return, the public will acquire more information about the city and themselves objectively. Importantly, ruins not only respond to the different periods but also express some strong emotions to represent the metaphorical senses. Therefore, the authentic nature of ruins is the source of our sublime attraction to ruins. I believe that the best way to preserve ruins is to effectively quarantine them from human interaction, to inspire people’s imagination toward the history and future.

[i] Huyssen, Andreas, Nostalgia for Ruins, The MIT Press, 2006, p. 8

[ii] Ibid. p. 7

Stockholm Metro Station — An amazing underground world

I’m pretty sure everyone had a fabulous spring break. Since we are all in Europe, it is really convenient for all of us to travel to other European countries during the break. I really enjoyed sharing our experiences about the spring break last week, and after that, I decided to write about the most exciting and shocking part of  Stockholm.3

Like many tourists, I went to most of popular attractions in Stockholm, such as the town hall, the old town, and the royal palace. I have to say they were all amazing. However, if you preferred to walk around by taking a bus, you probably would miss the world’s longest art gallery which was designed and painted by more than 150 artists. It is really easy to appreciate the incredible art exhibition – one metro ticket (about 4 euros), and then you will feel free to enjoy the wonderful underground trip. Following the sign and going down the escalator, it is a way to enter the colorful and dramatic cave-like art space. 5It is hard to tell how Swedish designers and engineers got the inspiration to create the underground system in such a unique and creative way, but the unforgettable spaces that are decorated with paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and engravings show that they made a huge contribution to the development of art and design in Sweden. The massive natural rock face was designed to cover the walls and ceilings that support the station, which makes the underground space seem to be really mysterious. Walking into it, you might forget you are waiting on a train and that you need to go somewhere else.

The different metro stations have different themes, and there are no two stations that look  alike. Perhaps it will take you at least half of a day to take the subway and get off at every station so you can look at the diverse spaces and find as many elaborate details as possible. I was really excited to walk into the different stations; I appreciated the art works and took some pictures. Most stations I explored looked like giant caves and were painted different colors.2 1Some stations show natural or environmental themes, which are helpful to relieve people’s stress of a busy day. Some stations look historical or regional to educate people about Swedish history, culture, and customs. Others were decorated in remarkably modern or even futuristic ways to present some movie scenes, different emotions, and daily life. There are more than 90 stations, which were designed in different styles, so I promise you will not feel bored if you keep checking the different stations before you are exhausted.

4To be honest, the awesome metro station is definitely the most interesting exhibition I have ever visited. I really hope I can go back some day to look at the others I did not have time to visit. Don’t hesitate to search “Stockholm metro station” online and prepare to be shocked by the fascinating world!

MAXXI–you will get lost

1MAXXI, the national museum of the 21st century arts designed by Zaha Hadid, is definitely one of the most exciting buildings for architecture students in Rome.

The interior spaces are constituted of curved white concrete walls, suspended black stairs, and dramatic open ceilings. Even if you have a map and a really good sense of direction, you will probably end up confused and lost in the building. 2MAXXI, which is not static and is unlike any other building in Rome,  conveys two general concepts — flexibility and fluidity. When you visit the museum, you will feel the flow of the interior space which is represented by the fluid skylights and the suspended stairs. The different line and surface elements interact with each other to make up several multi-directional zones, which fulfill both visual impact and functional requirement. The thin concrete beams on the ceiling emphasize the visual interchange between one exhibition to another; at the same time, they are associated with the lighting system which includes natural and artificial lighting.4 In addition, the interior spaces are filled with dramatic multi-layered areas.3 Once you enter the building, you definitely will be attracted by the oblique vertical circulation elements that connect different levels and create a continuous composite space. The changeable spatial experiences provide a creative opportunity for visitors to appreciate not only the art work but the building itself. In the different exhibition halls, visitors are always fascinated with exploring the interesting spaces. Zaha Hadid is good at breaking traditional spatial rules to redefine different spaces by using novel structure and technology. The innovation of MAXXI makes a huge contribution to the historical city. It reflects a new perspective of social life with playful invention.


Along with MAXXI, the MACRO museum (Museo di Arte Contemporanea di Roma), which is designed by a female architect, Odile Decq, is one of the two contemporary art museums in the center of Rome. Located in Nomentano district, the new museum is redesigned from a 19th-century Peroni brewery. IMG_5258When you walk along the street, you will notice a glass box above a really old industrial building. The architect designs several galleries, a café, a bookshop, a roof terrace and a fascinating auditorium based on the traditional building’s structure. Under the raised glass corner, visitors can enter the museum through a small courtyard. IMG_5166Standing at the lobby, people will be fascinated by a bright red explosive auditorium inserted at the center of the atrium and a series of suspended zigzag walkways designed for connecting different corners. As the heart of the building, the dramatic form of the auditorium creates a kinetic quality to the entire space. At the same time, above the dramatic volume, there is a complicated exposure roof structure system. Daylight can go into the building through the inclined panel of glass. Now, the roof is painted, so the whole interior spaces will be decorated by colorful changing shadows during daytime. Walking though the floating walkways is absolutely the most excited part of the whole building. IMG_5211You can go to the different galleries to appreciate art works and catch the different views of the auditorium. You probably will find a huge black door at the end of the walkway, which is actually the door of the main exhibition. Behind the door, you will notice a stair that is connected to a mystical dead-end. My suggestion is that you should go up the stair and check the black corner without any hesitation. A big surprise is waiting for you. Though the other stair, you will arrive at the beautiful roof terrace, which establishes a strong connection to the city of Rome. The sculptural form of the roof provides people with different spatial experiences.IMG_5078

Since Decq designed the extraordinary fascinating building, people always compare the MACOR to MAXXI that is also designed by a female architect, Zaha Hadid. Without orthogonal element, they both focus on unusual form to create the different and modern buildings for the historical city. I can’t tell which one is better since they all did really great works. Come to visit MACOR and tell me which one you prefer.


Address: via Nizza 138 — 00198 Roma

Hours: 11:00 to 19:00 from Tuesday to Sunday

11:00 to 22:00 on Saturday

Price: € 12,50

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.


“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.


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.