A year ago Gennaro Farina, the architect responsible for overseeing the construction of the museum complex for the Ara Pacis, told Wanted in Rome that the pavilion would be ready by April 2004. The completion date for the structure, designed by American architect Richard Meier, has now been pushed back to spring 2005. Why the delay? And what can Romans expect to find in Piazza Augusto Imperatore when the project, commissioned in 1996 by the then city mayor Francesco Rutelli, is complete?
Farina explains that the hold-up is due to the last-minute request from the state archaeology superintendent, Adriano La Regina, for the pavilions foundations to be modified to avoid damaging possible archaeological remains in the underlying area. Consequently, the planned vertical supports, which would have penetrated deep into the ground, were abandoned in favour of a shallower horizontal platform. "The internal structure and fittings needed a substantial revision as a result," says Farina. This involved a "complex exchange" between Meiers studio in the United States and Italy, leading to long delays as well as to a 20 per cent increase in costs, which has been met by the city council.
However, a visit to Lungotevere in Augusta reveals that building is now well under way. Although the high, solid fence around the site and the dense scaffolding and heavy netting shroud the construction, it is still possible to get a feel for the simple linear structure that is taking shape on either side of the Augustan altar. The perspective from Largo S. Rocco or from under the porticoes on the opposite side of Piazza Augusto Imperatore also gives a sense of the future relation of the complex to its surroundings.
If all goes to plan, next year there will be a 120-seat auditorium, as well as facilities for visitors. There will be an exhibition space for the 600 or so marble fragments which were found during excavations at the original site of the Ara Pacis close to Piazza in Lucina, but were not included when it was reassembled on its present spot in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, the debate about the museum rumbles on. The project has been at the centre of controversy from the outset. Few people questioned the need to replace the former pavilion designed by Ballio Morpurgo in 1938 as temporary protection for the monument. However, some experts have strongly criticised Meiers design, especially in terms of its relation to the whole square with its two churches, S. Rocco and S. Girolamo dIllirici, the central mausoleum of Augustus and the fascist-era porticoes. Local architects in particular have never accepted the fact that Rutelli assigned the project to Meier directly rather than holding an international competition.
Most recently, the city council has come under attack for alleged "secrecy". An article in the Italian daily newspaper "Corriere della Sera" in mid-February accused the municipal authorities of failing to inform citizens properly about the project, taking them to task for not delivering the promised on-site information point, among other things.
Farina explains that the proposal for an information point ran aground due to a lack of funds. "The infobox is not included in the contract and so we are now looking for sponsorship in order to create it," he says. However, he points to the internet portal of the urban planning office of the city council (see below), where there are a number of recent articles on the project as well as a series of computer-generated images of the finished structure in its surroundings.
The plans for the museum and adjacent raised platform area (which will contain an obelisk and a long, low fountain) were first approved in 1998. Since then, the city council architect says no changes have been made to the architectural design. However, because of the lack of funds the project was subsequently divided into two parts, to be constructed separately. The first was the covered area over the Ara Pacis, to be followed by the adjacent platform.
In spring 2001, the old pavilion was demolished to make way for the new structure, and Farina rules out the possibility that construction can now be stopped. "The project has been contracted out and building is under way," he says emphatically. "Anyone who threatens to disrupt its progress doesnt know what they are talking about." The intention is now to carry out phase two according to the original plans, although Farina concedes that there have been problems with the relevant state authorities. Since the work has not been contracted out yet, the space is effectively up for grabs.
The future appearance of the whole square is also uncertain. The Ara Pacis project was originally meant to be part of a broader plan involving the reorganisation of the entire Piazza Augusto Imperatore area. To this end, the culture minister created a joint commission of city and state experts in 2003 to draw up a series of guidelines for an international design competition. However, Farina reports that the commission has effectively been dissolved. Although no official communication has been issued, its six members (three representing the city council and three the state) have not been convened for some time. However, he does not seem unduly concerned: "The city council will go ahead on its own," he says confidently. He envisages the launch of a competition to coincide with the completion of the museum complex next spring. "At that point, the pavilion will no longer be a variant in a future project," he explains. He does not appear to regard the state authorities as a potential stumbling block either: "The square and the mausoleum are both owned by the city, while protection of the mausoleum is the joint responsibility of the Rome authorities and the state. So although any future work would have to be agreed with the state authorities, there is nothing to stop the city council from holding a competition on its own." Of course, implementing the winning design could be a different matter altogether.
The Ara Pacis or peace altar was built by emperor Augustus between 13 and 9 BC on the site of present-day Palazzo Fiano in Piazza S. Lorenzo in Lucina, to celebrate the establishment of peace in the empire following his military victories in Gaul and Spain.
The planning office of the city council is at www.urbanistica.comune.roma.it; information on the Ara Pacis can be found by selecting the "Citt Storica" section on the drop-down menu on the top right of the page.