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Zaha Hadid The MAXXI Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome ... · PDF fileZaha Hadid The MAXXI Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome David Brancaleone When I saw the first public Italian museum

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  • Zaha HadidThe MAXXI Museum of 21st CenturyArts, RomeDavid Brancaleone

    When I saw the first public Italian museum ofcontemporary arts and architecture (which alsoserves as a multidisciplinary research centre for art,design and cinema), it had not yet opened to thepublic and so I could only notice its exterior smoothgrey surfaces, its porch set into a swervingcurvilinear wall and supported by what looked likeLe Corbusier-type thin concrete columns or pilotis.Who was the bold architect of this strangebuilding? When I went back to Rome I discoveredthat it was designed by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid,who only last October won the important RIBAStirling Prize for architecture. Actually, the judgesdecided that the MAXXI Museum (Museum of 21st

    Century Arts) is her best work. Then in Novemberthe building was voted the World Building of theYear at the World Architecture Festival inBarcelona.

    The new building is located in the 1930s QuartiereFlaminio, a residential part of the city and animprobable host for new architecture; except thatonly a few minutes away is Renzo Pianos

    Auditorium (2002) which has become a centre formusic in Rome, with its three beetle-shapedconcert halls arranged around an open-airamphitheatre. The other major architecturalintervention in Rome is Richard Meierscontroversial Ara Pacis Museum (2006). So theMAXXI is the third post-Jubilee Year building tomake it to construction. Quite an event. They arethe first new public works in Rome for over sixtyyears.

    The Eternal City is the eternal nightmare foranyone trying to build in Rome, unless you areMussolini, tearing up the housing betweenColosseum and Piazza Venezia to make space foryour triumphalist military parades, or flattening thehuddle of medieval dwellings around St. Peters tomake way for a road to symbolise reconciliationbetween Catholicism and Fascism and spoilBerninis Baroque surprise: the embrace of his twincolonnades suddenly opening out from crowdedbuildings.

    Building anything in Rome is a challenge becausethe city is a palimpsest of overlapping cities, like anancient manuscript with layers and layers ofinscriptions scratched off its skin, written over orcrowded with marginal notes made by differentscribes in different centuries. Just imagine:baroque faades, Egyptian obelisks, Renaissancedomes, early Christian mosaics, post-unificationpalazzi and the chaos of noisy traffic everywhere. Ifyou have been to the basilica of San Clemente youwill have seen a twelfth-century church built over afourth-century basilica, above a Roman domus andMythraic temple at street level, ending abruptly atthe edge of the excavation where, many feet belowground level, a wall of rubble at the end of a barrelvault denies the view of the rest of the secondcentury city.

    New often spells an arbitrary intervention in theexisting cityscape. This is true of Meiers designwhich rejects its surroundings outright; the newouter piazza is a scar, cutting across the sight lineof two Renaissance faades in Via Ripetta. Butaerial views of the Maxxi show how well thisbuilding fits into its urban grid (actually anawkward L-shape) where once rows and rows ofboxy army barracks stood. One glance at theblueprint makes this quite clear. Then, when youlook at it in its urban context, the Maxxi is a lightgrey concrete construction which does not offendthe Pompeian reds, desaturated yellows andterracottas that surround it. What is so strikingfrom the outside is not the new buildings ghostedcolour, but its sinuous design that rejects both theearnest engineering look of much Britisharchitecture, for example, Stirlings, and the manypostmodern parodies of recent memory, showinghow here, as in all her work, Zaha Hadid has optedfor a celebration of contour, of the craft itself, andfor extending technical possibilities. At the heart ofit all is the foundation: drawing, disegno.

  • In the Maxxi strange shapes billow out of theircontrolled grids to spill and sway, somehowseeming to resist the solid constraints of hardbuilding materials at every turn. These soft,opaque surfaces look so very different from thetextured concrete that ages so badly which RaynerBanham once championed. At first glance, Ithought they were stuccoed. Overhanging thefaade is a box, a gallery on the upper storey thatbrings to mind playful Surrealist biomorphism inhow this structure seems to flop over the wallbelow and look outward, mask-like. Once inside,you enter another world, structured around thefluidity of sculptured space, curvilinear shapesdefying Cartesian coordinates and geometricalsymmetry. Instead, slim black staircases swoopdown seemingly with no support, breaking into thehues of whites and greys on walls and floor. Youget the sense of being in multiple buildings, neverthe feeling of being in a fixed space, in a boxyroom defined by sharp verticals and horizontals.And when you look up, what you see is a ceiling inthe plural. Skylights filter the southern light withvertical rows of slim blades stretching the fulllength of the curvilinear walls. Hadid herself thinksof this interior in terms of a flow, rather than of asolid object: the walls give rise to what she callsmajor and minor streams. The major streams arethe galleries, flexible open spaces. These areflanked by bridges and long suspended ramps (theminor streams) which are fixed, but seem fluid inthe way they connect and intersect space. Fromthe ground floor, ramps reach up, smashingorthogonal planes into diagonal cuts, dark greyagainst the pale greys of walls, floors and mutedlight let through by thin blades of metal. Spaceextends in all directions, seemingly defying units ofmeasurement; a multiplicity of lines, planes,diagonals, curvilinear, linear, concave, convex,hollow, full, hard set, soft light, harsh, smooth,rough, opaque, transparent, limited, limitless.

    Much of this architecture would have not beenpossible without the engineering research.Technical innovation has always played animportant role in Hadids work. Here it includesself-compacting concrete; casts made on site;entire walls cast in fifty metre lengths; newlydesigned concrete mixes and laying techniques thatresult in surfaces as smooth as stucco. When theartworld speaks of its galleries it refers ironically tothe white cube. But here the underlying conceptionof space is challenged by a shape of thought thatopposes unicity with multiplicity, the One with theMany. You have to set aside residual visualhierarchies of (classical) architectural orders or ofsymmetry, because the Maxxi bursts the solidity ofboxed white spaces into dynamic flows. Instead ofa closed off cube, what you experience is more likea temporary assemblage, a building conceived as aparadox of ordered chaos.

    Maybe one can define surprise as what happenswhen there is no pre-existing cognitive map; in the

    place of demarcation, the hesitancy of endlesspossibility. When we are taken by surprise, perhapsit is because what we perceive does not quite makesense; we have to think again, discard what wealready know. This building seems on the verge ofcollapsing in on itself, unstable, forever becoming.

    Yet, there is no doubt that it serves its purpose; Icould not say that it distracts from the works thatare on show, but it is far from an invisible shell.Maybe the best way to convey this experience isthe mental conception of the rhizome in Deleuzeand Guattaris A Thousand Plateaus (1987): therhizome operates by variation, expansion,conquest, capture, offshoots. I tried to square thisidea of multiplicity applied to Hadids architecturewith the oneness of a built structure. After all, Ithought, in the end what she calls the major andminor flows are contained by a perimeter, a plot ofland, so what happens to Deleuzes rhizome? Thenit occurred to me that in his book Deleuze. TheClamor of Being, Alain Badiou argues quiteconvincingly that ultimately multiplicity in Deleuzeadds up (to unicity), taking us back from theMany to the ontological One of being. Badiou callsit provocatively the triumph of the One. MaybeBadiou is right.

    David Brancaleone teaches art history and theoryat Limerick School of Art and Design. His researcharea revolves around the political and socialdimensions of contemporary art.

    Image Iwan Baan

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