Most tourists in Rome aren’t – and with good reason – going to go much beyond the centre of the city. The list of seriously important sites is too long: the Pantheon, Trajan’s column, the Colosseum, Piazza Navona, and we have not yet crossed the river to the Vatican. However if you want to combine a bit of modern architecture with your ancient monuments, visit the Ara Pacis – Peace Altar – Museum, in an unloved 2006 building by Richard Meier, (the US architect of the Getty Centre) which the mayor of Rome has said he wants to tear down. The museum houses a 2000 year old altar to celebrate the return of Emperor Augustus to Rome. This was one of the first significant buildings to go up in Rome since Mussolini’s time and in typical Meier style is a rectangle of glass and white steel, with indirect sunlight flooding into the central space. He makes much use of the local material travertine, for the outside space and internal walls and floors. And in the basement of the building and running until the middle of June is an exhibition – Esposizione Universale Roma A new city from fascism to the 1960s – with film, new photography, old graphics and drawings, devoted to Mussolini’s huge project to create a new southern district of the city (now just known as EUR and about 30 minutes on the Rome metro system from the centre) from its inception in the 1930s to its post war period and its current refurbishment. Mussolini’s aim was to create a world fair to celebrate 20 years of fascism in Italy (and no doubt himself) and a new centre for the city of Rome designed in accordance with fascist ideology.
A war happened instead, but once that was over, and despite the now disgraced ideology, the authorities of Rome decided to go ahead and complete the unfinished fascist style buildings in the devastated site. They created, in a much earlier form than say London’s Docklands and Paris’ La Defense, a new out of town focus for the city and it also became one of the sites for the 1960 Rome Olympics with Pier Luigi Nervi’s sports stadium. If the exhibition at Ara Pacis wets your appetite to trek down to EUR, and it should, two of Italys’ most significant 20th century buildings are there to gawk at, one at each end of a long avenue.
Both of these buidings completed in 1942, The Palazzo dei Congressi and the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana are strong examples of the ultra pared down neo-classicism and rationalist architecture of the period. The first is designed by Adalberto Libera (the architect arguably behind the mysterious Casa Malaparte) who secured the project with his close links to the ruling party and ahead of Giusseppe Terragni, the usual architect of the fascists. It’s main hall is a 38 metre cube with a cross-vaulted dome and flanked by two colonnaded arcades, with a stunning stone paved piazza at the main entrance. At the time of Viewport’s visit and like the Palazzo at the other end of the street, it was undergoing some much needed refurbishment and was not open to the public, which would have revealed the top lit interior of the space and the spectacular out door roof top performance space. This was the home for the 1960s Olympics fencing competition, a tad more exciting than our O2 arena eh?
Down the street to the monument to Italian civilization echoing the design of the Colosseum, the inscription reads “A nation of poets of artists of heroes of saints of thinkers of scientists of navigators of travellers”. Each facade of the 50 m tall structure with its severe geometry clad in travertine, is a series of loggias 6 stories high by 9 arches wide, to reflect the letters of the name of Benito (6) Mussolini (9).
So irrespective of the politics of the architects and the architecture, these are immensely fine buildings as well as a spectacular example of rational city planning. And some new life is being brought to the neighbourhood with its yet to open New Congress Centre: La Nuvola (the Cloud) by Fuksas.