The long awaited rehousing of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome, by Richard Meier is a sensitive solution to the problems of a difficult site and a precious historical object. Although slightly heavily handled in parts the sense of durability is palpable. Of particular merit are the small public space with a fountain (already a popular meeting place), the evocative use of channels of water running along and over the travertine walls, and the steps and platforms which provide new context for the facades of the historic churches on the site, San Rocco and San Girolamo.
By all published accounts the interior is an exercise in clarity and light, despite the intrusive quality of the exterior’s glass louvres. However, visitors are at present denied this experience of the masterwork of Roman sculpture because of the misconceived exploitation of the building to celebrate the Roman fashion designer Valentino. A building which cost the City of Rome much in money, time and controversy but which represents an urban triumph is treated with no more care than a suburban outlet mall. Obstacles are created of the entry sequence, and the appreciation of the Ara Pacis itself is impeded by the serried ranks of mannequins. The terminating backdrop to the altar is even hung with mannequins staring blankly into mirrors, which gives the visitor some clue as to why this desecration has been tolerated.
The self-absorbed vanity of the Roman cultural elite always had a problem with an American architect building ‘within the walls’, and through Valentino’s exhibition (which would be improved by being located in a purpose designed space) they have the chance to insult all the ‘brutti stranieri’ who love Rome and contribute so much to its maintenance. The question needs to be asked – is their heritage safe in Roman hands?