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MAXXI museum, Rome by Zaha Hadid Architects

True to form, Zaha Hadid’s long-awaited MAXXI museum in Rome is bold, demanding and provocative, says Rowan Moore. Photography by Roland Halbe

‘Stupefacente,’ says an architect, in admiration. ‘Relentlessly hideous,’ says a critic.

Both are touring Zaha Hadid’s latest work, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts, or MAXXI, in Rome. Both are committed, perceptive, sensitive people. They can’t both be right. Zaha has provoked extreme reactions ever since she caught the attention of the architectural world with her 1983 competition-winning project in Hong Kong, The Peak.

Is her work all about form and flash at the expense of the physical, phenomenal, lived experiences of buildings?

Back then, older architects complained that they couldn’t see how the columns and stairs lined up and didn’t believe it could be built. Current Hadid debates run on similar but not identical lines: is her work all about form and flash at the expense of the physical, phenomenal, lived experiences of buildings? Are museums like MAXXI concerned too much with their power as icons, and with how they look on opening day? When art is installed – as has not yet happened in Rome - will both art and architecture be diminished?

MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid

Source: Roland Halbe

MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid

Now the criticism tends to come from a younger generation, and the scathing critic in the opening paragraph is a quarter-century younger than the revered architect. Hadid’s career has followed a remarkable trajectory: ten years ago she was the martyr of Cardiff, the heroic visionary who had built little.

Now, whether she wanted this or not, she is the Pritzker Prize-winning embodiment of iconic architecture, and therefore a target for anyone wanting to rebel against the excess, egoism, wastefulness and irresponsibility - perceived and real - of the era. A significant moment came when her Chanel Pavilion, a lavish temporary art gallery built to celebrate Chanel handbags, opened in Central Park, a month after the Lehman Brothers bank collapse.

A significant moment came when her Chanel Pavilion opened in Central Park. It was bad timing

It was bad timing: in the New York Times Nicolai Ouroussoff said that it ‘sets out to drape an aura of refinement over a cynical marketing gimmick […] The wild, delirious ride that architecture has been on […] looks as if it’s finally coming to an end.’ He added: ‘You may think it hasn’t come soon enough.’

The making of MAXXI spans that decade.

Zaha Hadid Architects won the competition for the project in 1999 and, thanks to bureaucracy in a period that saw six changes of administration in Italy, the museum is not due to open to the public until spring 2010. It is both a major work of an earlier phase in her career, when substantial commissions were beginning to arrive, and exhibit A in the current debate as to what exactly are her, and her practice’s, strengths and weaknesses.

First, though, it’s worth recalling the reasons for Zaha Hadid’s status and celebrity. Her Peak project reveals several: it was electrifying for the boldness and completeness of the then 32-year-old’s style, and had an assurance that ran through the urban thinking, the spatial organisation and the famous, explosive, paintings of the project.

The Peak Blue Slabs by Zaha Hadid

The Peak Blue Slabs by Zaha Hadid

At a time when post-modernism was entering its cynical and bloated middle-age, when most of modern architecture had suffered a collective nervous breakdown, and when Prince Charles was first emerging as a major force in British architecture, this work stood out for its passion, skill and lack of fear. Her fertile invention has fed the repertoire of architects ever since.

Even quieter designers permit themselves the occasional inflection or angle or tilted plane. She was also a major force in szhaping the urban modernism that came out of the Architectural Association in the 1970s, along with Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi and others.

If much of earlier modernism had been based on fear and loathing of cities, seeking instead a Corbusian idyll of verdure and Cartesian geometry, Hadid and co celebrated the energy, instability and conflict of contemporary city life.

Its aim was to refresh and reinvent the relation of city life to fantasy

The question remained whether she was a proper architect or a paper one. Was this work really about space and matter, or was it about graphic facility? (So sharp was her handdrawn imagery that some critics thought it was the work of computers; in fact her office’s IT infrastructure then amounted to no more than two Amstrad word processors.)

Model of Cardiff Opera House

Model of Cardiff Opera House

Her best answer to these questions was the doomed design for Cardiff Bay Opera House. Here was a design working in plan, section and elevation. Its aim was to refresh and reinvent the relation of city life to fantasy that is the essence of theatre. It was the creative, three-dimensional working of the elements of the building, a setting for the actions it would contain.

This is architecture as defined by certain strands of modernism, by constructivists and by Oscar Niemeyer, for example. It is about the inspired and artistic manipulation of space. The preferred material is concrete, for the formal freedom it gives, and for its potential for daring spans and cantilevers.

It is also clearly intended to say something about Rome, that the city’s spectacular history of architecture is not over

Designed five years after Cardiff, MAXXI developed this brand of spatial composition. MAXXI is a gallery whose intended content is, even now, broadly defined. It is a ‘multi-disciplinary and multi-purpose campus’ whose two main elements are art and architecture. It is also clearly intended to say something about Rome, to send a message that the city’s spectacular history of architecture is not over.

Source: Roland Halbe

It was commissioned in the aftermath of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and, if Rome might have less to prove than the Basque city, it was apparently almost as insecure about its contemporary importance. Thus the competition jury went for Hadid, who proposed to sweep away almost all the military buildings that were on the site.

Moreover, she presented her characteristic paintings and drawings in which the location, a quietish zone off the Via Flaminia, would be energised by lines, curved and straight, parallel and intersecting. It looked part transport infrastructure (a railway interchange diagram, for example,) part modern version of the snake-encrusted statue of Laocoon.

She calls the project ‘a field more than an object’, meaning that her intention was to form an urban territory composed of the museum and its surroundings, with a rich, overlapping tissue of inside and out. This idea includes two further blocks - containing a residence for artists, a restaurant, library and other uses - which are intended to be realised in the future. She also talks about the ‘layers’ of the building.

As Rome, she says, is built on layers descending through time, MAXXI raises new planes of construction above ground. Built, the museum becomes more physical than the drawings suggest.

Source: Roland Halbe

As always in Hadid’s work, drawn imagery suggesting weightlessness is realised as massive construction, and is the better for it. Without the planned hotel and restaurant, it is also less enmeshed and less field-like than intended. Externally it presents more as a Laocoon than as infrastructure, an object within defined boundaries, albeit one with intrigue.

It is something you can’t comprehend in one go, that has to be unravelled through walking around and into it. An oblique public route is made possible alongside the building, across a peaceful, mildly leafy, plaza in the space where the future buildings are planned to go. There is a striking and quite inscrutable overhang, a distant descendant of a classical portico, formed by tubes of internal circulation projecting over the plaza. Horizontal sliced openings create unexpected connections with the interior, beginning an interweaving of inside and out.

You know you are in the presence of something powerful.

But the main drama is reserved for the inside. As you enter the high entrance hall, fronds of stair, gallery and bridge unfurl above you, in a celebration of movement that is unashamedly extravagant. It is rendered with a touch of Miami that Hadid sometimes allows herself amid the grey concrete, with black steel balustrades and bright, white-lit soffits.

Source: Roland Halbe

The stairs then feed you into warped and layered tubes of space, which are the galleries. The bunches of parallel lines in the drawings turn out to be steel fins, part of the roof structure, which give the spaces a linear, tram-like sense of direction. The tubes overlay and interrupt each other, with sometimes lesser tubes running off and returning. Floors step and slope, creating an interior landscape that Hadid calls ‘immersive’.

There is a structural order, derived from the fact that the walls of the tubes are load-bearing, in order to make the interior column-free, but the design does not seek to be systematic, and many of the design decisions are left to instinct. The interior, like the stair hall that anticipates it, glorifies movement, making individual experience and shared spectacle out of the flow of people through the building. Moving and looking are two aspects of museum space, and the design intensifies both.

There are loops and dead ends, some of which seem intended, others not.

It is not, however, a frictionless flow: this is not a high-tech world of travelators and stainless steel. The design generates what Hadid calls ‘confluence, interference and turbulence’, and there is no single route through the building. There are loops and dead ends, some of which seem intended, others not.

You eventually discover that the topmost stair in the entrance hall, and a long run of bridge, reaches only a single relatively small (if also spectacular) room. There are also crunches and crashes in the project, unresolved collisions of geometry, and some signs of struggle in its making, manifest as wonky junctions or blotchy concrete.

MAXXI is a knottier work, in good ways and bad, than the imagery of dynamism and flow would imply.

The obvious question is whether it will be any good at showing art or whether, as in Oscar Niemeyer’s Contemporary Art Museum in Niterói, Brazil, the architectural magnificence crumples when faced with the art it is meant to serve.

Source: Roland Halbe

When the scathing critic called MAXXI ‘relentlessly hideous’, it was because of the large volumes, the insistently striped ceilings, the sloping walls, the changes of level and the non-linear circulation that do not make a classical environment for showing art. Patrik Schumacher, who co-designed the building with Hadid, describes how a system of partitions can hang from the ceiling beams, allowing a huge range of configurations, but this is not the same thing as designing a building centred on the display of objects.

Hadid, though, opposes ‘the idea that you can only see art in a white box: otherwise you could never see it in a baroque interior.’ She cites Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York as a space long derided as a poor place for art, until curators found a way to be inspired rather than irritated by the architecture. She also likes a similarly cussed space in London, the Hayward Gallery.

It is wrought, made, considered, not glib.

The art she imagines most for her interior is big, strong stuff - installations, video pieces, Anish Kapoors - and it will require big, strong curatorship and generous curatorial budgets to make it work. Neither of the latter are yet in evidence and it’s easy to foresee a rocky few years while the institution catches up with its architecture.

You can also see that, like New York’s Guggenheim, the MAXXI will provoke memorable and unique displays. You would have to have a heart of concrete not to be moved and impressed by the adventure of MAXXI’s spaces, or appreciate the sense of discovery they offer.

You would also have to be obtuse to see this as ‘iconic’ architecture, in the sense of the mindless generation of form for instant effect. This has a mind, and there are ideas behind its composition, about the relationship of art to museums, to people and to cities. It is wrought, made, considered, not glib.

Source: Roland Halbe

This is not the self-referential system of, say, a Santiago Calatrava museum.

It is more engaged than the work of Hadid’s hero Niemeyer. It is, for sure, demanding. It does not give an easy life to the people who have made it, or the people whose job will be to make it work in the future. It shows little interest in sustainability. You would not want most, or many, museums to be like this.

You would not want most museums to be like this

Its ambitions carry the risk of failure. You might want the Hadid office to learn from the building’s snarl-ups. To appreciate MAXXI you also have to believe that buildings work as signs as well as instruments: that its role as an image for modern Rome is important.

But MAXXI shows that Hadid is, as she was before the boom years, an architect. She is someone who invents, using space and structure, social places. Its main message is that she should continue to do this.

Source: Roland Halbe

Project data

Start on site 2003
Contract duration 9 years
Gross internal floor area 30,000m2
Form of contract General Contractor Tender
Total cost 150 million euros (£134 million)
Cost per m2 5,000 euros (£4,470)
Client Italian Ministry of Culture, Rome, Italy
Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Executive architect ABT srl (Rome)
Structural engineer Anthony Hunt Associates (London), OK Design Group (Rome)
M&E consultant Max Fordham and Partners, OK Design Group (Rome)
Quantity surveyor ABT srl (Rome)
Main contractor MAXXI 2006 Consortium
Acoustic engineers Paul Gilleron Accoustics
Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied

 

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