When in Rome, take a break from the ruins of colossal public buildings, lavishly ornamented palaces, triumphal arches and ceremonial gateways. Leave those magnificent banks of columns sprouting Corinthian capitals behind for a day, and fast-forward through the ages on an Urban Italy 21st-Century Architecture Tour led by one of our resident expert-guides.
There’s no better place to start than Richard Meier’s elegant Ara Pacis Museum, an architectural gem completed in 2006 to enclose the ancient sacrificial altar. It’s a long, single-storey, glazed loggia, an understated contemporary container for the Ara, and a non-barrier between the monumental mausoleum of Augustus and the bank of the Tiber.
A stroll across the Villa Borghese park brings us, in total contrast, to the MACRO, Rome’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Nothing understated here, at least not in the most recent makeover finished in 2010, which is all at one with its dark and dazzling architect Odile Decq: bright red for the central structure and black all around, but pure white for the exhibition spaces and a glass roof over which water flows.
The Flaminio neighbourhood a little to the north holds a small cluster of attractions. One is Rome’s other archistar museum, the MAXXI or Museum of 21st-Century Arts by Zaha Hadid, again completed in 2010. A cavernous atrium, curving walls, complex volumes and intersecting levels make for a breathtaking sequence of public spaces mostly illuminated by natural light. Then comes the capital’s principal concert hall, or halls: a complex covering around 50,000 square metres entirely dedicated to music and appropriately called Auditorium Parco della Musica. Built to a plan by Renzo Piano and inaugurated in 2002, it consists of three main halls of conspicuously curvy, sound-box forms, a central outdoor theatre and various other spaces, studios and gardens. Hard by and worth a look is the Flaminio Footbridge or Ponte della Musica, designed jointly by British Powell-Williams Architects and BuroHappold and opened in 2011. And if it’s the right time of day for a drink or a bite to eat, we’re within shouting distance of Duke’s, bar and casual fine-dining restaurant of international inspiration by Nemesi Studio completed in 1999.
Leaving the Flaminio district for Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, there’s a wonderful contemporary surprise hidden away in the solemn historic buildings: it’s the 2009 library of the Pontifical Lateran University, with renovation of existing structures too, by local studio King Roselli Architetti.
To celebrate the turn of the millennium, Rome’s religious authorities commissioned 50 new churches or parish complexes to serve the city’s suburbs. The most striking of these are Santa Maria della Presentazione by Nemesi Studio again (2002), a jaw-dropping structure in the frankly seedy north-western Quartaccio district, and Richard Meier’s 2003 Chiesa del Dio Padre Misericordioso, which transformed the anonymous eastern suburb of Tor Tre Teste into an attraction for architecture lovers and faithful tourists.
From an urban planning perspective, the whole Testaccio-Ostiense-Marconi area south of the city centre makes an interesting study. Vibrant, traditionally working-class, industrial and once the site of the slaughterhouse and the city’s wholesale markets, it’s in line for some hefty redevelopment. Coming up are new premises for the Roma Tre university and a museum of photography among other cultural facilities, while already established are the Musei Capitolini annexe in the old Montemartini power station, Eataly in the ex-Air Terminal at Ostiense station, and a branch of the MACRO in part of the former abattoir, while a six-lane road bridge over the railway tracks, designed by Francesco del Tosto and opened in 2012, makes for faster connections.
Lastly, even if it doesn’t quite qualify as 21st-century, the great Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre by Paolo Portoghesi in the verdant Parioli neighbourhood, the biggest in Europe, is a truly extraordinary thing.
Contact mikaela(at)urbanitaly.com for more information and tours tailor-made to your needs and interests. Play mix-and-match with our suggestions here, never forgetting that Rome also has a remarkable heritage of 20th-century architecture: more about that soon.