From the Archives: National Academies and the Postwar Rome Prize

A proposed development of Piazza Colonna with a New Formalist style pavilion, a collaborative project made in 1958 during Francis Comstock’s Residency (Photographic Archive, American Academy in Rome)
A model of the Enrico Fermi Memorial Pavilion by 1957 Fellow Daniel Stewart, ca. 1957 (Photographic Archive, American Academy in Rome)
A 1955 model for new studios in the AAR garden by Robert Venturi, a 1956 Fellow and 1967 Resident (Photographic Archive, American Academy in Rome)
A view of the Annual Fellows’ Exhibition in 1957, with drawings by Robert Venturi in the middle (Photographic Archive, American Academy in Rome)

To celebrate the opening of Roma, a Portrait at Palazzo delle Esposizioni, which celebrates the foreign cultural academies in the Eternal City, we republish this article by Denise R. Costanzo (2015 Fellow) on the approaches to classical and modern architecture at those institutes, originally published in the fall/winter 2015 issue of AAR Magazine.

National Academies and the Postwar Rome Prize

For centuries, the classical traditions defined Europe’s most prestigious forms of building. Rome’s unequaled concentration of ancient and antique-revival buildings taught a uniquely powerful and authoritative design language. In 1666, France established an academy in Rome to host artists awarded its Prix de Rome or Rome Prize, a five-year, state-sponsored residency. By the early twentieth century, eight other countries, including the United States, had established their own academies for postgraduate artists in Rome.

In the 1930s, the innovations of the modern movement severed the connection between Rome and architectural preeminence. Rome and the classical legacy promoted by its academies were antithetical to modernism’s emphasis on industrial materials, abstract forms, and progressive politics. Many of Italy’s own modernist developments were ideologically problematic, because they enjoyed considerable Fascist support. After World War II, when modernism gained widespread official sanction, the Rome Prize appeared irrelevant, perhaps even perilous, to an architect’s career.

And yet it survived, and continues to this day. How, exactly? Did Rome’s academies become modern, or did modernism become academic? An analysis of the city’s four oldest institutions—the French, Spanish (1873), and American Academies (1894), and the British School (1901)—offers distinct case studies that illuminate how the Rome Prize adapted to a dramatically altered artistic culture.

The French Academy and British School made very few changes after the war. They still required architects to study historic monuments and strictly supervised their work. While some chafed against these limits, others designed projects on topics like urbanism that were both acceptable and relevant. In contrast, the American and Spanish Academies replaced rules and fixed agendas with a new openness. The American Academy in Rome eliminated all work requirements in favor of independent projects with minimal oversight, and this is still its policy today. Architects at the Spanish Academy were also free to explore modernist design and contemporary topics. Both allowed architects to explore Italy’s relevance freely and nurtured figures that would have a tremendous impact on the discipline.

What can we learn from these differences during the postwar period? First, that each approach served different domestic realities. The French Academy’s regulated structure mirrored France’s centralized systems of architectural education and state employment. The American Academy’s openness fit a polycentric, fractured US discipline, along with the government’s cold war cultural diplomacy, which promoted modernism as an emblem of democratic freedom. That Franco’s fascist regime used a similar approach suggests that Spain also wanted artistic currency to enhance its international legitimacy. The British School, despite limited resources and internal tensions, persisted in part because it helped buttress the United Kingdom’s global stature while its empire was in decline.

In both the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, the Rome Prize existed to promote national prestige, but architects also used it to chart their own professional paths. Understanding the mechanics of its survival after World War II is part of a larger story about how Rome’s symbolic power continues to be leveraged to serve a modern agenda.

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