Under Construction: Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI

Last weekend, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI museum in Rome opened to the public. This two-day “architecture preview” proved so popular that museum administrators had to extend the event to a second weekend, and I was quick enough to reserve a ticket for round two.

For the past week, the architecture blogosphere (twitterverse?) has been flooded with critiques of the building, each blogger/journalist/theorist trying desperately to put the MAXXI in context. Nicolai Ouroussoff casts Zaha Hadid as a modern-day Bernini – bonding with an “ecstatic” Pope over caffè – making plans to transform the Eternal City (for the better). Aaron Betsky (channeling Mark Wigley) sees the work as an “instant ruin,” the “spatial magnificence” of the empty galleries providing as good a lesson to would-be architects as the fragmentary remains of antiquity. Rowan Moore (of The Architects Journal UK) attempts to place the MAXXI in Hadid’s oeuvre.

While none of these authors make definitive statements about the eventual impact of the project, there is a palpable sense of conclusion in their writing, mirroring the completion of the MAXXI’s signature building. The long-awaited opening seemed to be a signal to journalists: the incisive reviews (with their decisive conclusions) poured forth like celebrity obituaries after a beloved actor’s demise.

I believe it’s too soon to assess (or predict) the impact of this (undeniably-important) piece of architecture. After all, the building is not yet complete, and we must wait until spring for a proper exhibition. I’ll no doubt return to the MAXXI at some point (both physically and theoretically), but for now I’ll leave you with some fragmentary thoughts – and photos – from today’s opening.

1. On Hadid’s Oeuvre

The competition for the MAXXI was announced in 1998, after Hadid had completed the Vitra Fire Station (1994) and the CAC (1998). Formally, this does seem to have a lot in common with these early projects, and little in common with the latest proposals that veer towards more complex geometries. Some have suggested that this is due to a shift in her design process from hand-drawing (and painting) to digital modeling, and I think the clarity of the design reflects this. The form seems to evolve primarily in plan, with the curved gallery bands referencing the local infrastructure, deflecting around existing buildings, and shifting vertically when needed. The relative simplicity of the design is more appealing to me than the “parametricism” Hadid’s partner (and MAXXI’s lead designer) Patrik Schumacher now advocates. It will be interesting to see the public reaction to MAXXI: will the expected enthusiasm (coupled with economic constraints) cause Hadid to revisit her earlier work?

[Plans from Aaron Betsky's blog post. Probably copyright MAXXI]

[Google Maps, Showing MAXXI under construction]

2. On Context

Hadid has said that the MAXXI should act more as a “field” than an “object” (lifting lines, no doubt, from Stan Allen, Rosalind Krauss, etc), indicating that the MAXXI should embody an “urban” condition, tied to the surrounding city. This is simply not the case. Until last weekend, of course, the MAXXI complex was hidden behind construction fencing, physically and visually disconnected from the surrounding area. Today – though ostensibly open to the public – the campus is just as secluded, surrounded by a permanent security fence. The curves of the gallery walls seem to explicitly reference the nearby streets, but automated gates apparently open only for installations, and access to the MAXXI campus is allowed only through the main entrance.

Ignoring the lack of connection to the immediate urban conditions, one could say that the MAXXI is contextual – when context is considered as an international condition; as (in the words of Jeff Kipnis) a “metropolitan field.” The curves of the gallery walls mimic the local infrastructure, but this local condition is regional, national, continental, and global. The concrete structure of Hadid’s LF1 in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany doesn’t only resemble the typical highway overpass in southern Germany – it resembles the typical highway overpass everywhere: the infrastructural city is a global condition, and the MAXXI references and contributes to this conception of urbanity, without regard to its immediate surroundings.

3. On Bilbao

The MAXXI competition was organized shortly after the completion of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. It may have been to soon to tell if the “Bilbao Effect” would work for Rome, but the potential for a spectacular project by a world-renowned architect to regenerate cultural interest (and economic activity) in the city must not have gone unnoticed. Though I don’t know the politics, I think Rome must have felt a tinge of jealousy as 90s/00s “starchitecture” largely bypassed the Eternal City, and the completion of the MAXXI does feel a bit late, at such an ostentatious construction seems to belong to an era before last year’s financial collapse.

4. On “Instant Ruins”

Formally, aesthetically, visually, experientially, the MAXXI is a tour-de-force. The Piranesi references are all well-deserved. It’s an amazing space, and successful on a pure, visceral, sculptural level, regardless of functionality. In this regard, Betsky and Wigley are right: it could remain empty forever, standing vacant as an example of what architects and artists are capable, a contemporary counterpoint to the Baths of Caracalla, or Hadrian’s Villa, or the Colosseum. If today’s event was any indication, people are more than willing to wander around the space, taking photo after photo, their glazed expressions no different from the tourists in the Forum. They pre-registered in advance for the privilege. Does the MAXXI need a collection? Why not market it as a modern ruin? Charge admission for the building itself. Who needs art?

5. On Function

Obviously, we need art. As an art museum, the MAXXI has to function. We’ll see the system of hanging partitions next spring when the first exhibition opens, but it seems to me that the galleries have spaces that are varied enough to provide appropriate viewing environments for (perhaps) every type of art… while the continuous gallery spaces may seem too dynamic for traditional shows, I believe the continuity of the gallery space will ultimately prove beneficial. The spaces Hadid provides are varied, but the main gallery spaces are restrained. There seems to be ample room for traditional curation, but endless opportunity for more ambitious exhibition design.

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It’s a complex building, a complex political, social, and cultural climate, and – perhaps most presciently – a complex issue for architecture journalism. I feel it’s impossible to give a proper summation of the project at this point in time – as it’s still incomplete – but we can all hope that the successful realization of this project will lead to a careful re-evaluation of Zaha Hadid’s early work and an amplification of the discourse of contemporary art and architecture in modern Rome.

Until then, I’ll consider the MAXXI - and my opinions – to be “under construction.”

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-More of my photos on Flickr.

EUR & La Sapienza

Most travel guides will, briefly, mention the EUR district to the south of Rome. An exemplary collection of Fascist-modernism, the guides suggest that curious tourists take a few hours to wander down the wide boulevards, and experience the contrast between this area and the ancient Roman streets of the city center.

The EUR district was designed as a campus for the Esposizione Universal Romana 1942, located towards the south of the city as part of an attempt to reconnect Rome with the sea (through its port at Ostia). Taken together with new towns built on the drained Pontine Marshes, the EUR district is evidence of a larger plan by Mussolini’s Fascist regime to modernize and reclaim the underutilized lands to the south of the city. Though some of this plan was carried out in the 1930s (as evidenced by the construction of towns such as Latina and Sabaudia), EUR had to wait for completion until after World War II. Stylistically it represents the culmination of Italian fascist-modernism.


Laid out on a cardo & decumanus (a rational urban planning technique used for ancient Roman military camps and colonies), and constructed in travertine and brick (a conscious material choice intended to echo the grandeur of Ancient Rome) the EUR district is almost oppressively grand. The massive scale of the complex is intimidating to anyone on foot: on the few occasions I’ve visited the major axes have been devoid of life. The typically Roman water fountains are conspicuously absent – especially noticeable on a hot August day. Though there is some relief to be found on the tree-lined side streets, it is clear that this district was not designed for pedestrians, a fact reinforced by the ample parking – another contrast with the historic center.

Architecturally, the EUR district is a great example of late-stage fascist-era Italian modernism. Even if completed after the War, the unique synthesis of modernism and neo-classicism perfectly reflects the policies of Mussolini’s regime. There is a conscious effort to strip the buildings of unnecessary ornamentation and to place an emphasis on basic platonic forms. These rational principles from the modern movement are augmented by stylistic reference to ancient Roman architecture, a theme that appears again and again in the work of Italian architects from the 1900s to present day. Here in the EUR district, the major landmarks all make reference to classical precedents. The “Square Colosseum” (the Palazzo della Civilita Italica by architects G. Guerrini, E.B. La Padula, and M. Romano) is of course the most obvious example, and the other major public buildings all feature colonnades, at various levels of abstraction.

The EUR district was designed primarily by architect and urban planner Marcello Piacentini, who was director of the magazine Architettura and a key figure in the Fascist regime. By the time of the EUR design, his style had clearly been codified and adopted by the architects given these landmark commissions, but a few years earlier in the masterplan for the Università di Roma – La Sapienza (1935), he seems to have given the young group of invited architects much more freedom.

Piacentini’s own design for the main building at La Sapienza represents the same principles seen later at EUR, but here the scale is much more manageable. As a university campus, it embraces housing and public space in a way that EUR perhaps could not, but the result is a pleasant, human-scaled, and pedestrian friendly campus. While not in the heart of the city, it is close to Termini station, and a much quicker visit for architecturally-inclined tourists.


It is especially interesting to look at the work of other architects on campus. The curved facade of the Faculty of Chemistry (by architect Pietro Aschieri), is a near-Baroque interpretation of the monumental entry to Piacentini’s main building. Painted in a vernacular burnt sienna, and detailed with rationalist handrails and window details, the building is a playful and eclectic mix of the vernacular, the rational, and the neoclassical that would not be tolerated a few short years later.

Other buildings range from the severe to the downright odd. The Institute of Minerology and Geology (an early work by Giovanni Michelucci, architect of the incredible Chiesa dell’Autostrada del Sole outside of Florence) is surprisingly restrained….

http://www.flickr.com/photos/evandagan/3956401838/in/set-72157622459326316

… while the Institute of Mathematics (architect Gio Ponti) is composed of clashing forms that somehow manage to define a classical entrance….

… and the Institute of Physics (by Giuseppe Pagano) best represents the synthetic style of the campus as a whole, with its clear geometric forms rendered in brick and travertine, augmented by details (such as the entry overhang) that owe a debt to streamline modernism.

In conclusion (and to extend the conceit that this blog could possibly be used as a travel guide) for visitors to Rome seeking a little modernism with their antiquities, I can definitely recommend either EUR or La Sapienza for a quick visit, and preferably both as I believe the subtle differences in style are fascinating.

EUR can be reached on the Metro: Line B to EUR Magliana, EUR Palasport, or EUR Fermi depending on what you want to see first. Be sure to print a map ahead of time or take a guidebook, as this is off the typical tourist track. [Map]

La Sapienza is just a short walk from Termini station. [Map]