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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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The other day, the scaffolding came down from one of the most awaited construction projects in Berlin this year, at least by me; the L-40 at the end of Linienstraße, on the corner of Rosa Luxemburg Platz and Torstraße. For once, I can easily fit architecture, urbanism and art into the same post.

The building is designed by BundschuhBaumhauer in collaboration with artist Cosima von Bonin and is located in Mitte on the border of Prenzlauer Berg, in other words, right where the New Berlin is rising. The block the L-40 has landed in was constructed in the first decades of the 1900’s and centered on the Volksbühne, the People’s Theatre, from 1914. The block around it was a homogenous composition of residential buildings, some were destroyed during the Second World War leaving the area full of holes that have since gradually been filled in.

The reconstruction of the neighborhood left an empty, awkward, triangular site at the northern end of the Volksbühne area. Despite its central location, the site remained empty for many years, its shape made development difficult. The origins of the building that now stands there was a smaller art project for the site created by Roger Bundschuh and artist Cosima von Bonin, in the form of sausage stand a few years ago. In dialogue with the client, the project evolved to become a residential building.

The thing that attracted me right from the start was the uncompromising nature of the project. The concept was a black concrete monolith, and now, as the scaffolding comes down, there is a black concrete monolith. In Berlin, concepts are so habitually washed down and value-engineered that when the building finally stands there it looks like pre-fabricated standard issue, and is usually very hard to distinguish from similar projects that have gone through the same process. Not so here, this building is anything but run of the mill, its exterior is rather hostile with its sharp corners in combination with large solid walls of concrete. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the perseverance in pushing such a project through is astounding.

As a work of architecture I appreciate the clean lines, the material qualities of the concrete, and the idea of turning the standard Berlin tenement house inside out. One of the primary concepts of the project was to attempt to open up the courtyard rather than use it as a second grade source of light that is one of the main problems of the Berlin tenement blocks. All of these are qualities that are not very common in architecture in this city. A rigid planning code and cost cutting measures create numerous obstacles. The flats themselves are interesting, and quirky. For a speculative project, they are frankly courageous in their layout. The building is as mentioned a speculative project, and this means that the flats are designed for hypothetical buyers, in this case hypothetical art-collectors. Yet they are highly personalized and anything but standard. The flats are laid out with an Elizabethan long gallery as a centerpiece. This is a rather introverted space with mainly skylights, intended for the display of artworks and is a form of a private gallery. This is an interesting take on the flat layout, and I really enjoy the fact that somebody has got the guts to do something other than the market optimized solutions routinely employed by everybody these days.

The borderline between art and architecture is fuzzy at best, and sometimes produces very amusing or tragic hybrids and results. This blog has previously covered the collaboration between Chipperfield and Gormley in Kivik, Sweden. This structure was conceived and built as a sculpture, and led an existence as one, until one day, some unhappy neighbor filed a complaint to the local council, claiming that it was in fact a building and not a sculpture. The local council resolved the question in a very bureaucratic way, declaring:

“A building is a durable construction of a roof and walls that on the ground, and is large enough to allow people to enter” (my translation, the Swedish version can be found here)

This meant that the structure had been illegally constructed since it did not have planning permission, furthermore would the sculpture then have to be adapted to the rather rigorous Swedish Construction code, equipped with 1.10 m rails on the platforms, disabled facilities and so forth. In short, as art it was a great project, while as architecture it became useless.

The indistinct border between art and architecture is an issue that has haunted primarily the architectural profession at least since Michelangelo’s day. This text will not attempt to settle that question but will only mention a few questions that pop up.

The building has been called a hybrid between art and architecture, or a sculpture to live in. The origins of the L-40 building were, as I mentioned previously, an art project on the site. If this building is a sculpture, then whose sculpture is it, and of what? Is the building a sculpture full of wealthy art collectors’ condos for the enjoyment of the city, or does the building in fact become a monument to the egos of its builders, or its wealthy art-collector inhabitants? The second possibility is decidedly less attractive. It is hard to see it as a work of public art as there is no public access to the building. I usually do not have any reservations about architects referring to public buildings as art projects. Here on the other hand, we are looking at a private structure that has an enormous impact on the context, and the questions of whose artwork it is, and its role in relation to the public become relevant.

I prefer to look at it, not as a sculpture with elements of architecture, but rather as an art project that became architecture at one point. As far as I have understood the design process, the artist on the project Cosima von Bonin was more involved in the early stages of the project, before it turned into architecture. In my opinion, the sculptural part may have been an integral part of the process, but the end result is so much more attractive if we look at it as architecture rather than art. The questions raised by it as an art project would have an impact on its role and functionality as architecture, and in an urban context.

The relationship between art and architecture is never easy or simple. Architecture needs to be “nice” in the sense that it is created to make the situation better for somebody, to shelter, to protect, to sell or some other reason. Architecture needs a purpose. As a consequence, architecture needs to be “functional” in the sense that it is always measured in relation to its purpose. Art suffers from no such petty preconditions; it can be whatever it wants to be, it can ask questions or provoke in ways architecture is not allowed to. Art is often more interesting if it is not nice or functional, while the same work as architecture would lose all legitimization, and sometimes vice versa.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, the L-40 project is an interesting exploration of the enormously complex borderline between art and architecture, on a scale and level rarely experienced in Berlin these days.

Very soon after September 11, 2001,  the dual roles of the Ground Zero site became clear. The site was to act as a memorial for the victims and was at the same time a piece of prime real estate. These two were very hard to combine. For years nothing seemed to happen. Competitions were held, and various rather horrific combinations of memorial and profitable office space were selected and questioned over and over again.

Now, it appears that construction is finally on the way, and things are starting to come up out of the ground after 8 years. I’m not sure what it will be, whether it is Snøhetta’s, Foster’s, Rogers’, Calatrava’s or Libeskind’s building that will be there, possibly it has all been hijacked by SOM and generic office towers will fill in the gap. Whatever it is, it feels rather good that something is happening and that the scar will be healed eventually.

In one very definite sense was the hole the most effective memorial there could be. It is not about whether that would allow the enemy to win or not, but it puts the entire catastrophe into the present in a way a memorial could never do. As soon as a memorial is constructed, the event memorialized is effectively put into history. A scar drags the events of 9.11 into the present while a memorial, any memorial, no matter how it’s designed, will effectively put the events into the history books.

One could therefore argue that the scar in the urban fabric is the ultimate memorial, It keeps the events in the present forever, much more effectively than any memorial. It is this that every day reminds Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular about the “War on Terror”. The physical void corresponds to the psychological void in people’s minds in a very minimalistic but effective way. I find it interesting that the last parcel of land was handed over to the developers just when the US politics shifted focus from having the War on Terror as the top priority. The void could then hypothetically have been used as an instrument of politics, as a way of stretching, or bridging the past into the present.

The void itself is not empty, and the symbolism of the void can be quite powerful. A void is a something not a nothing, there is no Tabula Rasa. No matter how much symbolism you try to load into the office towers that will be built, they will just be buildings, and they will put this quite awkward period of America and the world into the history books rather than eternally revolving on the prime-time news. Construction on Ground Zero is making peace with the rest of the world, it is putting an end to the state of emergency that has served as an excuse for humans doing rather horrific things to each other for far too long.

It is interesting to look at why we construct monuments, sometimes we construct them not to remember, but to forget. We build memorials to allow ourselves to move on and detach ourselves from the past by loading a physical structure with the guilt, sorrow and other emotions. The memorial gives us a distance to the event its created to commemorate. It also provides us with a physical structure where we can remember, but the structure or space takes on many of the immediate emotions and memories. The structure remembers, history remembers, so we don’t have to. Our minds are liberated by it, free to go on with our lives and to live in the present instead of the past. In that way, the monument is a great structure, a very human structure that sets us free to live our own lives, in our own day and age.


Anthony Gormley
and David Chipperfield have together designed a pavilion at Kivik Art Centre in the south Swedish countryside. It is the first collaborative project between the artist and the architect and consists of three concrete volumes of 100 cubic meters each; the cave, the stage and the tower.

The cave, at the bottom, is a rather introspective closed space of solitude. It also serves as a sort personal air lock separating you from the world, and the queue, outside.

Next floor up is the stage, where you stand on a stage looking into the forest and your body becomes a part of the installation. The surrounding forest observes you, and you look back at it.

At the top you find yourself looking out over the tree tops, you are an observer looking out at the world from an isolated observation tower.

The volumes are meant to capture three ways of experiencing the local landscape, and how your body and mind relate to these experiences. Only one person at a time is allowed to enter the pavilion, and this helps preserve contemplative nature of the work.

The idea behind Kivik Art Centre is to create a centre for artists with workshops and eventually a permanent exhibition space. The problem is as always money. The foundation does not own the land where the pavilion stands and lacks the funding to buy it at the moment.

The pavilion has received a lot of international media attention from Wallpaper, the Guardian and a number of other magazines. In Sweden on the other hand, mostly the local papers, and one or two of the national ones have shown it any attention.

The majority of the Swedish attention has, however, been on the fact that you can spot some celebrity’s house from the tower- and he has demanded that the pavilion should be torn down. This makes you fear for the future of the Kivik Art Centre, and for the state of culture in Sweden in general.