My favorite monument of classical Rome is without question the Ara Pacis. It is a humble piece of architecture but to me it represents the height of what Roman civilization was able to achieve under Caesar Augustus, aka Octavius. Just imagine: an altar dedicated to peace. For an empire that had been continuously at war for hundreds of years, the concept of a public temple – for that was what the Ara Pacis ultimately was – dedicated to the peace and stability of a flowering empire was unprecedented. Even today, the idea of any government paying lip service to – let along dedicating a monument to – peace is unimaginable. It showed the citizens of Rome that a) Augustus was so powerful a leader that he could actually bring about a lasting peace that for once closed the doors to the temple of Janus, and b) that with peace across the Empire, a civilization could germinate: philosophy could reason, science enlighten and art reveal the people to themselves. Without fear, society could flourish. These are lessons learned over 2,000 years ago, yet still we struggle with such simple self-evident truths.
American architect Richard Meier’s travertine housing for the Ara Pacis has been as controversial as Mussolini’s decision to move the altar from it’s original location in the 1930’s. Yet despite the contremps, Meier’s glass box is as refined as Pei’s Louvre pyramids; respecting the altar and the juxtaposition against Augustus’ neighboring mausoleum while contributing a breath of modernity into a city too often mired in its historical fantasy.