For people who love contemporary architecture, trying to find striking new buildings in the historic center of Rome is about as easy as trying to go gluten-free there. But if you move a little farther out — or a lot — there are stunning treasures to find, from museums to stadiums to churches, not to mention animated new neighborhoods that you probably would have never explored in the first place.
I undertook a breakneck tour of these newly completed structures, in widely varying districts, last summer with two on-call critics: my septuagenarian parents, self-professed architecture lovers who are not shy about their opinions. We traveled the streets of Rome largely by car, a method of transportation that brought out the, let’s say, raw side of the Roman population. Luckily, the buildings were as dramatic as the drive, but much less stressful.
As we headed into the city from Umbria, we wove in and out of traffic, through a steady progression of crowded traffic circles and bizarre turn-offs, somehow happening upon Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church, also known as the Chiesa di dio Padre Misericordioso. It’s in the eastern neighborhood of Tor Tre Teste, a shabby area of tall housing blocks from the ’60s and ’70s that evokes the notorious banlieues of Paris.
Created in 2003, the bright white church is covered with a curved shell of multiple travertine and concrete walls pierced by huge sheets of glass. It’s closed off with high white fences, and this fortresslike aspect, along with the rain and dirt streaks smudged into the building’s white surfaces (why white in polluted Rome?), first left us cold.
The church had just closed when we came by, but even from the fence we could see that the interior space for worshipers was a glorious contrast to the scene outside. Its extra tall spaces were full of air, light, white marble and warm wood — elegant sublimity. Angled sunbeams from above hit the floors and filled the space with a soft glow, leaving us all impressed.
Maxxi Museum of 21st Century Arts
Instead of waiting five hours for the church to reopen, we decided to go over to Flaminio, a low-key and lush residential area northwest of the city center. Despite the always fast-moving traffic, the quarter has some breathing space, and there are far fewer tourists wandering the streets than there are just a few miles in. The interesting architectural sites — many of them built in recent years — are close by, giving us a good excuse to leave the car and walk.
The most talked-about new building here is the Maxxi Museum of 21st Century Arts, which opened in 2009. Designed by the London architect Zaha Hadid, the impressive edifice — whose wavy, zigzagging geometries were inspired by the very urban grid that we had been struggling to navigate — jogs through and around an early 20th-century military barracks. Its large plaza encourages you to wander and gawk at a facade that constantly defies gravity with its large cantilevers and ultrathin columns.
Walk inside and you can’t help but be energized by the flow of space and light. Concrete floats like glass, ramps move in several directions, and your eye is able to span the cavernous lobby, open to all levels. The galleries alternate between traditional square boxes and not-so-traditional sweeping ones. My star-struck father loved the building, but my mother found the wavy walkways and stairs too discombobulating. I loved the structure’s exuberance, but was surprised it didn’t have more gallery space.
Ponte della Musica, Palazzetto dello Sport and Parco della Musica
I momentarily went off on my own to stare at the graceful white girders of the Ponte della Musica, an impressive new pedestrian bridge spanning the Tiber. Designed in 2011 by the British engineering firm Buro Happold, it has arches that lean outward as if they were being slowly pushed apart. I rejoined my parents at the Maxxi to walk just one block for a view of Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport, an indoor arena for the 1960 Olympic Games and an exquisite example of midcentury futurism. The white building’s ribbed concrete shell waves up and down, supported by a ring of braces. It looks like an aging spaceship. The paint is peeling badly, but in this town of ruins, it feels like a poetic modern vestige. The area inside is still reserved for sports like basketball, and it’s worth a look: The elaborate structural ornamentation is mesmerizing. It is a practical sculpture if there ever was one.
A block east is an extraordinary performance center, the Parco della Musica, by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. The complex, opened in 2002, is deceptively simple and smart. Three brick performance halls are covered with weathered armadillo-shaped steel shells, lifted above a large plaza and amphitheater. It looks foreboding in pictures, but in reality it’s a lovely, tree-lined complex set at the street level with a string of cafes and shops. Even the nearby highway overpass has offices underneath. The theaters inside are heavy in woods, fabrics and typical Piano elegance. You should try to get tickets.
Just northeast of the historic center is the upscale district of Salario. It reminds me of Paris’s 16th Arrondissement, a stately residential area full of neo-Classical buildings, embassies, outdoor markets and upscale stores. In the middle of it all is the Macro (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma), a contemporary art museum inside the former Peroni Brewery, expanded in 2010 by the maverick French architect Odile Decq.
Ms. Decq’s stated goal was to make the museum experience less predictable, and she has done that in spades, creating weird and noteworthy experiences inside a vastly divergent series of spaces. At different points walk on a steel catwalk above the art (which varies wildly in quality), advance to a rooftop with views of the neighborhood and of one of the museum’s own murals, walk through false doors in and out of the structure, and linger on a plate-glass floor looking down at the people below. And please don’t miss the bathrooms if you like curvaceous fiberglass furniture and swiftly changing colors.
Of all the buildings we’d seen that day, this was the most original, and my parents approved. “It was a museum for everyone,” commented my father, who imagined taking friends and grandchildren alike.
From here we got back into the car, risking life and limb to find dinner in the congested heart of the city. It was a wondrous and dangerous ride, full of remarkably loud obscenities from Italian cabbies.
All the while I missed being in the farther reaches of Rome, experiencing places a little less frozen in time, and a little more full of unpredictable, strange possibilities.