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Maxxi by Zaha Hadid Architects

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[STIRLING SHORTLIST 2010 IN DETAIL]: Zaha Hadid architects challenge the expectations of art museums with a formal dynamism of intertwined spaces

In his 1909 Futurist Manifesto, Italian poet Filippo Marinetti declared: ‘A roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.’ One hundred years later, a building worthy of his aspirations has arrived on his native soil, on the outskirts of Rome’s historic centre.

With rare exceptions, modern architecture in Italy was out to lunch throughout the 20th century, especially in Rome, stifled by traditionalism, complacency and bureaucracy. Modern art fared little better. Zaha Hadid Architects’ MAXXI (National Museum of XXI Century Arts), billed as ‘the first Italian national institution devoted to contemporary creativity’, was commissioned to address these problems.

It’s infused with a formal dynamism in the fluid configuration of its connecting, intertwined spaces, served up in lashings, dollops and clusters, rather than sequestrated. These reinforce what practice director Zaha Hadid calls an urban ‘field’ for exhibits and visitors, which she argues a monolithic object building couldn’t provide. The overlapping tendrils of the level and ramped galleries are linked by a secondary network of stairs, bridges and lifts, in a three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders.

Connecting, intertwined spaces, served up in lashings, dollops and clusters

Despite its unconventional form, MAXXI is grounded in an architectural culture, continuing Hadid’s research into architecture and urbanism inspired by Russian suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich and Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

In its technology, rather than pioneering construction techniques, it harnesses reinforced concrete’s potential to form bold cantilevers and ambitious spans, and to free up plans by transferring vertical forces without stacking up structural members.

A three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders

As urban design, MAXXI involves elements of critique, challenging neighbouring buildings, which don’t have three-dimensional weaving formations or reverse battered walls. It even has elements of critical regionalism, in its resolution of contextual grids, its asymmetrical resonance with baroque and its critique of monumentality. But it’s not a regionalism that tiptoes round its neighbours in an architectural graveyard.

Most uniquely of all, MAXXI dares to challenge expectations of art museums and the wisdom that they should be no more than neutral backdrops to exhibits. Not since Frank Lloyd Wright denied knowledge of many of the illustrious contemporary painters whose works were to be displayed at his Guggenheim Museum in New York (1959) has an architect shown such healthy disrespect for artists and curators. But MAXXI’s monotone finishes acknowledge the gestalt of museum design and 73 per cent of its walls are neither inclined nor curved on plan.

Not since 1959 has an architect shown such healthy disrespect for artists and curators

Its configuration of linear spaces, reinforced by the graphic pattern of its parallel rooflights, is as old as the gallery building type, and it’s important to remember that this is a museum of not only art, but also architecture. Perhaps its only flaw is that perfection in its external massing is sacrificed to the exigencies of internal planning.

But despite all this, MAXXI doesn’t really belong to the critical branch of modern architecture. As a work of almost unbridled creativity, it belongs to the other, Nietzschean branch, like a comet blazing through the night sky.

Felix Mara, AJ Technical editor

Q&A Zaha Hadid, Zaha Hadid Architects

Are you surprised that three museums are on this year’s shortlist?
Not at all. The connection between culture and public life is critical. What really differentiates recent museums from their predecessors is that the client is no longer one single patron. The client is now the mass, the public. I find this very positive and exciting.

Rome abounds with icons of classicism. How do the parametric values of MAXXI sit with this?
The design was informed by the urban fabric within the context of Rome. The geometrical plan of the museum aligns itself with the two urban grids that regulate the town planning of the local area. The new interpretation of these two urban grids within the site generates the surprising geometrical complexity of MAXXI, mediated by sinuous lines that harmonise the plan and facilitate the flow within the site.

Describe your design concept.
MAXXI should not be considered one building, but several. We wanted to move away from the idea of ‘the museum as an object’ and towards the idea of a ‘field of buildings’. After many studies, our research evolved into the concept of the confluence of lines, where the primary force of the site is the walls that constantly intersect and separate to create both indoor and outdoor spaces.

How does the construction of your design integrate with the concept?
The design called for an architectural language that emphasises the smooth transition between otherwise disparate elements. To avoid deflecting attention from the power of the interior spaces and the plastic forms of the building, the construction and technological details were treated discretely, by inserting them within the architectural alignments and minimising the joints of materials in favour of a unified reading of the floors and walls. The concrete technology enabled us to cast walls 12m-high in a single 50m stretch, with the highest surface quality.

How are museums evolving as a building typology?
Contemporary art centres like MAXXI must provide an opportunity for the unknown and untested, and for new technologies and media to be explored – a catalyst for the instigation and exchange of ideas. The story of the museum has changed a great deal. It’s no longer just an awful lot of rooms that connect sequentially as in a palace. They are places where you experiment with the idea of galleries, with light and movement.

How important is it for you to win the Stirling Prize this year?
Of course it is important. Winning for MAXXI would represent full recognition of what started 30 years ago, here in London, as my projections of a possible future architecture.

ArchitectZaha Hadid Architects
Location Rome, Italy
Floor area 21,200m2
Cost 150 million euros
Start on site 2003
Contract duration 10 years
Form of contract General contractor tender
Cost per m2 4,900 euros (£4,200)
Client Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities/Fondazione MAXXI
Structural engineer Anthony Hunt Associates
(London), OK Design Group (Rome)
M&E consultant Max Fordham, OK Design Group
Quantity surveyor/planning consultant ABT
Main contractor MAXXI 2006 Consortium

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  • I really like this. If the Stirling is really about archtecture and not about sending messages, this should win!

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