MAXXI by Zaha Hadid Architects

How does an art institution come to be? Historically, private collections were made public – the Soane Museum for example, or the Louvre, where the king’s private collection was opened to the public after the revolution. In most cases, though, a building was constructed for or around a collection in one way or another. MAXXI is a different beast altogether, a museum with a building that will collect the art as it goes along.

The art museum as an institution and building has gone far from the palatial, awe-inspiring institutions of the 19th century, where the architecture gave the institution gravitas. The 20th century art museum was a different affair, less monumental but much more radical; take the Guggenheim New York, for example. The 1970’s witnessed yet another incarnation of the art museum, exemplified by the Centre Pompidou in Paris; here, the art museum took a step out into the city and became instrumental in redefining local neighbourhoods. A transparent wall dissolved the border between the city and the museum. It was only a matter of time until the architecture began aspiring to being a work of art itself. Arguably, the era of iconic architecture was ushered in by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. The museum building became as important as the collection it housed, if not more. Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome is in many ways the logical continuation of this development: a museum without a collection, a museum that is solely architecture. This evolutionary process gives rise to the question: what in fact constitutes an art museum – its collection or its building?

MAXXI is dedicated to 21st century art, and its collection is to be assembled over time.  It is a museum of future art and architecture. At this moment in time, it stands almost entirely empty in wait of the future, which will adorn its halls with a collection. When I visited earlier this year, the only work on display was a beautiful and comprehensive Luigi Nervi exhibition. The Italian Nervi was the mastermind behind a great deal of grand 20th century architecture and almost certainly a source of inspiration for MAXXI’s design. At the time of my visit, three of the five gallery suites were closed and all of the visitors were congregated in the spectacular entrance hall, and I had the outstanding Nervi exhibition all to myself. I’ll come back to Nervi in a moment.

MAXXI is in many ways a curious project. Perhaps most peculiar of all is that a museum of the future has been constructed in Rome, a city with perhaps more history than any other European city and which is incidentally barely able to handle the upkeep of its countless historical treasures. A few hundred metres away from the Nervi exhibition stands one of Nervi’s original buildings in a state of disrepair. Perhaps it is this very burden of the past that has inspired the museum in the first place; Rome may well need to forget the past once in a while and focus on the future.

The MAXXI is located in northern Rome, in the Flaminio district. Large-scale installations such as Flaminio Stadium and military compounds intermingle with residential districts, and the variation in scales has a strange effect on the urban life; some areas feel almost deserted, whilst others retain the vitality of most of the grand city. From the main approach at Via Flaminia, the museum is all but invisible, its presence signalled by great flags that lead the visitor to the museum. It is a strangely humble approach. Only when one is more or less in front of the museum compound does it suddenly rise up out of the urban fabric; a moving, twisting thing.

One of the museum’s objectives has always been to infuse this area of Rome with life and vitality, presumably in the same way the Centre Pompidou effected Beaubourg. The Centre George Pompidou reaches out into the city, its transparent walls animating the square around it, and the building becomes a part of the urban fabric. The MAXXI, on the other hand, is a compound; its urbanity is inside a clearly defined border, with heavy gates designed with patterns similar to the shape of the museum. The gates are open during opening hours, but the museum has neither desire nor ambition to melt into the surrounding city.

The compound itself is made up of quite a few renovated barracks buildings and Zaha Hadid’s new museum. Between them is a landscape/urban space, also designed by Hadid, where lines and materials swoop through and “energise” the space. This space has the potential to become an interesting space in daytime, although the museum’s enormous gates keep it quite separated from the surrounding city.

The MAXXI was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in the late 1990’s, and like any humongous, technologically advanced building, it took a long time to build. This means that the MAXXI is a product of Zaha Hadid’s office from the days before NURBS modelling software changed the output forever. In terms of ZHA chronology, the building looks as if it should have been finished quite a few years ago. On the other hand, the energy of the architect herself is more present and palpable than in her later work.

It is never very much fun to analyse a Zaha Hadid building from a functional perspective; it almost inevitably leads to a certain smug satisfaction in the observation of mistakes in execution and design. The same goes for materiality and detailing, which have never been the office’s strong side – and let’s face it –are simply not the reason why people choose ZHA. Zaha Hadid is employed is to deliver grand architecture, architecture with spectacular spaces, energy and power, architecture that defies gravity.

In that respect, MAXXI is a success. Since its opening last year, critics have used all the bombastic words in their vocabulary to describe and praise it. It has been compared to baroque masters like Borromini and most other great structures of the eternal city. ZHA aims to merge landscape and architecture, which is a very interesting ambition indeed. In MAXXI, it is rather successful. The great entrance hall which connects all of the spaces feels more like a canyon or a cavern than a space inside a building. It is a fluid space that meanders, turns and twists and captivates. The colossal entrance hall is a marvel to the eye, its grandeur only slightly diminished by the hollow ‘clonk, clonk’ as one ascends or descends the metal staircases. The great hall has justly been referred to as Piranesian, and one can readily see why. The meandering staircases interweave high above your head, disappear and reappear in a very complex space. The sheer energy of Zaha Hadid is very present, and it is breathtaking as a space. The architecture must however be measured against its ambitions.

A Piranesian system is by definition introverted, forever losing itself in itself, and it is very difficult to imagine it relating to a world outside. MAXXI is attempting to be both extroverted and introverted simultaneously, and should probably be credited for succeeding so well in the circumstances. In order to complete the Piranesian illusion, a looping system is essential. It requires continuity. In order to simulate infinity, all spaces must lead back to the starting point in one way or another. The MAXXI, however, has its fair share of cul-de-sacs, which are fatal to the illusion of infinity. It works some of the time, making those galleries which lead you into a blank wall or a window out onto the rather dull surrounding neighbourhood all the more disappointing.

The ambition level of the project is extremely high, and the museum contains a number of fantastic spaces within its gargantuan shell, the most magnificent of which is the giant hall. Spatially, it almost succeeds in creating the illusion of a Piranesian warped space it intends to, but where the building attempts contact with the city outside and in the cul-de-sacs, the illusion is brought to its knees. Ironically, it is when Zaha Hadid acknowledges the context that her architecture suffers, at least in this case. Still, the ambition and energy put into the project have to be applauded – it is a spectacular achievement to construct this building anywhere, perhaps even more so in Rome, a city notoriously difficult to build in.

The MAXXI was built as a kind of speculative art museum, almost entirely without a brief; the program will supposedly emerge over the coming century. It is an art museum built backwards, where the building is constructed first and subsequently over time filled with art as the century goes on. It is a fascinating experiment in how to construct a museum from zero. This concept as well as the museum building itself are very much products of their time; the age of iconic architecture, where form and architectural form triumph over content and substance, where the ‘container’, so to speak, is more important than its content.

Is MAXXI the ultimate incarnation of the iconic building – architecture entirely without a programme? This remains to be seen. Should it manage over time to fill its vast, curvy, cavernous shoes with an interesting programme and collection, it may well be successful; if not, it will become a gigantic folly, a testimony to the credit-happy-go-lucky days of the 2000’s.

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