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Europe

Rome has its head in the 'Cloud'

This week, the city of Rome celebrated the completion of a landmark architectural project that has proved to be as fleeting and elusive as the form it is named after. Megan Williams reports.

Nuvola, or Cloud in English - the billowy structure composed of perforated fiberglass that appears to float inside a towering glass cube - is the latest creation of 72-year-old Massimiliano Fuksas.

The Rome-based "starchitect" is renowned for flowing designs of mammoth public venues that include everything from the Milan Trade Fair to the honeycombed Shenzhen Bao'an airport in China.

Fuksas first conceived of the Cloud in 1989 when the mayor of Rome held a competition to design a high-end new convention center that would position the capital to better compete with other European cities for lucrative contracts for well-heeled visitors.

"It was during a period in my life when I was teaching at Columbia University in New York and living in Paris," he told DW. "I was constantly flying over the Atlantic and thinking about how different clouds look from above than below. And I was struck by tension in their form - the fact that we know geometry is integral to their form and that yet clouds appears to have nothing to do with geometry."

Italien neues Kongresszentrum in Rom (DW/M. Williams)

The imposing inside of the new convention center in Rome

Difficult birth

Architectural wasn't the only kind of tension to infuse the project.

The more than 300-million-euro ($327-million) project was plagued by financing and bureaucratic problems and construction did not start until 2000. Publicly-backed construction at last began in 2007, but was repeatedly put on hold due to money shortages and red tape.

Three different completion dates were announced, only to have to then cancel then.

"This building has a painful past," admits Enrico Pazzali, of EUR SpA, the public body behind the project. Pazzali told DW the project was initially supposed to be privately funded but failed to attract investors. It wasn't until the company decided to self-fund the construction, selling off four buildings to raise the cash to finish it, that the project finally moved toward completion.

The Nuvola sits in the EUR district, a residential and business area of the Italian capital. It's the neighborhood south of Rome along the wide Cristofero Colombo Avenue that was conceived of under Mussolini in the 1930s as an ode to Fascist ideology - its smooth, towering buildings a version of neoclassicism on steroids.

Bridging a divide

Fuksas says his glass construction with the cloud floating in the middle was also an attempt to capture the tension between EUR and the historic center of Rome.

"Rome itself is a contrast between its Baroque city core with buildings by Bernini and Boromini and the rationalism of EUR," he explains.

Beyond the visual contra-position of the fluid cloud and its rigid glass showcase or frame the building creates, the Nuvola also infuses a cinematic experience into architecture, with the visitor following a structural narrative laid out by Fuksas.

As you approach the glass exterior in daytime, the cloud on the inside is barely discernible, melding into the reflections on the exterior glass windows of building, making it difficult to discern what is a reflection and what is not.

You then descend flight of long stairs that take you through the glass entrance doors and inside the 50-meter-high light-filled cube.

Italien neues Kongresszentrum in Rom (DW/M. Williams)

The building has its fair share of critics, not least those who say it was too long in the making and is already out of date

In front, like a mist rising from the flour to envelope the exposed steel support beams, is the white translucent cloud . A long escalator then carries you inside the puffy form whose rippling steel frames recall un-spooled reels of film.

Fuksas calls the fiberglass the cloud is made of an "extraordinary material" that gives it both a sense of fluidity, as well as an intimate acoustic quality.

Outdated project

"In cinema, there's the concept of editing, which architecture doesn't have, but I made up for this by creating a kind of 'piano sequenza,'" he says, or cinematic tracking shot, where a camera is mounted on a dolly and placed on rails to allow it to follow a certain course. Fuksas dismisses concerns that the 18 years it took from conception to completion of the Nuvola have presented Rome with a "new" trophy building that is already outdated.

"This building is not dated," insists the architect. "Most do, but not all and this one has held up in time…. [That's because] it is not a product of fashion or external impulses, it's a product of passion and emotions."

But as to the question of whether he will float another idea for a landmark building in his home city of Rome, he says no.

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