Saturday, March 08, 2003

Rome rises again
Amid sites layered with history, new projects are reenvisioning the city while carrying its long legacy forward. It has not been an easy journey

By Nicolai Ouroussoff, Times Staff Writer

Rome -- Few cities are as complacent about their architectural legacy as Rome. For decades, while other European capitals like Paris and Berlin continued to probe the edges of contemporary culture, Romans have mostly been content to contemplate the depth of their existing legacy, from the brute force of the Colosseum to the perfection of Michelangelo's dome.

So it may be a surprise to learn that Rome is regaining its creative momentum. Over the past several years, the city has seen the launch of a series of major building projects designed to update its cultural profile.

The first of these, a $157-million complex of three concert halls by celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano, was unveiled in December. Two major civic projects by American Modernist Richard Meier -- the roughly $10-million Ara Pacis museum and the $25-million Church of the Millennium -- are under construction. London architect Zaha Hadid has designed a new $130-million Center for Contemporary Art; and Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas is working on a new convention center. Both are scheduled to begin construction this spring.

To some, the flurry of architectural activity is threatening to unsettle a city whose aesthetic identity has remained largely unchanged since the massive building programs of Fascist Rome -- an era that produced some of the city's most significant Modernist structures. Politicians blast such contemporary architecture as a kind of aesthetic globalism that threatens to erode the city's unique character. When Meier unveiled his design for the Ara Pacis museum last spring, a group of local architecture students attacked it as evidence of the "Los Angelization of Rome."

What is undeniable is that these large-scale civic projects have put Rome at the center of architectural debate for the first time in decades. And it may be that the city has finally found a way to cope with the burden of its history. Ranging from the atavistic to the brazenly contemporary, these works drive the culture forward while paying respect to the old.

"If you turn over any stone in Rome, you find ancient remains," said Francesco dal Co, editor of Architettura et Cronica, one of Italy's leading architectural journals. "But this is also the country that has the most mobile phones in Europe. So you cannot live in the past; we must always continue to develop our civilization. But of course, when humans must use their brains, it is always a risk."


The boom in civic construction projects was launched in the mid-1990s by then-Mayor Francesco Rutelli. Much of the initial effort was focused on restoring the famous landmarks that make up the city's historic core, from the Baroque fountains of Bernini to such major tourist attractions as the Villa Borghese. By comparison, most of the new construction was sited along the city's periphery, in areas devoid of significant monuments.

Perhaps the most anticipated of these projects is Piano's auditorium, a vast "Music Park" that includes a 3,000-seat outdoor amphitheater and three concert halls ranging in size from 750 to 2,800 seats. The National Academy of Santa Cecilia orchestra had been without a permanent home since Mussolini ordered the demolition of the original Art Deco-style hall in 1936. (The dictator was on a crusade to uncover the tomb of Emperor Augustus, which was never found.)

Piano's project is set near the Flaminio district, several miles north of the city's historic center. Until recently, the area was known more for its prostitutes and dilapidated parks than its architecture. The abandoned concrete shell of Pier Luigi Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport, built for the 1960 Olympic Games, rises in the near distance. Rows of cheap Modernist housing blocks are visible just beyond it; a freeway loops around the back of the site.

Soon after construction began, however, workers uncovered the foundation of a small 6th century villa, and Piano was forced to reconfigure his design. The result is a delicate blend of ancient and

modern forms. The travertine

amphitheater -- which anchors the complex -- is an obvious reference to Roman precedents. The concert halls loom above this central space on three sides, their enormous scarab-like forms -- clad entirely in lead -- evoking gigantic mechanized beetles. Piano nestled the villa between the two biggest halls, and its worn moss-covered walls act as an acknowledgment of the ravages of time.

In effect, the design suggests that it is possible to retain fragments of historical memory even while accepting the accelerating pace of modern

life. It is a notion that seeks to embrace the entire arc of human history.

"A new building has a great handicap," Piano explained during an interview at his Genoa office, a greenhouse-like structure of wood and glass overlooking the Mediterranean. "It is an effort to fill a black hole in the fabric of the city. But cities have a very slow metabolism. And the acceptance of new architecture takes time."

Set for construction a mile away, in a district dominated by 1930s-era army barracks, Hadid's design for a new Center for Contemporary Art makes fewer concessions to the past.

The museum is conceived as a series of interweaving strands, its concrete forms slicing through the existing masonry buildings. At ground level, these strands gently peel apart to make room for a narrow pedestrian street that leads into the main lobby. Above, galleries twist off in various directions, offering views of the surrounding city.

The precedents for Hadid's work are the radical visions of early Modernism -- the machine-inspired aesthetic of the Italian Futurists, or the dynamic structures of Soviet Constructivism. Such movements sought to create an aesthetic capable of reflecting the spirit of a revolutionary age -- one pointed relentlessly toward the future. Here, the museum's sensuous, fragmented forms evoke a city in perpetual motion, an urban landscape animated by unconscious desires.

Yet the design is not oblivious to its context. The museum buildings wrap around the remaining barracks, as if to envelop them in a new reality. The internal street is aligned to link a residential neighborhood and public transportation to Flaminio's parks to the south.

As such, Hadid's project represents another part of Rome's heritage. It is the Rome in which Fascist order and Baroque sensuality naturally rub shoulders. Unlike Piano, Hadid does not seek to smooth over such conflicts; she revels in them. To Hadid, it is the collision between such aesthetic values that gives the city its cultural depth.

That sense of tension -- between a world of military precision and one of unconscious desires -- can be gleaned more fully in Fuksas' convention center design.

The project will rise within the symbolic heart of Fascist Rome -- an enclave of civic buildings built on the remote outskirts of the city for the 1942 Exposizione Universale di Roma. The exposition was conceived as a showcase for Fascism's architectural achievements. Repetitive rows of granite columns that marked Adalberto Libera's Palazzo dei Congressi, for example, were conceived as an expression of a modernity rooted in the grandeur of Italy's past. The stripped-down classicism of such buildings, blown up to a monumental scale, signaled Fascism's conformist values and Imperial pretensions.

But the wide boulevards and unadorned plazas of the exposition site are also heir to earlier urban visions: Haussmann's boulevards in Paris, for example, or Pierre Charles L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C. -- anywhere, in fact, where the desire for universal order trumps the individual human spirit.

"It was during Fascism that the country was made Modern," Fuksas said. "The Fascists built modern train stations, schools, infrastructure. So EUR is the most important landmark of modern Rome. It deals with the context of Fascism, but also of modernity."


That such a setting will be transformed into a rest stop for the new global capitalists may be fitting. "Fascism," Mussolini once said, "is the merger of state and corporate power."

Fuksas' design does not deny the origins of this landscape; to some degree, he preserves it. The convention center's looming exterior, for example, echoes the scale of the surrounding buildings. An imposing grand stair will link an outdoor plaza to the building's cavernous interior. But the project's delicate façades, which will be clad entirely in glass, have an ephemeral quality that speaks of impermanence -- not power. Inside, the cloudlike form of the main meeting hall floats within this towering

glass cube. Suspended from above by steel braces, the hall's translucent skin evokes a sensual fantasy trapped within a rational universe.

"To me, the battle is not between Rationalism and Anti-Rationalism," Fuksas said. "You cannot live with the heart and not the head. Instead, I want always to combine the two elements. The simple box is like Modernism. But inside is a contradiction -- it is more near to Borromini, to the Baroque. The cloud has no form, it is closer to a dream."

Not every architect seeks to imbue his or her work with polemical meaning. Richard Meier's design for the Ara Pacis museum virtually ignores the loaded history of its site.

The museum -- which will house a 1st century Augustan altar -- will replace a somewhat banal, 1930s-era glass and travertine shed designed by Vittorio Morpurgo, a favorite of the Fascist regime.

Meier's design is sleeker than Morpurgo's. Its glass-and-steel exterior -- capped by a low, flat roof -- will extend along the edge of the Tiber River like an elegant jewel box. A fountain will mark one end of the site, which slopes upward to provide access to the river. The museum's other side will be enclosed behind an existing travertine wall that Mussolini had engraved with Augustus' will.

The scheme was originally scheduled for completion in 2000. But the project was delayed after Italy's flamboyant former deputy of culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, attacked the project as an affront to the city's heritage.

Meier countered that Morpurgo's design was second-rate. "Sgarbi was vehemently against Modern architecture," Meier said. "He thought everything in Italy should be built in a classical manner."

In fact, Meier's design may be too respectful of its predecessor. The architect has never had much interest in producing works of social criticism. Here, his goal was simply to improve on an existing building.

"There are many similarities between Meier's building and Morpurgo's," says Silvana Rizzo, who is in charge of the various Imperial Forum projects. "Which is understandable. Fascism is also part of history now."

Meier has had more success in a less loaded context. About 15 miles south of the Ara Pacis, he is completing a new church amid a wilderness of dreary 1960s-era apartment complexes at the city's edge. The church design is a composition of remarkable geometric purity. Along one side, its main worship space is framed by three overlapping curved walls. The walls' white, shell-like forms rise, creating an image of piercing beauty against the sky.

The ragged site, by comparison, evokes the denatured landscapes of Italy's postwar slums.

Housing blocks extend endlessly into the distance, their cluttered balconies and peeling paint evocative symbols of modern alienation.

In this context, Meier's design is a vision of enduring hope. The scene that comes to mind is the opening of Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita": a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus drifting over an urban wasteland -- a small miracle in a sea of communal isolation.


"A masterpiece must be burned with the corpse of its author," Italian Futurist Fillipo Tomaso Marinetti wrote nearly a century ago. "Against the conception of the immortal and imperishable we set up the art of the becoming, the perishable, the transitory and the expendable."

The Rome that is emerging today reveals none of that scorn for the past. The city's planners are not trading in ancient glories for new ones. Mostly, they see the task of contemporary architecture as one of repairing the failures of the 20th century -- Piano's "urban black holes," for example, or the soulless modern suburbs where the majority of Rome's citizens actually live.

But the real lesson of Rome is that cherishing a city's historic fabric does not require repressing the creative imagination. On the contrary, all great cities grow incrementally. It is the accumulation of these cultural strata that give them their meaning. Ultimately, each age has a responsibility to imprint its own values on that legacy.

Architects like Piano, Hadid, Fuksas and Meier clearly understand this. Their work does not slavishly mimic the past. Instead, it is shaped by a more nuanced reading of immediate context. If it is influenced by ancient history, it is through the desire to live up to the highest standards set by earlier civilizations.

"To build in a place where you have Bramante, Michelangelo, Rafaelo, Peruzzi, Giulio Romano, this is a great challenge," says Dal Co. "But there is also a beautiful expression of Isaiah Berlin -- that the past is something that only lives when we inject our own blood into its exhausted veins."

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic.


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