Rome Stories: The 'Uncle Sam' architect delivers a refined riposte

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The first new building to rise in Rome's historical centre for 70 years is going up on the east bank of the Tiber, despite the best efforts of a fogeyish culture minister to stop it.

Vittorio Sgarbi, a vitriolic art connoisseur and talk show host, had flashed through Italy's political sky like a lurid meteorite, flattening modernists and flaying philistines during his tenure as under-secretary at the Ministry of Culture, but never quite working out that being a minister was different from writing a waspish newspaper column.

Richard Meier, the veteran New York architect, laden with honours for the super-refined white minimalism displayed in works such as the Getty Centre in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, was already at work on a museum to contain the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace consecrated in 9BC to commemorate the subjugation of Gaul, which sits where Mussolini put it, between Augustus's mausoleum and the east bank of the Tiber.

The project was nothing to do with Mr Sgarbi's ministry, being part of the plan of the then mayor, Francesco Rutelli, to give the Eternal City a much-needed kick in the pants. But "Sgarbi hates modern architecture", as Richard Meier puts it, and he did what he could to put a spanner in the works. Meier's design was "disgusting", Sgarbi railed, Meier was "a mechanic with an architecture degree".

Water off a duck's back, you might suppose, but the onslaught fed into a vague emotion among educated Romans that the Meier project was all wrong. He was building in the holy middle of Rome, for heaven's sake, which no one had dared to touch since Mussolini (who fancied himself a new Caesar) - and he wasn't Italian, he wasn't even European! He was Uncle Sam, the cultural coloniser in a cunning new guise. People muttered of hamburger restaurants, gas stations. Students at La Sapienza University protested at the "Los Angelisation" of Rome.

But Sgarbi burned out and fell to earth, sacked by Silvio Berlusconi in August 2002; and the Ara Pacis project picked itself up and went back to work. Talk of Los Angeles seems grotesquely out of place: the new museum is cool and refined. It should be finished by the end of the year.

The same American architect recently completed a far more extraordinary building in a bleak outer suburb of Rome. The Dives in Misericordia church in Tor Tre Teste sits on a hump between dreary apartments, blindingly white like an angel descended from heaven, its three high, white, curving, parallel walls soaring up into the sky like ascending arpeggios. Italy is full of mediocre modern churches; here is one that really works.

Richard Meier seems destined to pull off firsts in Rome. He is the first Jew ever to design a Catholic church: that's not why he was picked, of course, but in a pontificate that has striven for reconciliation with Jews, it is a potent fact.

Italy's transport system closed down again on Friday as unions continued their struggle for better deals against a background of soaring prices. That old British speciality, the wildcat strike, has become a new weapon, though the Italian phrase sciopero a sorpresa (surprise strike) doesn't carry quite the same punch.

One of the few trains to move was at Belluno in the Veneto, where a locomotive and two carriages mysteriously took off with no driver. It careered frighteningly for 15 miles at up to 75mph before being halted by a gentle slope.

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