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Richard Meier: Arapacis – Geometry and light

Modern Rome

Richard Meier: Arapacis – Geometry and light


Light and geometry are the dominant features of this building located in the centre of the Eternal City. Contrary to what one might think, the American architect, despite being used to designing complex museum halls, decides on a large tetrastyle room, therefore standing on four columns, which makes the Ara Pacis resemble a Roman vestibule. The great hall is literally dominated by beams of light provided by some large windows, while the altar celebrating Augustus is placed in the centre of the room. Meier, who has always pursued the idea of a continuous flow between the interior of a building and its exterior, reaches the goal placing floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides of the room. The visitor is literally flooded with winter light, while being able to enjoy the view of the long Tiber and plane trees from any point in the room through transparencies. Likewise, passers-by from the street are able to see the interior of the museum. Bystanders from both sides can enjoy a visual experience, a unique condition since visitors are usually either outside or inside a museum. The structure flows into a square in front of its entrance, or rather, it can also be accessed from the square, in a perspective of exchange. In this square there is a water feature, which flows from a travertine wall and falls into a fountain, as it usually happens in the “game and wonder” architecture. Travertine is one of the materials of choice for many historical buildings in Rome, proof that Richard Meier wanted to honour the city where he studied as a young man and where he found inspiration in the works of Borromini and Bernini. In its simplicity, the Ara Pacis is able to capture the attention at first sight with its light features, like a spot surrounded by a plethora of orange buildings in the city centre, encouraging people to visit or at least to hang around its spaces. This happens because of its features of high utility also from outside, the transparency of the windows, the seats in the small square in front of the entrance. Over the years, it has become a true meeting point. The Capitoline administration organises many exhibitions in the museum spaces, including “Genesis”, the exhibition event of the photographer Sebastiao Salgado. Innovations, as we know, arouse amazement and sometimes conflicting feelings. The new Ara Pacis Augustea museum, after a troubled beginning, on account of those who would have preferred it in its original location, has finally been fully accepted and has become one of the busiest meeting points. The geometrical motifs and the enveloping nature of the light are able to make a simple visit in the museum quite pleasant. The early lessons great architect Richard Meier took in the Eternal City, showed their first results in contemporary architecture buildings, in a city where new projects struggle to come to light.
Brief historical notes on the Ara Pacis: the building was designed to commemorate the great peace after the Gallic and Spanish campaigns. The monument was found in the Fiano Palace during excavations started in the 16th century and carried out until the systematic campaigns between 1937 and 1938. It consists of a rectangular enclosure on a podium, with two doors on the long sides. Embossed decorations are carved on the whole surface of the enclosure. On the outside, above the acanthus spirals lower register, and on the long sides beside the doors, there are the Lupercal and Eve sacrificing to the Penates and, on the opposite front, Peace or Tellus and the goddess Rome. On the short sides there is the procession for the vow of the altar. The most important scene is the one on the side, and it features members of the imperial family (Augustus, Julia, Tiberius, Agrippa).

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