September 5, 2005

A modern monument finally rises in ancient Rome

By Shasta Darlington

ROME (Reuters) - The first modern building to be erected in
Rome's ancient historic center in decades will be unveiled this
month despite repeated attempts to block the minimalist design
by famed American architect Richard Meier.

Rome will cut the ribbon on the Ara Pacis museum on
September 23, five years after works began on the new structure
to contain the Altar of Peace built by Augustus in the 1st
century BC to celebrate his war victories.

Meier and the left-wing administration which governs the
city of Rome will no doubt celebrate their own victories --
over traditionalists opposed to the stark glass building and
over critics in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right

"It's a very important moment. It's the end of a long and
tiring road that has had to overcome huge polemic, but we've
done it," said Roberto Morassut, Rome's chief of urban

The ceremony coincides with Augustus' birthday. As of
September 23, the monument and part of the museum will be open
for guided tours once a week, although the entire complex will
only be completed next April.

Controversy has plagued the project since Meier won a
contract in 1995 to create a transparent rectangle to cover the
ancient monument, which sits on the banks of the Tiber River
near Augustus' mausoleum.

It was commissioned to replace a crumbling modernist
building erected under former wartime dictator Benito

Meier may be an internationally renowned architect who
designed, among other buildings, the Getty museum in Los
Angeles, but in the Italian capital he was an outsider whose
creations would have to sit alongside the likes of

Critics compared Meier's design to a petrol station and
complained of the "Los Angelesation" of Rome.

"As there hasn't been any new modern architecture built in
the historic center of Rome since Mussolini's time I think the
Ara Pacis Museum became a lightening rod for issues that were
not directly related to the building itself," Meier told
Reuters ahead of the inauguration.

The plans were nearly derailed after Berlusconi came into
power in 2001. Vittorio Sgarbi, a junior minister with a high
profile and a sharp tongue, demanded it be halted. Instead
Sgarbi was eventually sacked due to an internal feud.

"The Ara Pacis is not the first modern architecture project
in Rome, but it's certainly the one that has incited the most
debate," Morassut said.

Noted architects have erected bold buildings outside the
heart of the city and even Meier met with no resistance to a
church made of three soaring white vertical panels that he
recently built in the dreary suburbs of Italy's capital.

Supporters say the Ara Pacis museum is a welcome breath of
fresh air in a city that is so intent on protecting its
multi-layered artistic heritage that modern architecture has
been squeezed out of its historic center.

"It is a very significant project for the city that will
demonstrate Rome's ability to move into the 21st century so
people should care deeply about it," Meier said.