Modern Lines for the Eternal City
ROME — What would Pope Urban VIII have made of Maxxi, the new museum of contemporary art designed by Zaha Hadid on the outskirts of this city’s historic quarter? My guess is that he would have been ecstatic.
This 17th-century pope, one of the most prominent cultural patrons in Roman history, understood that great cities are not frozen in time. He loved dreaming up lavish new projects over breakfast with his artistic soul mate, the Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. When Bernini needed bronze for the baldachin in St. Peter’s, the pope simply ordered it torn out of the Pantheon. Neither was afraid to make his mark on the city.
Since then the architectural scene here has become a lot duller. True, Mussolini commissioned some impressive civic works, most notably for the fascist EUR district. But for most of the last half-century Romans have been content to gaze languidly toward the past. The handful of ambitious new cultural buildings that have appeared, like Renzo Piano’s marvelous Parco della Musica, tend toward the dignified and respectable.
Maxxi, which opens to the public on Saturday for a two-day “architectural preview,” jolts this city back to the present like a thunderclap. Its sensual lines seem to draw the energy of the city right up into its belly, making everything around it look timid. The galleries (which will remain empty of art until the spring, when the museum is scheduled to hold its first exhibition) would probably have sent a shiver of joy up the old pope’s spine. Even Bernini, I suspect, would have appreciated their curves.
The completion of the museum is proof that this city is no longer allergic to the new and a rebuke to those who still see Rome as a catalog of architectural relics for scholars or tourists. It affirms the view that cities thrive when each generation attempts to rise to the challenges of the past while remaining true to contemporary values. That means that yes, we too — the living — have something to contribute.
The museum stands in a drowsy neighborhood of early-20th-century apartment buildings and former army barracks called Flaminio.
Set back from the street in the middle of a block and overlooking a gravel plaza, the building offers no big visual fireworks, and at first glance it looks surprisingly sedate. From the south, its smooth, almost silky, concrete forms are largely hidden behind an old factory building that has been transformed into a gallery for temporary exhibitions. From the north it is shielded by the long curved wall of the main galleries.
The energy builds as you walk toward it. The best route is along Via Luigi Poletti, which approaches the site at an angle from the northwest. As you get close, the road veers to the east, but you continue forward, following a path along the convex exterior of the building as it curves toward the plaza. The path narrows as it approaches the main entry, creating a sense of acceleration.
At the entrance, a concrete box that houses an upper-level gallery projects out above your head, its front tilted forward menacingly.
Ms. Hadid has used similar ideas before, most notably in a factory she designed for BMW on the outskirts of Leipzig, Germany. The idea is to weave her buildings into the network of streets and sidewalks that surround them — into the infrastructure that binds us together. But it is also a way of making architecture — which is about static objects — more dynamic by capturing the energy of bodies charging through space.
In Rome this strategy reaches a crescendo in the museum’s towering lobby. A bookstore, cafe and information counter are scattered informally around the hall; corridors snake off in different directions. A monumental black staircase climbs up through the space, one end disappearing into a narrow canyonlike crevice and hinting at more mysteries to come.
If a question remains about the building, it has to do with the galleries, which are arranged as a series of long intertwining bands, some 300 feet long, as if the ramps of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim had somehow come unraveled. The slight curves of the spaces lure you forward in anticipation of what’s around the next bend.
The sense of forward momentum is reinforced by the lighting system: a glass skylight that is broken up by long, knifelike metal fins that run the entire length of the room. The fins protect the artworks from direct sunlight while allowing those inside the galleries to see an occasional patch of sky. A second system just above, of steel grids, blocks out the harshest southern light. I was there on an overcast afternoon, and the light was lively and warm without being distracting.
What we don’t know, however, and won’t know for a while, is whether the galleries strike the right balance between the need to move crowds and the stillness required for contemplating art. Ms. Hadid has created a flexible system of hanging partitions that can be used to divide the spaces into smaller galleries; and as you climb to the top, one of the bands breaks into several discrete spaces on different levels.
At the moment, though, the flow of spaces seems a bit relentless. And until partitions are installed, art is hung and rehung, and curators begin to get a feel for the spaces that only comes after several years of organizing exhibitions in them, we won’t know for sure how well the galleries work. There are some, I expect, who will point to the decision to show off the museum while it is still empty — indeed, before its collection has even been put together — as yet more proof that contemporary architecture always overshadows the art it houses. More patient minds will wait to see for themselves.
Meanwhile, Rome’s faith in Ms. Hadid, and in the new world she represents, has been fully rewarded. For years she has been steadily building up a body of work that demonstrates she is about more than glamour — she is one of architecture’s most original and powerful voices — and Maxxi will only add to her legacy. A generation of Romans can now walk out their front doors knowing that the conversation with the past is not so one-sided.
If Pope Urban were alive today, I’m certain he and Ms. Hadid would be having breakfast right now, plotting the next move.Original article here: Modern Lines for the Eternal City