Ara Pacis, Richard Meier and Minding the Gap

Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Museum in Rome was controversial from its inception.

The museum was built to house just one artifact, the Ara Pacis, a finely carved sacrificial altar built in 13AD to commemorate the victories of Emperor Augustus in Spain and Gaul. Adding to its historical significance to Romans, the altar was fully restored by Mussolini in the late 1930s in his attempt to league himself with Rome’s ancient history and power.

From the very beginning of the project, Meier was caught in a complex web of politics, culture, history and nationalism. Open for a year now, the museum still continues to be a touchstone for certain radical types in a city (and a nation) that thrives on these ongoing controversies.

Here’s an overview from Steve Rose of the Guardian:

His new Ara Pacis Museum is the first significant structure to go up in Rome’s historic centre since Mussolini’s time, and as such it has attracted a great deal of attention, mostly negative. Its enemies have likened it variously to a petrol station, a pizzeria and a giant coffin. Vittorio Sgarbi, a celebrity art critic and former deputy culture minister, publicly set fire to a model of the building, and recently declared it “an indecent cesspit by a useless architect”. He has talked of forming an anti-Meier committee. The day before the museum’s opening last week, Gianni Alemanno, the rightwing candidate for Rome’s mayorship, pledged that he would tear the museum down and put it up somewhere in the suburbs, should he be elected.

(By the way, Alemanno did win the election and immediately called for the museum’s dismantling…)

Not to be outdone in slandering the museum, American painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel called the museum “an air-conditioning unit”.

The New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff declared the museum a “flop”:

Although Mr. Meier speaks eloquently about the architectural past, his buildings can be stubbornly oblivious to physical and cultural context… in Rome context is inescapable, and Mr. Meier’s building seems intent on shunning the city’s seductive charms.

That wasn’t what Meier had in mind by any means. According to a conversation between Meier and Rose:

Like most of Meier’s buildings, his solution could easily be dismissed as a big white box – but there is more to his big white boxes than meets the eye. The building is based on the scale and proportions of the surrounding ancient structures and the altar itself, Meier explains, and despite what his detractors say, he has given great thought to the museum’s context.

“It kind of embraces everything that’s around it,” he says, standing in the museum’s terraced corner entrance, which will eventually contain a pond fed by a wall of water. “I wanted to make it a public destination, a new piazza space in Rome that people can come to whether they’re going to the museum or not, and just sit in the sun – that’s what Romans like to do. It’s bringing life to what was not a vital or active area before.”

But there are others agree with me and find the building stunning.

I have had a long term love affair with great white spaces, even as they have come and gone, come and gone in architectural respectability. Meier’s white buildings (and for that matter, all of the other New York Five as well–Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk.) are so supremacistly gorgeous. I can’t resist just giving myself over to them. The Barcelona Museum with its massive glass wall. The Getty Center in LA. The Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana. These are amazing spaces to look at and be in.

Meier seems to have decided very early on in his career that there is no architectural problem that can’t be solved through some composition of simple geometric forms, executed in huge sheets of glass, blank surfaces, grids of enamelled steel panels – and no colours except white. Always white. (Rose)

Peter Davey in Architectural Review was effulgent in his praise of the Ara Pacis Museum:

Meier has succeeded triumphantly… In the entrance hall, the travertine to the left is flooded with luminance from rooflights, dramatically bringing out the patterns of the fossils and finally falling on a row of classical heads. Yet after the brightness of the Roman sky, the space seems almost sepulchral. A line of seven circular concrete columns finished in white waxed marble plaster runs in front of the white right-hand wall, creating a zone for reception desks and simultaneously drawing you forward to the main hall. Here, the Ara Pacis sits in the centre of a high luminous gallery with long glass walls overlooking the embankment to the west and the mausoleum on the other side. Supported on four concrete columns, the gridded roof modulates the sky’s light. Apparently, the ancient structure is flooded with natural daylight. In fact, the light is much reduced in intensity by greyish low-e glazing and external horizontal louvres of translucent glass. It becomes clear that the darkness of the entrance space is an ingenious tactic, for its relative gloom persuades your eyes that you are in ordinary daylight again when you get to the great hall, particularly when morning and evening sun seem to shine without being modified through the glass walls.

Both my daughter Kellin and I were amazed by how Meier was able to command light in the space. It is hard to capture in a photograph, but once inside, you just want to stay and bask.

The lower space is used for contemporary art exhibits. Taking yourself downward, into a much darker and less beguiling space to find the 21st century, seemed strangely apropos and fitting. Meier has succeeded in blending of old and new, a sort of “mind the gap” aesthetic. When it works, it leaves you just a little breathless.

6 Replies to “Ara Pacis, Richard Meier and Minding the Gap”

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    Well, not to be disagreeable, but. It’s very hard to like Meier from a photo, too. And. I haven’t physically been to the small museum he designed for the Ara Pacis. But I know the neighborhood well, having lived a 10 minute walk away for about three months of every year for almost 20 years.

    Often in that time I would walk to the Ara Pacis last thing at night. It was housed in a humble structure that no genius could have imagined, lit well enough, and there were cats — the feral cats of Rome that descended from Egyptian temple cats, cats that crazy ladies kept alive with tinned salmon, and brought blankets to at night, lining crates, stacking these crates into cat hotels for the bitter winter dark, returning before dawn to break it all up. Too much happens in a day in Rome, so that whatever you are doing the present moment tends to be pressed down and crowded out. It’s very good at the end of the day just to go to where you can think of empire and cats. Richard Meier has nothing — and I mean nothing — to offer such a place, and I am heartily sorry he was ever asked to set foot in it.

    That said, it’s unnecessary to criticize his building, but I will anyway. The Ara Pacis is — very sadly — cheek by jowl to the massively fascistic Piazza Augustea. No accident, as the writers above have remarked — Mussolini was tremendously identified in his own mind with Imperial Rome. The scale he preferred said as much — just that little bit outsize so that it made a bad fit with everything around it, a McMansion in a neighborhood of Cape Cods. For many years — as a helpless connoisseur of fascisti architecture, having seen literally all of it — I have suspected that Richard Meier took major cues from Mussolini’s sense of design. This was confirmed by a trip to the then-brand new Getty Museum in 1997. Oh, it’s just a feeling. It doesn’t mean I think he’s a bad architect, it just means I recognize in him a sensibility I don’t like. Sure, it could be me — but I’ll bet I’m not the only one.

    So, truly, for Meier to have designed a museum to house the Ara Pacis — well, it’s like hearing that a pair of socks that got separated in the 1940’s has been matched back up and rolled into a drawer. A kind of order has been created — the kind that happens when two people you just hate up and marry one another. No matter how bad it is, it’s really right for aesthetic reasons.

    As I said, I don’t like to be disagreeable. But between a Richard Meier box and a cat hotel under the moon, lovingly maintained by the gattinara population, there’s really nothing to choose.

  2. E, This is so valuable, a first hand account. There’s no arguing with the intimacy you have to the neighborhood, its tradition and the gattinara population. (Interestingly, so many of the articles I pulled up about the building and Meier referred to the feral cat population, so clearly it was an element in this story!) My positive experience of the building is outside the “what used to be there” context. And for us to disagree is so in keeping with Meierism–something about him and his work incites passionate opinions, often on opposite sides. Thank you for this.

  3. Elatia Harris says:

    Thanks! I glad I don’t sound like a curmudgeon. I don’t feel like one, either — but then probably few curmudgeons do.

    This reminds me of that conversation you can get into with opera fans about age 30. They are musical as much as or more than I was at their age, and they’ll spend their money on opera tickets that cost a multiple of the amount I used to part with. They’re deep into Deborah Voigt, Renee Fleming & Co. But I’m sad for them because they missed Nilsson, Norman, Te Kanawa, Caballe, Horne. People even ten year older than I am tell me it’s inexpressibly sad that I could never know Flagstad, Schwarzkopf and Callas except as recording artists. My point is not that things are getting worse while staying pretty damn good — and they may be, but that’s a separate issue — but that some peerless experiences are all tied up with our unique and irreplaceable youth; to be undone, at that age, by the best of what is happening is indeed a lasting joy to be jealously guarded. “Very heaven,” as Wordsworth said.

    Is architecture like this? Or, more correctly, is “place” like this? Oh, yeah — you can’t go home again. My gattinara is better than your phallocrat any day of the week, provided I knew her on her turf way back when. And I don’t like it when the architecture of the botched bris rises only to smash down the genius loci. This is not about preferring the Ara Pacis the way it was when I was 25, or even about thinking the new museum is a bad building — which I might or might not think. While recognizing Meier’s gifts, and being fully able to see good things in his projects, I tend away from him, because — to me — he exemplifies toxic 70’s head space, and I admire progressivism in architectural thinking and design, along with the much lighter hand it mandates. Get me Renzo Piano — because, hey: things must change — and I’ll deal very well with cat loss, even with the scattering of the gattinare, the last real acolytes the Ara Pacis is ever likely to have, the final heiresses of Empire, and a ravishing iteration of an impulse going back to Imperial times.

    People do have to like what’s happening in their time if they find it good — every place in Rome was once sacred to someone or something that got brushed aside for the new thing to happen. For Raphael to paint the Stanze Raffaelo in the Vatican, frescoes by Piero had first to be destroyed. I do wish someone then had bothered to think whether there was a better way, but it wasn’t the spirit of the age to conserve the infinitely precious provided it looked old-fashioned enough. So things had to be adjusted in favor of the more powerful genius, didn’t they? And 500 years later almost to the year, there are many people to ask: um, which of the two painters was that? Progress can be both brilliant and wrong, but loss is irretrievable.

  4. E, you have articulated issues that I have struggled with a lot, and done so with your usual incisive skill. Since I read your first comment, I have been thinking about the contextual issues that affect every art form I know and love. There is a side of me that longs for a decoupling of anything outside the bricks and mortar, the “Ding an sich” if you will. (This idealist longing also dovetails with my discomfort in talking analytically about my own work. Others are free to do so, but please don’t ask me to participate.) Experiencing the Meier building wasn’t baggaged with its complicated and loaded past. In 50 years the tour guides will talk about it in some particular manner, and who knows how they will consellate it at that point? That is of course if the succession of right wing mayors of Rome that come and go don’t succeed in their threats of tearing the place down…

  5. hello friends,
    i am the student of architecture from india. and i want know that what is program of architecture museum..? because i want to take this program for my thesis so can any one tell me…?

  6. slt moi je suis un etudiant en architecture
    je fiat des recherche suur le projet de richard meier le musee geté centre
    de tout que conserne se projet (le problamatique et ces concepts)
    j atand votre réponse

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