Otherworldly, Yet Familiar
Standing in the dust of the Forum Romanum at the spot where all roads lead, surrounded by marble shards, echoes from the stones, like voices, speak. Time and history elide, from 750 B.C. until today. Despite generations of neglect and active pilferage at the hands of Renaissance popes, who adorned the face of a burgeoning new Rome with Imperial marble, much remains. Pavers still mark the Via Sacra, the sacred way, through the valley. From the Arch of Titus, a succession of remnants marks the path: the Temple of Romulus, the Temple of Vesta, the Basilica Julia, the Arch of Titus—a captured glimpse of a civilization.
Here, an aedicula with two Ionic columns marks the House of the Vestal Virgins; there, three Corinthian columns on a plinth, the Temple of the Castores—the DNA of another civilization, the architecture of which can still be read, reverberating with us after 2,000 years. Physical facts provide the pattern, erupting intermittently with texture, scale, form, and rhythm, overlaid and smoldering with two millennia of intangibles—culture and time, history and memory and blood. Despite its obvious decay, the Forum attracts us with both otherworldliness and familiarity, and we bathe in the shock of recognition of who we are and who we have been.
Familiarity at the Forum comes from recognition because subsequent eras have replicated the conventions of the Classical past in institutional and residential buildings. Sir Banister Fletcher prepared us for this encounter. Yet part of our comfort derives from what earlier writers would have characterized as somatic projection, or empathy. As any student of architectural history knows, the forms and scale of trabeated architecture have direct relationships with the columnar human body, which we sense even in ruined structures.
Beyond the well-trod intellectual roads lie other lessons outside the aesthetic. The entire Forum site rests between the Velia, the Capitol, and the Palatine hills on a willful act of early engineering. Had the settlers not drained the formerly swampy burying ground into an enormous sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, further development after 550 B.C. would have ceased. Early structures, whose forms had been directly appropriated by the Latins from the Greeks, quickly grew into the uniquely Roman: Roman technological advances produced pozzolana, a cementitious binder that has hardened like iron, and near-perfect brick, permitting forms the world had never seen, including the broadly vaulted basilicas and baths—immense, capacious structures like the Basilica of Maxentius that continue to confound us with their spatial power and structural acumen.
Following Constantine’s conversion, recharged with fresh spiritual energy, the Roman basilica morphed into something new, and the drama proceeded. Despite our preconceptions, Rome never stood still, so never fell. Instead, Republic shifted to Empire, which was sacked, and changed. The Regia became a meadow, while the city lived on. In fact, Roman energy lay not in the forms themselves but in their transformation: Near Eastern and Egyptian to Greek to Roman to our own multivalent world. It is in that spirit, which acknowledges the past and recalls history without becoming enslaved by its outward signs and symbols, that most contemporary architects build. Remembering, but moving on, is how we write about architecture.
With that same sense of challenge, we are embarking on a new way of presenting this architectural publication. Beginning with the July issue, in a bold new experiment worthy of the Romans, we offer all of Architectural Record delivered electronically. Thanks to a new software called Zinio, record will all be there—the full page, backlit, glowing, but conveniently present in your laptop. And unlike most Web-based magazines, you will be able to zoom on an image, search the material, and archive it. Time, Rome, and Architectural Record move on.