The Beauty of Imperfection

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I hadn't been in Rome for twenty-five years, a big chunk of time in anyone's life, but only a millisecond in the history of the city that stretches back at least twenty-five hundred years. Many great European cities have ruins and monuments, but only Rome combines its ancient past with Medieval and Renaissance splendor in a unique mixture, where all eras of the past co-exist with the present day. Not as museum pieces, but as vital components of current city life. The alchemy of Rome gets into your head and makes you high the way neither Florence, nor Venice, not even Paris can.

For the celebration of the Jubilee Year 2000, all the monuments were spruced up and are looking their best, especially at night, with their new state-of-the-art lighting. Beloved museums, among them Villa Borghese, reopened after much-needed restoration. A number of new museums appeared on the map. The most intriguing of them is the Montemartini Museum, in the suburbs, where about 400 Roman and Etruscan sculptures are housed in a former power plant, where they are exhibited side by side with the original machinery. I've never seen a more convincing example of what we commonly refer to as "opposites attract". This is a much more successful attempt to give an old building new life as a museum than the transformation of the Parisian train station into Mus-e D'Orsay, where the art often has a losing battle with its environment.

I was travelling with a group of California friends - architects and designers. They insisted on going to see a new church commissioned by the Vatican and built by Richard Meier on the outskirts of Rome. A pristine white building with a large white courtyard surrounded by a white metal fence provides stark contrast with the working-class neighborhood. As usual with Richard Meier buildings, I was impressed by the multitude of perfectly executed details. The dominant feature of the fa-ade is three identical, dramatically curving walls reminiscent of sails full of wind.

As with Meier's other projects, this church strikes an effective pose that somehow gets less and less convincing as you walk around the building. To be fair, we didn't see it from inside, as it was being feverishly prepared for a consecration ceremony. But it struck me that the overall impression was not welcoming, but rather standoff-ish, further reinforced by the curving walls turning away, rather than toward, the nearby apartment building.

Richard Meier's buildings make me think first and most of his obsession with perfection; while Louis Kahn's Salk Institute in LaJolla, Frank Gehry's Bilbao Museum and Disney Hall make me think about the beauty and imperfection of life itself. Through their buildings, I experience the sensation of being in sync with the hidden rhythms of the universe, and for me, that's what great architecture is all about - so much more than perfectly aligned blocks of stone.

Later, having an outdoor lunch in a tiny picture-perfect Roman piazza formed by half a dozen mismatched buildings elbowing their way into it, I had a kind of epiphany. The dirty stucco on the fa-ades was peeling, its once-rich terracotta colors faded to deliciously sublime hues no Mediterranean palazzo in Bel Air can match. Thrown here and there, without any particular rhyme or reason, were balconies and terraces with potted plants and blowing-in-the-breeze laundry. In short, it was total visual cacophony that miraculously was much more than the sum of its parts. The less-than-perfect elements of this piazza created an exceptionally harmonious whole, evoking the thrilling noise of a tuning up symphony orchestra, with each instrument making its own sound. This piazza made me understand that perfection is based on an unpredictable and inspiring mixture of imperfect parts.

Centrale Monemartini
Via Ostienese 106
00154 Roma
(06) 39967800