Roman Holiday

TEXT Terrance Galvin

Anyone who has read the 12th-century Marvels of Rome (Mirabilia Urbis Romae), or worked through Joseph Rykwert’s contemporary urban anthropology The Idea of a Town, encounters a city that offers up the marvellous to all who spend time within its urban fabric. Called caput mundi (summit, or head, of the world) by the Romans and universally known by the epithet “the Eternal City,” Rome’s monstrous ruins and angelic traces constitute a city filled with architectural details and spoils that suggest parallels with modern collage and montage. The archaeology, artifice, architecture and cinematic character of Rome are among the themes of a new book featuring the work of the Canada Council’s Prix de Rome laureates, entitled The Prix de Rome in Architecture: A Retrospective. Edited by Marco Polo and published by Coach House Books, the 196-page bilingual text sets out to chronicle the history of the Rome Prize from 1987 to 2003. During this time, 21 individuals have benefited from the experience of sustained study while living in Rome. The book includes a foreword by Eric Haldenby that sets the stage for introductory essays by Daniel M. Millette, Marco Polo, and Gary Michael Dault.

Daniel Millette’s essay traces the history of the various academies established in Rome, beginning with the French Acadmie royale d’architecture, founded in 1671, followed by the foundation of the American School’s Rome Prize in 1894 and the subsequent foundation of the Rome Scholarship in 1912 by the British School at Rome. Millette’s argument would benefit from placing the Rome Prize within the larger context of the 18th-century Grand Tour where, for instance, the French Grand Prix de Rome was awarded to Charles de Wailly and later Charles Percier, while London’s Royal Academy followed suit in sending John Soane and Joseph Gandy as pensionnaires to Rome in 1776 and 1790 respectively. Marco Polo then traces the history of the Canadian Rome Prize. He admirably reconstructs the original intentions underlying the Canada Council’s Prix de Rome and traces its rocky trajectory across 17 years. Polo’s essay, “Rome, interrupted,” offers an overview of the establishment of a Canada Council for the Arts Prix de Rome, where laureates of exceptional talent would “pursue personal in-depth research in architecture.” The first legendary hurdle was encountered by the initial laureate, John Shnier, who arrived in Rome to find a little hovel in place of a proper studio. Shnier was magnanimous (read Canadian) enough to spend his tenure locating and renovating a new Canada Council Rome studio facing the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. Other growing pains of the Canadian Prix de Rome include the jury failing to award the prize in 1989, which elicited a Globe and Mail expos by Adele Freedman. In 2004, the most insidious change of the Rome Prize took place when the Canada Council in essence abolished the tradition while retaining the Prix de Rome in name only. This transmogrification effectively put an end to a wonderful tradition that Polo neutrally describes: “While the program that replaced the original Prix de Rome retains its name, it shares little with the original.”1

The third essay by Gary Michael Dault reflects upon the specific projects of select laureates, using a combination of poetic and evocative language that attempts to paint a portrait of each laureate’s contribution to architecture. This is a difficult task, and one that the author does with lan, building on former Prix de Rome articles published in Canadian Architect (November 1999 and November 2000) and elsewhere. Following the introductory essays, the reader encounters the Prix de Rome work with introductory statements by each recipient, arranged in chronological order from 1987 onwards. This section profiles each of the Rome projects, with brief text and image excerpts from the primary Prix de Rome project, followed by a companion section listing other projects by the same architect. The amount of space given over to this other work is, at times, disproportionate. I would prefer the book to have a more full account of work done in Rome rather than demonstrate that there is a direct connection between the Prix de Rome work and future practice.

Within the pages of this book, laureates repeatedly describe Rome as being archaeological, having depth of time and experience, possessing strata that merge and intertwine nature and artifice. Philippe Lupien reflects that Rome is “a city that is not only eternal, but rather eternally rebuilt and reinterpreted,”2 while Pierre Thibault points out that “Rome is a terrain of infinite discovery.”3 It allows reflection and pause, embraces hybrid conditions, and often creates distance in order for laureates to reflect upon their own place of origin. The conditions of Rome combined to assist both Jacques Rousseau and Peter Yeadon to dream quite different architectural fictions regarding time. Thinking between Canada and Rome, contemporary time and geological time, Thibault poetically observes: “In my country, it is nature, not architecture, that marks the passage of time.”4 This observation led Thibault to design six wonderful Winter Gardens in the Quebec landscape. What clearly emerges from this retrospective is that there is an analogical relationship between time spent in Rome and the built projects or installations that have followed.

The strength of this document is twofold. First, it is a full account of the Canada Council’s Rome Prize from its inception in 1986, complete with juries, winners and projects. Second, the book clearly demonstrates how important this award has been to the culture of architecture in Canada. Prix de Rome laureates and juries have been among the most exceptional talents in the country. Following tenure in Rome, laureates have gone on to creative teaching careers, have founded their own firms and have won numerous awards of excellence at provincial, national and international levels. Virtually all Prix de Rome recipients have multivalent practices. They curate gallery shows and create urban installations, write screenplays and fictional narratives, and make furniture, fine drawings and models. Rapid prototyping, video art, projections and cartography are all part of their collective arsenal of architectural representation and expression. This is how reflective praxis should be, no reductive distinctions regarding paper architecture versus built work–paper is drawn upon and folded, models are digital and inhabitable. It is primarily analogical thought that is translated from Rome to the Darling Foundry project in Montreal by Atelier in situ or to Toronto’s Luminous Veil by Dereck Revington. In Montreal, Rome, or Halifax, Jacques Rousseau is constantly “digging with his pen,” to borrow a metaphor from poet Seamus Heaney. With such creative and profound modes of understanding translation, architects ask: “Where does the line exist between geological time and human intervention?” How can we distinguish between architecture and archaeology if we want to express the strata of time? It is in this Roman spirit that Philip Beesley’s lyrical Chthonian Projects reside, as he writes: “Depth is arguably a contemporary partner to transparency.”5

The Prix de Rome in Architecture is wonderfully dense in thought and overtly rich in literary and mythological references. Reading through the complex story of the Canadian Rome Prize leaves me with similar “very mixed feelings” expressed in the opening line of the foreword by Haldenby. This reviewer is seriously left questioning if we, along with the Canada Council, shouldn’t revisit the Prix de Rome tradition considering the consistent quality of its investigation in the art of architecture. Since this book demonstrates that the Prix de Rome has transformed an entire generation of the architectural community in Canada before unconsciously abandoning the ideal of supporting a laureate in the Eternal City, we need to take time to reconsider the lasting value of the prize in relation to our own nascent history and tradition
s. This bittersweet retrospective demonstrates that, above all, there is no replacement for the focus and depth of a year spent immersed in the infinite imagination of Rome.

Terrance Galvin, MRAIC, is Director of the Dalhousie School of Architecture in Halifax where he teaches history courses on Renaissance and Baroque architecture. As an extension of doctoral studies on the English Grand Tour, he was shortlisted for the British School at Rome Prize in 2000.

1 Polo, Marco. “Rome, interrupted,”p. 35.

2 Lupien, Philippe. “Persistences,” p. 109.

3 Thibault, Pierre. “The stroll,” p. 119.

4 Thibault, p. 120.

5 Beesley, Philip. “Chthonian Projects,” p. 107.