Rob Russell wonders at the world’s largest unreinforced concrete roof, on Rome’s Pantheon, but despairs at Victor Emmanuel’s overbearing altar to egotism

My wonder is the Pantheon in Rome, built around 125 AD. What is truly amazing about this building is that nearly 1,900 years later, it still has the largest unreinforced concrete roof dome ever built in the world. Admittedly this may be due to the fact that no one would ever dare or be allowed to attempt such a feat in modern times.

The dome shows just how skilled the ancient Romans were at dealing with concrete construction. The building has 25ft thick walls to support the huge dome, with the dome itself constructed through the use of stepped concrete rings which become less dense the higher they go. To do this, the Romans used lighter and lighter aggregate within the concrete, and towards the top it is made almost purely of pumice. But even with its size and presence, it still manages to integrate with its surroundings and bring a calming air to the frenetic world outside.

In contrast my blunder, which is also in Rome, really doesn’t fit in with its neighbours. The Altare della Patria also known as the Vittoriano is the largest national monument in Italy, and was built in honour of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy.

It’s ostentatious, egotistical and really rather monstrous. Finished in 1910, the monument was “chopped” into the Capitoline Hill. It has courted controversy from when it was built, as its construction destroyed a large area of the hill and a medieval neighbourhood. It is so overbearing as to make everything in its shadow feel insignificant.



Rome’s Pantheon was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome, and rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian about 125 AD. It has been used as a Roman Catholic church since the 7th century. Vittorio Emanuele II (in whose honour the Vittoriano was built) is buried here watched over by some of Italy’s diehard monarchists.

altar della patria


The Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) was designed by Giuseppe Sacconi in 1885 and completed in 1925. Commonly referred to as ‘the typewriter’, the monument was opened up as a public forum by President Ciampi and remains a popular tourist destination

Rob Russell is partner at John Rowan and Partners