ara pacis and architecture as political ideology

October 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

ImageThere may not be a more complicated building site in Rome than this one.  That’s the Ara Pacis, which was given in appreciation to the Emperor Augustus by the Roman Senate, then reconstructed and moved by Mussolini, and then restored and re-housed a few years ago by a liberal mayor in a new building by Richard Meier.  This was the subject of our history walk yesterday with the Academy’s Mellon Professor, Kim Bowes, and I think most of us are happily to the point where we’re just giving up on Fridays, because our minds are typically so bent by the end of these walks that it’s not much use trying to think through anything else the rest of the day.

OK, where to start.  Augustus, if you remember your Roman history, was the first Emperor, rising to power as Julius Caesar’s proclaimed heir after a power struggle and a minor civil war.  There was a complex bit of posturing that involved giving power back to the Roman Senate, which in turn acclaimed Augustus and, essentially, consented to him becoming Emperor.  Sweet deal.  While Augustus made overtures about restoring the republic, in fact he consolidated power rapidly, and demonstrated his power by building this:

ImageHis Mausoleum was built outside of the city proper–hard to imagine now, and it was expressly intended to establish him as a dynastic ruler.  Part of a city-wide building program, it’s one of the earliest examples of architecture as a really explicit statement of political power.  After his death, the Ara Pacis was placed nearby as a way of memorializing his reign–and of emphasizing the power of the Emperors as heirs to the tradition he’d begun.

So, 1900 years later, after the Ara Pacis had long been lost, one of Mussolini’s major archaeological projects was to find and recover it.  And teams did exactly that, reconstructing it and moving it to a prominent spot on the lungotevere, on axis with Augustus’ Mausoleum as part of a massive urban renewal project.  The neighborhood around the Mausoleum was razed, and the new open space was framed by new government buildings in the stripped classical style that’s now indelibly associated with Fascism (although, as my preservationist colleague pointed out, this style was also used on most of the era’s construction in Washington, D.C., too).

ImageYou can just make out the text at the bottom of the window–which says, essentially, “Built in Year 19 of the Fascist Era.”  As Prof. Bowes pointed out, both Augustus and Mussolini wanted to show not only that they controlled space, they also wanted to show that they controlled time.

ImageSo the restoration and re-sheltering of the Ara Pacis was, to say the least, loaded.  And the selection of a modernist American architect was as big a statement, in its own way, as the construction of the piazza, or even as the construction of the original.  This is one of the more blatantly fascist squares in Rome, and by commissioning a building whose aesthetics are less about traditional monumentality and more about transparency and access the clear message was a renunciation of the posturing and aggression that the fascist style represented.  And as critical as I can be of Meier’s work, this one is both subtle and surprisingly site-specific.  The elevation facing the Mausoleum is a stark box of white and glass–you can see the Ara Pacis inside–atop the Mussolini-era reconstruction of the res gestae, the posthumous “lives and deeds” of Augustus.  No clearer architectural statement possible–that reads as an artifact, and the glass pavilion on top couldn’t be more different in materials and tone from the monumental, imposing blocks on the other three sides of the Masuoleum.  Because of the drop across the site, though–the Lungotevere here is raised well above what had been the flood plain of the Campo Marzio–the museum reads as a one story glass pavilion that hovers above the riverfront boulevard, with travertine walls on either side making a material nod to tradition.  It’s maybe not my cup of tea, but it’s not bad, and it is pretty clever about where it sits in this long historic conversation about form, space, and power.

And just in case you were skeptical that architecture could be such a big deal, when Rome elected a right-wing mayor in 2008, the first thing he did was to propose tearing the (then brand-new) Meier building down, in part because he wasn’t exactly a fan of his predecessor’s taste in contemporary architecture (which also brought Rome Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI and Piano’s Parco della Musica–admittedly a mixed bag), but also, one imagines, because of the building’s tectonic and compositional rejection of its surroundings.

So, an amazing story, and another good morning of figuring this place out on a slightly different level.  And while I know it’s not exactly rivets, in my spare time I’m thinking about what the next Chicago project might be, and if there’s one story that has to underlie the nuts and bolts of the buildings, one thing that distinguished postwar Chicago architecture from the pre-war era, it would be precisely this link between civic and political power and the spaces and buildings that represented that.

Off to Sant’Ivo tomorrow morning.  No politics, just Borromini.

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