Thursday, 28 June 2007

Piazza Augusto Imperatore, Rome

The project to rehouse the Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace) has been one of the most controversial projects in the redesign of the public realm in Italy during the last decade. The precinct in which it sits, the Piazza Augusto Imperatore was created in the 1930s to reveal the massive remains of the Mausoleum of Augustus, and unify them with the repositioned Ara Pacis which had originally been situated in relation to the Augustan sundial and had been excavated in the nineteenth century. The transformation of the site had begun with the creation of the Tiber embankments and the Ponte Cavour after the risorgimento and the demolition of the baroque steps of the Ripetta, an elaborate piece of urban planning which served as the uppermost port on the river. This topographical fact had been the reason the Mausoleum was built here since stone, including its original adornments of Egyptian obelisks, could be transported by boat and unloaded at this point. The continued use of the port gave the area strategic importance and vitality through the intervening centuries, but all signs of this history were swept away with the exception of the two renaissance churches, San Girolamo degli Illirici and San Rocco, which were spared demolition and integrated into the new monumental precinct surrounding the excavated mausoleum on three sides, the fourth side towards the river being left open for a substantial pavilion housing the reconstructed Ara Pacis, sitting on a base on which was inscribed Augustus’s testimony of his achievements, the res gestae. The original pavilion designed by Vittorio Ballio-Morpurgo was considered no longer fit for purpose and was demolished to allow construction of a new museum with extended facilities which would also provide a more transparent relationship with the existing excavated mausoleum. The American architect Richard Meier was commissioned in 1996 and the new structure opened in 2006. The Ara Pacis and the res gestae were preserved and protected in their original position throughout the lengthy construction process, delayed by legal disputes and government interference. Meier’s project was to create a stronger definition to the square through the creation of a wall stretched from the new pavilion and framing the facade to San Rocco, helping to lessen the intrusive nature of the roadway along the embankment. The enclosure of the altar within its glazed hall seeks to reinforce the relationship between the sculptural decoration of the enclosing sides which refers to the family myths of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the view of the Mausoleum of Augustus. That relationship is effectively conditioned by the spatial organisation set up in the 1930s, so although the new structure is much larger than the previous arrangement elements are deliberately related to the existing state. The broad flight of steps which approaches the entrance to the new museum are related to the space between the two churches and the boundary line of the Via di Ripetta, a significant and historic view to the obelisk of Piazza del Popolo. In short the project is somewhat conservative as a work of urbanism, treating an unsatisfactory situation with some care to complete the fascist project for the space. The opportunity has perhaps been lost which would have given a significant new space to the city, and a significant monument within it given new status. Invention has been exhausted in the creativity with which the conventional language of monumental architecture could form a space, although the respect the new intervention shows to the various histories of the site supports the memorial function of the piazza.

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