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Architects plan new face for ancient Rome
John Hooper
The Guardian

One critic has likened it to a giant petrol station. The heritage group Italia Nostra calls it an "eco-monster that should be torn down forthwith".
After a controversy that has endured for more than seven years, the mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, unveiled a concrete, glass and travertine structure by the Tiber yesterday, the work of the American architect Richard Meier.
Meier's building - the first to be erected in the heart of Rome since the 1930s - has been built to house the Ara Pacis, a 2,000-year-old altar commemorating the pacification of what is today France and Spain.
It is one in a series of architectural initiatives that will put a new face on a city that had long felt itself to be less in tune with modernity than eternity. As the planning - and, in many cases, the building - progresses, however, it is raising the question of whether this, of all cities, should be modernised.
In particular, what, if anything, should be done to Rome's centro storico historic centre? Where it begins and ends is a matter for debate, but its core, the ansa barocco, or baroque loop, within a bend in the Tiber, includes such internationally recognised landmarks as the Spanish Steps, the Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza Navona. Now it has Meier's gleaming, stark edifice too.
Much of the pressure to drag Rome into the 21st century has built up in the city hall over 12 years of centre-left administration. The energetic Mr Veltroni, a cinema and jazz-loving former communist, has staged free pop concerts at the Colosseum, launched several innovative welfare schemes, and has used technology to give a more contemporary feel to the city. Romans can now buy bus tickets by SMS, settle parking fines over the internet and go online at wireless "hotspots" in the august splendour of the Villa Borghese.
Many of the city's new buildings and innovative conversions, though, were commissioned under the mayor's predecessor, Francesco Rutelli. The Rome Auditorium, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 2002, has been credited with changing Roman attitudes to contemporary architecture.
Before this, traditionally conservative ideas about culture had been given a jolt. In 1997, three years before the opening of the Tate Modern, a former power station, the Centrale Montemartini, opened to the public with a collection of classical sculpture displayed alongside the restored machinery.
Romans were customarily as unimpressed by contemporary art as they were with contemporary architecture. Until recently their sole public collection of modern art stuttered to a halt in the early 20th century.
Under Mr Rutelli work began on turning a former brewery on the edge of the historic centre into the municipally funded contemporary art museum, Macro. The French architect Odile Decq has designed an extension.
At the same time, the central government is funding the construction of a national 21st century art museum, the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, or Maxxi. Designed by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, it is being built half a mile north of the old city walls.
On the east of the city the shabby old Tiburtina railway station is set for a 90m (61m) facelift. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has won an international competition to turn a market area opposite the Centrale Montemartini into a Covent Garden-style development. And the city's own star architect, Massimiliano Fuksas, has conceived a breathtaking convention centre for the south of the city, incorporating a large steel-and-Teflon "cloud", designed to hold an auditorium. The same district is to get Rome's first skyscraper, designed by another Italian architect, Franco Purini.
But developments inside the old city heart remain controversial. Giuseppe Pullara, who writes on architecture for the Corriere della Sera newspaper, has interviewed distinguished foreign architects, all of whom have argued that a place can be found in the centro storico for some projects. Mr Pullara believes that "the city has to live. It mustn't be allowed to become a museum of itself."
Many remain wary. Antonio Tajani, the leader of the centre-right Forza Italia group on the council, argues that, apart from limited refurbishment, "the historic centre ought to be kept as it is".
Mayor Veltroni agrees. "If you take the historic centre to mean its Renaissance core, then it ought not to be touched," he said. However, it is being touched. Mr Veltroni is promoting a contemporary development on the Capitoline hill, the oldest part of the city. Work has begun on a project that will see a glass dome put over a space to host one of the most celebrated statues of antiquity, that of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. This and the Ara Pacis were "exceptions", said the mayor.
Last night, however, he was due to announced an international competition for the redevelopment of the area around the Ara Pacis where several buildings were constructed during the fascist era - none of which is generally felt to be worth preserving. The mayor said he wanted to "see if some nice, big idea comes along".


http://www.guardian.co.uk/italy/story/0,12576,1577399,00.html


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