Collapses this spring at a couple of ancient sites in Rome caused weary archaeologists to warn, yet again, about other imminent calamities threatening the city's precarious architectural birthright.

Meanwhile, the smart set went gaga when an ostentatious national museum for contemporary art, Maxxi, opened recently, along with an expansion to the city — run new — art museum, Macro. That was just after Rome's mayor, Gianni Alemanno, convened a conference for planners and architects to mull a bid for the 2020 Olympics as an incentive to update Italy's capital. Contemporary architecture now promises to be the engine and symbol of a new creative identity for Rome that, if development is done right for a change, would complement the city's glorious past.

“What does Rome want to be when it grows up?” is how Richard Burdett, a planner from London with Italian roots, put the situation the other day. He meant the situation of Rome at a crossroads, struggling ahead, falling behind.

Change is never easy here. When a museum designed by Richard Meier, a glass and marble building to house the Ara Pacis, opened a few years ago, Romans howled. But then, it resembles a clunky, fascist mausoleum. Maxxi, whose style presents a whole other set of problems, has fared much better in terms of public approval, attracting some 74,000 visitors in its first month and accelerating talk by leaders like Alemanno about Rome in the 21st century.

But it's one thing for politicians to support a new headline-grabbing museum. The art crowd rolls into town, bestows its blessing, then rolls out. It's another to take on grittier challenges like immigration, transportation and sprawl.

Even culture

A nation whose identity and fiscal survival rests on it now devotes 0.21 per cent of its state budget (and that figure has been dropping), which is about one-fifth of the percentage that France devotes, to theatre, film, exhibitions, music and museums, not to mention the upkeep of all those thousands of historical sites for which there is still no master conservation plan.

And there's nothing close to a thought-out approach to shaping this city's new identity, either, just a burst of mixed architecture creating facts on the ground and a fresh hunger for something better. The problems facing Rome are not going to be solved by a few big stars designing buildings but by a larger effort to rethink a city that has swiftly grown to 3.7 million inhabitants, almost all of them outside the historic centre, where its past is crumbling.

How to balance old and new? It's a familiar quandary. The Roman architect Massimiliano Fuksas is now conceiving an immense congress centre on a highway built by Mussolini to connect centre and sea. To one side of that centre, the Luigi Pigorini Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography, a 1930s glory of limestone, stained glass, light and air, epitomizes the modernising aspirations of an earlier day.

To the other side, new apartment blocks are to be designed by Renzo Piano, whose Parco della Musica performing arts complex, inoffensive and pragmatic, opened a few years ago just outside the city centre, to general satisfaction.

This area where the Pigorini is, by contrast, never took off as it was meant to before the war. Most Romans don't venture to the ethnography museum after grade school, although they'll wax nostalgic when reminded of it. Fuksas' building adds a giant bauble in what's still the middle of nowhere, albeit it's too early to say for sure what this stretch of suburb will become when the congress hall opens, and housing arrives. What's clear is only that the effort to push Rome's livable, cultural space outward from the centre is a step in the right direction. Just a step.

Or, as Fuksas phrased it, “Architecture is interesting, but by itself it means nothing.”

Especially when some of the best of it is falling down. Exhibit A: the Domus Aurea, the Golden Villa that Nero built near the Colosseum, where a vaulted gallery fell this spring. Nobody was hurt, fortunately. That's because the place has been closed since 2008, plagued by structural problems and humidity, which threatens the frescoes. To much fanfare, the city opened part of the site for tourists in 1999. Then heavy rain collapsed a section of roof, the site was closed, reopened a while later, then closed again.

A commission assigned to address the problem spent millions but didn't forestall the latest mishap. Construction workers were fussing with earthmovers, bits and pieces of ancient columns, broken pots and scaffolding one recent morning. Fedora Filippi, a veteran archaeologist lately put in charge, pointed out where the roof gave way in what is actually an adjacent gallery built under Trajan, after Nero. Rain seeped from a park above, she said. Everybody has known about the leaking for ages. But the park is city—owned, and the Domus Aurea is national property, so the problem is no one's to solve.

“Everyone is paralysed,” Filippi said. “We have problems specific to this site and, yes, we have Italian problems, too.”

After the Domus Aurea gave way, some chunks fell off the Colosseum. Salvo Barrano, vice president of Italy's Association of National Archaeologists, afterward listed threats to the aqueducts, the Palatine. The country is basically one giant archaeological site, Barrano said, with every town and region vying for resources, no politician willing to make hard choices, and too few qualified engineers and archaeologists in charge.

“The problem for the last 12 or 13 years is that the country has stopped investing in culture,” he said. “In cases like the Domus Aurea, there just isn't a quick enough political payoff for politicians to invest more resources.”

Barrano drew a few graphs and flow charts on a sheet of scrap paper, a Dante-like diagram of multilayered chaos, to describe Italy's culture administration. He sighed.

But then along comes Maxxi, at $223 million, indulged over a decade during which the government changed three times. The architect Zaha Hadid was hired to do for Rome what Frank Gehry did for Bilbao, Spain _ never mind that Rome is not Bilbao. Gehry's branch of the Guggenheim Museum put a previously obscure city on the culture map; in Maxxi's case, it's an obscure residential neighborhood beyond the old walls, although the hope is that the museum might get tourists thinking of Rome in general as a destination for new art, not just old.

Truth be told, the museum, begun in a climate of architectural hype that countenanced impractical, sometimes impossible, spaces in the name of sexy but increasingly clichid curves, has an air of already bygone taste. While money was poured almost entirely into (often inelegant) construction, Maxxi's collection and programming, not to mention its bare-bones though top-flight staff, have had to scrape by with what was left. It was a clear case of exactly what Rome lacks.

“Foresight” was Fuksas' word for it. He was giving a hardhat tour of the congress building the other afternoon, pointing out where an auditorium shaped like twisted taffy will float atop the roof overlooking what's now a city more populous than Paris.

``So the true city is no longer the historic one but the one on the so-called periphery, and to become successful we need to accept a new concept of greater Rome,” Fuksas added. “Immigrants need to sleep somewhere, after all, even the illegal ones.”

New Rome, old Rome. Roberto Cecchi, in charge of overseeing the city's prized but crumbling archaeological sites, had a strikingly similar refrain: “Roman engineers worried 2,000 years ago about maintaining the city,” he said. “We must set down methods and rules. We must start to think ahead, not just respond when crises happen.”

So in theory everyone's on the same page.

But who knows? This is Rome. Some things are eternal. — New York Times News Service

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