Face-Lift: Rome's Ara Pacis Museum

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American architect Richard Meier designs a modern home for the ancient Altar of Peace.

In 1995, American architect Richard Meier was invited to design a new home for the Ara Pacis in Rome. The Altar of Peace, as the name translates, is a white marble altar erected by Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. after he conquered Spain and Gaul.

The building was to be the first new one in Rome's center since WWII, and despite Meier's credentials, locals weren't exactly dancing in the strada: The architect is well-known for his modernist glass-and-steel structures, such as the Getty Center in Los Angeles--about as far as you can get from Roman palazzos. Construction of the Ara Pacis building was often stalled by the debate. But, says Meier resignedly, "What of any value happens without controversy?"

The result, along the Tiber River near the Spanish Steps, officially opens on April 21. Meier decided to bathe the altar in natural light: 44-foot-tall paned-glass walls rise on two sides, and 5,080 square feet of skylights serve as the ceiling. Although the museum is technically a one-relic show, downstairs there's also a 2,100-square-foot space for other archaeological exhibitions as well as a performance hall. A rooftop café overlooks the river and the mausoleum of Augustus. Piazza Augusto Imperatore, 011-39/06-82-05-91-27, $7.75.

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