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Celebrating a Centennial: A Place Where Minds Meet

May 30, 2014

An encounter with Rome represents now, as it has done since the American Academy’s inception, something unique: a chance for American artists and scholars to spend significant time interacting and working with each other in one of the oldest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world. It is this notion of a diverse community built on common ground that the Academy aims to celebrate in the exhibition Building an Idea: McKim, Mead & White and the American Academy in Rome which opens Wednesday. The inauguration of the McKim, Mead & White Building in October 1914 constituted the union of the American School of Classical Studies and the American Academy in Rome under one roof. Curated by architectural historian Marida Talamona and designed by Arch. Umberto Riva, the exhibition features plans, drawings and photographs from several Italian archives. The richness of Rome’s artistic and cultural legacy and its potential to stimulate all kinds of creative thinking served as the initial impetus for the founding of the Academy in 1894 by architect Charles Follen McKim and that inspiration lives on, transformed by the dynamism of its constantly evolving international community.

The proof, perhaps, is in the pudding. If one examines the discipline of architecture alone, the Academy counts among its Fellows, Residents and Trustees nine Pritzker Prize winners, including Robert Venturi FAAR’56, RAAR’67, Richard Meier, RAAR’74, James Stirling, RAAR’83, Peter Zumthor, RAAR’08, Glenn Murcutt, RAAR’13, Trustee Emeritus Philip Johnson, Trustee Emeritus Frank Gehry, and Trustee Emeritus Kevin Roche, and a MacArthur Fellow Elizabeth Diller, AFAAR’81. Many of the leading minds of contemporary architecture have thus found inspiration on the streets of the Eternal City and developed new ideas in the halls and studios of the McKim, Mead & White Building.

A decade after his stay in Rome, Robert Venturi, FAAR’56, published the most influential architectural treatise of the postwar period, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” (1966). His “gentle manifesto” challenged international modernism’s aspirations to functionalism and purity, wittily countering Mies van der Rohe’s maxim, “less is more,” with the alternative sentiment that, “less is a bore.” His design for the Vanna Venturi House (1964), which he built for his mother in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, epitomized a new tendency in architecture and won Venturi the AIA Twenty-five Year Award in 1989 and was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 2005. Like McKim, Mead, & White, Venturi took lessons from the old world while largely operating in the new one.  

Yet Venturi was himself an exception to an emergent rule as increasing numbers of star architects, or “starchitects,” began to operate on the international scene during the 1990s. Michael Graves, FAAR’62, RAAR’79, Life Trustee and Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture Emeritus at Princeton, built a reputation with projects ranging from across the globe, to one that brought him back to the Academy’s backyard. In 1996 Graves would design the Barbara Goldsmith Rare Book Room to house the Academy’s 6,000 rare volumes on art, archaeology and architecture. Richard Meier, RAAR’74, likewise developed numerous international projects, but he would leave his mark on Rome with two important projects for the Jubilee Church (2003) and the Ara Pacis Museum (2006). Meier’s complex for the Ara Pacis would have the honor of being the first significant architectural intervention into Rome’s city center since the Fascist era.

Perhaps the most admired and emblematic work of contemporary architecture is Trustee Emeritus Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which opened to universal public and critical acclaim in 1997. Philip Johnson described it “the greatest building of our time” and the revitalizing economic benefits of its construction on the city have come to be known as the “Bilbao effect.” 

Every year the Academy hosts the McKim Medal Gala to raise proceeds for three Italian Affiliated Fellows to diversify and vitalize the community by bringing new perspectives and offering a direct, unmediated connection to Italy. Named for Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909), the noted architect who established the Academy, the Medal recognizes an individual whose work and life exemplify creative and intellectual exchange across the arts, scholarship, language, and culture. McKim Medal Laureates have included Umberto Eco, Ennio Morricone, and Renzo Piano, architect of the Auditorium Parco della Musica (2002). This year the Academy will recognize Dame Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize in 2004 and designer of Rome’s MAXXI museum of contemporary art and architecture in the Flamino quarter of the city.

The original aim of the Academy to nurture cross-cultural and interdisciplinary exchange has only become more significant with the passage of a century. At every stage of its development the Academy moved to include a wider array of people and disciplines in its ongoing negotiations between past and present. When the MacArthur Foundation presented husband-and-wife team Elizabeth Diller, AFAAR’81, and Ricardo Scofidio with the “genius award” in 1999 for their integration of architecture, visual arts, performance and issues of contemporary culture, it affirmed the Academy’s enduring belief in the productive spaces that can be found at the interface between the arts and humanities.