Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Museum in Rome was controversial from its inception.

The museum was built to house just one artifact, the Ara Pacis, a finely carved sacrificial altar built in 13AD to commemorate the victories of Emperor Augustus in Spain and Gaul. Adding to its historical significance to Romans, the altar was fully restored by Mussolini in the late 1930s in his attempt to league himself with Rome’s ancient history and power.

From the very beginning of the project, Meier was caught in a complex web of politics, culture, history and nationalism. Open for a year now, the museum still continues to be a touchstone for certain radical types in a city (and a nation) that thrives on these ongoing controversies.

Here’s an overview from Steve Rose of the Guardian:

His new Ara Pacis Museum is the first significant structure to go up in Rome’s historic centre since Mussolini’s time, and as such it has attracted a great deal of attention, mostly negative. Its enemies have likened it variously to a petrol station, a pizzeria and a giant coffin. Vittorio Sgarbi, a celebrity art critic and former deputy culture minister, publicly set fire to a model of the building, and recently declared it “an indecent cesspit by a useless architect”. He has talked of forming an anti-Meier committee. The day before the museum’s opening last week, Gianni Alemanno, the rightwing candidate for Rome’s mayorship, pledged that he would tear the museum down and put it up somewhere in the suburbs, should he be elected.

(By the way, Alemanno did win the election and immediately called for the museum’s dismantling…)

Not to be outdone in slandering the museum, American painter turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel called the museum “an air-conditioning unit”.

The New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff declared the museum a “flop”:

Although Mr. Meier speaks eloquently about the architectural past, his buildings can be stubbornly oblivious to physical and cultural context… in Rome context is inescapable, and Mr. Meier’s building seems intent on shunning the city’s seductive charms.

That wasn’t what Meier had in mind by any means. According to a conversation between Meier and Rose:

Like most of Meier’s buildings, his solution could easily be dismissed as a big white box – but there is more to his big white boxes than meets the eye. The building is based on the scale and proportions of the surrounding ancient structures and the altar itself, Meier explains, and despite what his detractors say, he has given great thought to the museum’s context.

“It kind of embraces everything that’s around it,” he says, standing in the museum’s terraced corner entrance, which will eventually contain a pond fed by a wall of water. “I wanted to make it a public destination, a new piazza space in Rome that people can come to whether they’re going to the museum or not, and just sit in the sun – that’s what Romans like to do. It’s bringing life to what was not a vital or active area before.”

But there are others agree with me and find the building stunning.

I have had a long term love affair with great white spaces, even as they have come and gone, come and gone in architectural respectability. Meier’s white buildings (and for that matter, all of the other New York Five as well–Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk.) are so supremacistly gorgeous. I can’t resist just giving myself over to them. The Barcelona Museum with its massive glass wall. The Getty Center in LA. The Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana. These are amazing spaces to look at and be in.

Meier seems to have decided very early on in his career that there is no architectural problem that can’t be solved through some composition of simple geometric forms, executed in huge sheets of glass, blank surfaces, grids of enamelled steel panels – and no colours except white. Always white. (Rose)

Peter Davey in Architectural Review was effulgent in his praise of the Ara Pacis Museum:

Meier has succeeded triumphantly… In the entrance hall, the travertine to the left is flooded with luminance from rooflights, dramatically bringing out the patterns of the fossils and finally falling on a row of classical heads. Yet after the brightness of the Roman sky, the space seems almost sepulchral. A line of seven circular concrete columns finished in white waxed marble plaster runs in front of the white right-hand wall, creating a zone for reception desks and simultaneously drawing you forward to the main hall. Here, the Ara Pacis sits in the centre of a high luminous gallery with long glass walls overlooking the embankment to the west and the mausoleum on the other side. Supported on four concrete columns, the gridded roof modulates the sky’s light. Apparently, the ancient structure is flooded with natural daylight. In fact, the light is much reduced in intensity by greyish low-e glazing and external horizontal louvres of translucent glass. It becomes clear that the darkness of the entrance space is an ingenious tactic, for its relative gloom persuades your eyes that you are in ordinary daylight again when you get to the great hall, particularly when morning and evening sun seem to shine without being modified through the glass walls.

Both my daughter Kellin and I were amazed by how Meier was able to command light in the space. It is hard to capture in a photograph, but once inside, you just want to stay and bask.

The lower space is used for contemporary art exhibits. Taking yourself downward, into a much darker and less beguiling space to find the 21st century, seemed strangely apropos and fitting. Meier has succeeded in blending of old and new, a sort of “mind the gap” aesthetic. When it works, it leaves you just a little breathless.

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