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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rome's Starchitects: Meier, Piano, Hadid, Fuksas, Portoghesi

Our thoughtful daughter-in-law sent along an article from amNewYork on New York City's "Starchitects," the flashiest of the architects who have built in the city, those who design projects that "capture the imagination," as a fellow architect put it. 

The article divides the New York stars into three categories: Elder Statesmen (Frank Gehry and Henry Cobb, both in their early 80's); Europeans (Sir Norman Foster, 75; Santiago Calatrava, 59, who is building what promises to be a spectacular transit hub at ground zero; Renzo Piano, 73, whose New York Times Building and addition to the Morgan Library, both of which we took in last month; and Jean Nouvel, 65; and Gotham Stars (including Bruce Fowle, Bob Fox, and Richard Meier (for his Perry Street Towers).  The age info is in the article, though why it's important--or relevant--we're not sure. 

Rome has a magnificent architectural heritage dating to the Republic and the Empire, and includes major contributions in the Renaissance and, less well known, in the 19th and 20th centuries.  But the past decade or so, and especially under the liberal, arts-oriented former mayor, Walter Veltroni, Rome has been active again, hiring Starchitects to design major museums, performance spaces, and--most recently--a convention center.  As far as we know, there are currently five Starchitects who have built or are building in Rome: Richard Meier, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, Massimiliano Fuksas, and Paolo Portoghesi.  Three are Italians.  (And, several - including Piano, Hadid and Fuksas - are featured in our new book: Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  More information on the book is at the end of this post.)

Cleaning the paint of Dadaist vandals  from Meier's
box for the Ara Pacis, June 2009

Richard Meier, 76, was born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey.  Like Piano and Hadid, he's a winner of one of architecture's most prestigious prizes, the Pritzker (1984).  His best-known project is the Getty Center in the hills of Los Angeles, a monumental if somewhat sterile complex that recalls the grandeur and splendor of ancient Rome as well as the Italian villas and gardens of the 16th century.  Other admired buildings include the tourist center in New Harmony, Indiana, the Hartford Seminary of Theology (late 1970s) and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (early 1980s).   He's known for not caring much for architectural fashion and for sticking with the tried and true ideas of mid-century European and American modernism.  A purist, most of his buildings are rectilinear, box-like forms--not a bad description of his Rome container for the Ars Pacis, a building whose modernist ordinariness has infuriated the city's right wing politicians and even some of its residents, who can't believe it cost 25 million Euro.  He's a Rome starchitect NOT for his Ara Pacis box, but for his sublime Jubilee church (2000), a gem built out in the suburb of Tor Tre Teste--a building so unusual for Meier that it must have come from a dream state, from the architect's subconscious (see Dianne's post on the church, which is #17 in our Rome the Second Time Top 40).  Even so, his Ara Pacis effort produced a strong backlash--against modernism, the particular building and its relationship to the site, and the arts.  In a statement that may have relevance for Meier's experience with an irate Roman public over his Ars Pacis building (photo above right), fellow Starchitect Massimiliano Fuksas (see below) notes: "When people are prepared to damage your building, you have failed." 

Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica
Renzo Piano, 73, was born in 1937 in Genoa.  Piano acknowledges several architects that have influenced him, including Louis Kahn and Pier Luigi Nervi, a Rome Starchitect of an earlier era, and one of whose masterworks, the Palazetto dello Sport, is across the street from Piano's own contribution.  Piano made his name as a co-designer of  the Pompidou Centre in  Paris--intended, Piano says, "to be a joyful urban machine, a creature that might have come from a Jules Verne book."  Other well known buildings of his include the 1982 museum for the De Menil Collection in Houston, and a much-ballyhooed addition, recently opened, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA - where we've spent a lot of time).  The addition is highly functional but, like Meier's Ara Pacis container, essentially a nice box (and the same applies to Piano's Morgan addition in NYC).  Fortunately, Rome got the best out of Piano; his Parco della Musica complex in the quartiere of Flaminio is both functional (except for some maze-like approaches to upper-level seating) and, in the Pompidou Centre mode, playful, combining traditional modernism with shapely organic motifs.

Aerial View, MAXXI gallery (lower left)

Hadid's MAXXI, from the rear

Zaha Hadid, 60, was born in 1950 in Baghdad.  She practiced with Rem Koolhaas before opening her own shop.  As a child, she was influenced by a tour of ancient Sumerian cities in southern Iraq.  "The beauty of the landscape," she explains, "where sand, water, birds, buildings, and people all somehow flowed together--has never left me.  I'm trying to discover--invent, I suppose--an architecture, and forms of urban planning, that do something of the same kind in a contemporary way."  Hadid's first major success was the Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati (c. 2000).  Another was a museum adjoining Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a commission she was awarded because she is sometimes understood as Wright-like in her enthusiasm for futuristic designs and, according to one writer, her "visionary rethinking of the relationship between humans and buildings."  Her recently opened MAXXI gallery--a 10-minute walk from Piano's Parco della Musica--has made her a Rome Starchitect.  It's typical of Hadid's work in that it looks wonderfully inventive from the air (photo above left, lower left), a perspective available mostly to pigeons.  However, as our readers have heard more than once, we aren't fond of the way the building relates to its surroundings or to human beings seeking access to it.  From certain angles it looks sensational; from others it's a forbidding hunk of windowless cement.  Some nice spaces inside.  (BTW, one can do a nice architectural tour of Nervi, Piano and Hadid within a couple blocks of each other.)
Architectect's rendering of Fuksas' "Cloud" building,
 under construction in EUR

Proposed Italian Space Agency
 Massimiliano Fuksas, 66, was born in Rome in 1944, while the city was occupied by the German army, and he earned his degree in architecture from La Sapienza (Rome's historied university) in 1969.  Fuksas is the loner/rebel type.  "All my life," he has said, "I have fought against form, shape and style," and he denies any "evolution" to his work: "I use a different language each time."  He admits to being an admirer of Francesco Borromini.  Fuksas is well known for the Zenith Music Hall in Strasbourg, France (2008), a bold structure in orange, and  for the Milan Trade Fair complex (2005); we also like his modernistic renovcation of the former stables in Frascati, neaer Rome.  Fuksas is scheduled for Rome Starchitectdom when his EUR "Cloud" building--apparently a meeting and convention center--opens; it's currently under construction and, somewhat surprisingly, his first major building in Rome.  (See Bill's post on our exploration of the "Cloud".) Fuksas is also designing a new unhomelike home (above right)  for the Italian Space Agency (we didn't know the Italians had a Space Agency), to be built near the 1960 Olympic Village and Hadid's MAXXI.   

Paolo Portoghesi, 79, was born in 1931 in Rome, where he earned a degree in architecture at La Sapienza in 1957.  For much of his career he has been in private practice while teaching architectural theory at the University.  His inclusion among Rome's Starchitects is appropriately suspect; his deep interest in the history of architecture--in Borromini, the baroque, and Michelangelo, especially--has given his work strong links to tradition and history, as in his Casa Baldi (1957-62), a house built an hour from Rome in the village of Olevano Romano.  Nonetheless, he's earned the designation of Starchitect for his striking mosque, built 1974/75  in the north end of the city, near Acqua Acetosa, at the behest of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia (and it comes in at #24 on Rome the Second Time's Top 40).  It is said that the building strikes a balance between modernism, Roman forms, and the traditions of mosque architecture, which surely functioned here as a restraint on the architect's creativity and innovation.  Dianne believes the building rises to the Starchitect threshold and "captures the imagination,"  and the interior photo at left would seem to confirm her view.

Hadid's MAXXI and Piano's Parco della Musica are on the Flaminio itinerary; and Fuksas's Cloud is on the EUR itinerary in our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Modern Rome features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

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