ROME (Reuters) - On the banks of the Tiber river by two baroque churches and Emperor Augustus' 2,000-year-old Mausoleum sits a marble, glass and steel structure -- the first modern building to rise in Rome's historic centre.
But unlike the ancient landmarks around it, the Ara Pacis Museum, designed by U.S. architect Richard Meier and unveiled two years ago, may not last -- at least in its present form.
Rome's new right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, promised upon taking office in April to tear it down, saying it lacked "compatibility" with the heart of the ancient city.
He has since partly backtracked, saying removing the structure is not an immediate priority.
But the Culture Ministry has weighed into the debate, with Undersecretary Francesco Maria Giro proposing to take down one of the building's adjacent walls, and lower another, so that the churches behind it are not obscured.
"It's ugly and excessive ... a slap in the face to Roman citizens. If it was up to me, I'd demolish it completely, but because we haven't got the money, this is not possible," he said, touring the museum at the end of July.
Whether it survives or not, Meier's building has become a symbol of a fierce controversy over how far, if at all, the Eternal City should let contemporary architecture take its place alongside the Colosseum or Michelangelo's dome.
"We are a city enslaved by its past, so hung-up on being the home of art, culture and creativity that it doesn't realize that in reality it is static and hostage to politicians, archaeologists and intellectuals who talk and talk but do nothing," said Roman architect Francesco Coppari.
Meier's construction is a reliquary to house the 1st century BC Ara Pacis, a sacrificial altar with marble friezes commissioned by Emperor Augustus and dedicated to peace in what is now France and Spain.
In 1995, when Rome was run by the centre-left, Meier won a contract to build the transparent structure and replace a crumbling building erected under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
The Ara Pacis Museum was championed by former mayors Francesco Rutelli and Walter Veltroni as part of a series of cultural initiatives to drag Rome into the new millennium.
Yet the award-winning architect, whose works include museums in Los Angeles, Barcelona and Frankfurt, battled more than 10 years to achieve his 16 million euro ($24.9 million) project amid budget squabbles and street protests.
Vittorio Sgarbi, an outspoken art critic, once described Meier's Ara Pacis as "an indecent cesspit," a cross between a petrol station and a pizzeria.
Several people living and working near the museum also call it an eyesore.
"It's disgusting. They put modernity right next to these two ancient churches, covering them," said Franco Rocca, who owns a bar around the corner. "Unfortunately, this is a city where that kind of architecture just won't be accepted," he said.
Supporters of new projects say Rome struggles to embrace modernity like other Western capitals -- in direct conflict with its past as a cultural icon.
From Michelangelo to Fellini, around the world the designation "Italian" has been synonymous not only with beauty, great art and culture but also innovation. Today however change and innovation are struggling to be accepted.
Over the past decade, a handful of new projects -- mainly in the suburbs -- have actually started to challenge Roman attitudes to contemporary building.
Renzo Piano opened Rome's Auditorium concert hall in 2002. British-Iraqi Zaha Hadid is building a modern art gallery, the Maxxi, half a mile north of the old city walls.
And Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas has conceived a modernist convention centre for the south of the city, incorporating a large steel-and-Teflon structure known as the "Cloud."
Others fear that because the cultural revival of Rome is mainly associated with Alemanno's centre-left predecessors, the debate is more about politics than aesthetics.
"This is a sad legacy of the previous administration, imposed on citizens from the top by two mayors who wanted it at any cost," said Giro, who like Alemanno is an ally of conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, as he visited the Ara Pacis Museum.
Coppari said: "If Rome carries on in this way, it will become a beautiful necropolis, beautiful for the Japanese who come for the shopping and the Americans who get drunk in the centre, but it certainly won't be a modern city."
Editing by Mary Gabriel