Italy's Architectural Wonders

Richard Meier's new museum in Rome is leading the trend of the modern in a country steeped in history

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Italy has always been a top destination for anyone wanting to see wonders of architecture. It's home to innovative structures, built during ancient times, whose design still inspires awe: the Pantheon's elegant dome with its great oculus, for example, or the massive Colosseum -- the prototype for all sports stadia today.

Now, fans of contemporary architecture will notice that some of the world's most high-profile architects, from London's Zaha Hadid to Dutch design powerhouse Rem Koolhaas, are increasingly turning their sights to Italy. On April 21, 2006, a new museum will open in central Rome, designed by major American architect -- Richard Meier, best known for his sleek, crowd-drawing design for the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Meier's soon-to-debut Ara Pacis Museum is the first modern building to pop up in the Eternal City's historic district since the Mussolini years.

With banks of windows and a clean, boxy silhouette, the Ara Pacis Museum is home to the ancient Altar of Peace, which Emperor Caesar Augustus had built in 9 B.C. to commemorate Rome's war victories. As the modernist home for a historic relic, the Meier building is an intriguing symbol of the confluence of past and present that has begun to characterize the landscape of Italy's major cities from Milan to Florence.


Many of the international "starchitects" with Italian projects are devising buildings that forgo classical form in favor of radical new geometries and forward-thinking engineering details reflecting today's values -- conceptual and practical -- of transparency and sustainability. Italian architects perhaps not as well-known on the global stage, such as Luisa Fontana, are also experimenting with fresh approaches toward eco-friendly and other innovative strategies.

Some projects promise to be superlative structures, such as the proposal for the world's longest bridge, stretching over the Strait of Messina, which would connect Sicily to mainland Italy for the first time. Others will be firsts, like the first green skyscraper in Italy, designed by Pei Cobb Freed and Partners.

While not on the dramatic scale of China or Dubai's building booms, Italy's architectural renaissance is quantifiable. In March, the Italian national statistics office (ISTAT) reported that the production index of the Mediterranean nation's building industry rose slightly (0.7%) in fourth-quarter 2005, compared to the same period of 2004. So what's the motivation behind Italy's current crop of new buildings?


Italy's government and real estate developers seem to be following the trend of luring big-name architects to design iconic tourist destination buildings. In other words, they're hoping for the "Bilbao Effect," the economic spike that the once-sleepy Spanish city experienced after Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum opened in 1997. Italy's economy could use that boost. On March 1, 2006, ISTAT reported that the Italian economy had zero growth in 2005. Increased tourism could certainly help.

Not unlike China, Italy also seems keen to modernize its national identity through architecture. Contemporary buildings designed by international architects suggest an openness to globalization. The move toward bold lines and away from classical forms, however, hasn't been without controversy. Richard Meier's streamlined, light-filled design for the new Ara Pacis Museum has been criticized at length by traditionalists, and it took 11 years to complete after various false starts.


Still, earlier projects in Rome, like Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica, a complex of theaters and live-music venues housed in shell-like structures that opened in 2003, and Meier's Jubilee Church, a sail-shaped house of worship, which also opened in 2003 and was commissioned by the Vatican, have been drawing favorable reviews -- and tourists.

Rome isn't the only place where architectural experimentation is taking place and adventurous new projects aren't limited to the biggest cities. Italy's first zero-energy residential development, for example, will open in the northern town of Schio in 2007. Across the nation, an architectural renaissance is reshaping Italy for the 21st century.

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