From the meters of hidden history beneath Rome’s streets to the centuries of flourished architecture rising up as high as the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, it is often hard to look beyond the Eternal City’s ancient eye candy to see its more recent adventures in contemporary architecture. But adding to Rome’s lengthy list of world-renowned architects – which includes antiquity’s Apollodorus and Renaissance and Baroque masters such as Bramante, Bernini and Borromini – is a group of living legends, whose contemporary projects are infusing the city with a charming juxtaposition of old and new.
And this is the decade for new in Rome. Despite the city’s prohibitive building laws -- ie before breaking ground the area must undergo an archaeological investigation and subsequent findings must be documented -- contemporary architecture is making its mark. And this new architectural renaissance, so to speak, is taking place within and outside the city’s ancient wall, drawing travellers to some of Rome’s less frequented neighbourhoods.
After 12 years of construction and bureaucratic mire, Zaha Hadid’s prizewinning 21st-century art museum, the MAXXI, opened its doors in May 2010. Described as a “field of architecture” for its flowing mass of concrete and glass, the MAXXI’s anthropomorphic shape cascades into the minimalist lines found elsewhere in the Flaminio district, located north of Rome’s historic city centre.
The residential neighbourhood, redeveloped in the 1930s and again in the late 1950s, is home to the Foro Italico stadium complex, initially built between 1928 and 1938 and then expanded for the 1960 summer Olympics, Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport, a 1960s space ship-like sports arena, and Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica, a music complex built at the turn of the millennium -- a combination of Fascist, 1960s and contemporary architecture that forces visitors to reconsider Rome’s cityscape.
Across town, if the architects and couple Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas keep to schedule, their Nuvola -- a glass conference centre that was designed to recall a floating cloud -- will open in 2013. Its location in the Esposizione Universale di Roma (more commonly known as EUR), a Fascist-era neighbourhood south of the historic centre, is a sly wink to an earlier generation’s insistence on a new Rome.
In the 1930s, Mussolini designated the area as a location for the 1942 World’s Fair, which would showcase a reinvented Rome and a resounding new empire through architectural celebration. World War II brought construction to a halt, but in the 1950s, EUR was revitalised into a busy commercial and residential centre with stark, travertine buildings, axially-planned street planning and looming columns. Today, this out-of-the-way district is full of theatrical charm and once-futuristic Fascist architecture, such as the Palazzo dei Congressi and the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, but with the addition of the Nuvola, the neighbourhood is expecting renewal yet again.
Exploration is just one of the many benefits to Rome’s new architectural endeavours. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACRO), located in the Nomentana district northeast of the city centre, has reinvigorated its collection with Odile Decq’s goth-punk transformation of the former Peroni beer factory’s interior. Best described as one of Rome’s most overlooked museums for its location in a nondescript palazzo in a quiet, residential neighbourhood, MACRO could almost pass unnoticed if not for the banners announcing its presence. But once you make the choice to enter, MACRO’s jarring juxtaposition of a large red prism in front of fathomless black walls is unforgettable.
Sometimes called a “pulsing heart” as its trapezoidal shape seems to move, Decq’s prism is an interactive art space for performances as well as exhibitions and has brought a transfusion of people to the less-trafficked neighbourhood. The museum is also home to a rotating collection of contemporary Italian and international artists, and working studio spaces.
If circulation throughout Rome is the underlying theme, then it is no wonder that two modern bridges were recently erected to help do just that. In May 2011, the ribbon was cut for Ponte della Musica, a pedestrian bridge in the Flaminio district that connects the Stadio Olimpico sports complex with the MAXXI and the Auditorium Parco della Musica.
Designed by Kit Powell-Williams and Buro Happold, the pedestrian bridge’s more-than-three-year construction was broadcast via webcam, documenting the literal and figurative highs and lows of building in Rome. The first contemporary bridge to be built since 1951, the Ponte della Musica’s sleek, white arches measure 130m between springing points and its wide promenade beckons a sunset walk.
South of the city centre, Francesco del Tosto’s Ponte dell’Ostiense bridge, began connecting the Ostiense and Garbatella neighbourhoods in June 2012 with a white steel skeleton that tapers into a wish-bone-like shape. Traditionally a bit worn around the edges, these neighbourhoods are potentially on the brink of reinvention.
Eataly, the made-in-Italy deluxe gourmet supermarket with branches in New York City and Japan, has taken residence at the Ostiense train station, a former air terminal for Rome’s Fiumicino Airport originally designed by Julio Lafuente for the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Eataly’s presence, along with the hub for Italo, Italy’s latest high-speed train, has pumped a bit of verve into the Ostiense district, and there is more to come. Citta dei Giovani, Rem Koolhaas’s university project, may open toward the end of 2013. Initially forecast as “the City of the Youth”, the architect’s project was first designed to be an expansive, cultural campus for students on the former grounds of the Mercati Generali, a Fascist-era market space. But over the past two years, the project’s purpose has transformed into a more commercial space, incorporating shops, bars and restaurants for the general public into the modern piazza-inspired campus.
Even Rome’s historic centre has been touched by contemporary architecture. In 2006, Richard Meier enclosed the Augustan-era Ara Pacis box-shaped temple from 9 AD in a modernist glass and travertine box called the Museo dell’Ara Pacis, which has paved the way for other architectural projects that protect the old while heralding the new. Projected to open in 2013, the Via del Corso’s Benetton megastore, housed in the 17th-century Unione Militare building, has been shelled out to make room for the Fuksas studio’s La Lanterna, a larger-than-life lantern made of glass and metal designed to snake through the palazzo’s four levels and rooftop.
Perhaps the least known, but sure to create a stir, is Pritzer prize winner Jean Nouvel’s upcoming museum/commercial centre for the avant-garde art Foundation Alda Fendi. Scheduled for a 2014 completion, little has been revealed about Nouvel’s upcoming renovation, in part because the site is already controversial. Taking over a former casa popolare -- Fascist-era low income housing -- Fendi is about to plant a contemporary art centre in the middle of Rome’s most ancient neighbourhood – the Velabro, at the foot of the Palatine hill and near the Roman Forum. Nouvel intends on restoring the decrepit palazzo building and giving its façade an architectural facelift that complements the area, while creating a dynamic interior space that will include art installations, boutiques, luxury apartments and artists’ studios -- a building that literally encapsulates Rome’s endearing juxtaposition of old and new.