A Snake Waiting for a Cow to Eat
“They will come upon this building,” intoned Columbia Dean Mark Wigley, evoking the Futurist Manifesto published a century ago this month; “two hundred years from now, in ruins, and they will say, here is a proof of a great moment in architecture that once happened in Italy.” This combination of elegy and hope marked a conference earlier this week in Rome celebrating the completion of the Zaha Hadid–designed Museum of the Twenty First Century, or MAXXI. Having managed to complete a more than 250,000-square foot concrete snake winding its way through what used to be an army hospital a few kilometers outside of Rome’s historic core, the building’s proud new owners have to figure out what to feed this architectural cobra without having it constrict their art.
It will not be easy. The building is huge, and its design will make the spaces difficult to fill. It has more in common with grand fragments of geometrey as Hadrian's Tomb than with a civic institution. The MAXXI is a new institution dedicated to contemporary art, but it has only a small collection of 300 pieces and several architectural archives, and it remains to be seen what programs it will develop or what funding future governments will provide. Part of the institution is to be dedicated to architecture, but local provincial centers have resisted the government’s attempts to centralize archives and exhibition activities in the nation’s capitol. So for now the building is an empty vessel, waiting for its first programming to begin next May.
It is, to be sure, an exciting structure, one of the most expressive and cleanly finished examples of Hadid’s work. It consists of a series of bundled waves that cut diagonally through the site. The lines diverge at different levels, and one of their ends cantilevers over a plaza with a large window looking at nothing in particular, while other zigs and zags are strategically supported by a few bundled columns and intersected by crossing shapes that complicate the form into a conflation of curves, angles, and bulges whose abstraction gives no sense of their function.
That lack of specificity is also evident inside, where spaces pile up, curve around, and open up without any reference to the traditional notion of discrete galleries fed by centralized circulation. Instead, the entrance atrium spawns stairs whose black-painted enclosures rise up to intercept the continuous expanse at various points, but do not serve to focus, begin, or end its space. Instead, spaces tier up, curve around, and then peter out into corridors that either dead-end at emergency exits or move around to meet another part of the building. There are four main spatial movements of this sort, but all of them end in this kind of dimuendo.
Everything is open underneath either continuous skylights letting light in past V-shaped steel baffles or banks of fluorescents hiding behind translucent scrims. The sense of inhabiting a seemingly endless space is tremendous, and the concrete walls’ smooth finish, covered in the gallery areas with a polished stucco, as well as the resin floors, make the illusion of a fragment of a latent utopia divorced from its surroundings seem particularly real.
But how to make a place within this space? And how will this space drink in and represent the creative efforts of current architects and artists other than those toiling for Ms. Hadid? What does one do when one comes to the fire exit and has to turn around? What displays, routing systems, and signage will be equal to this sweeping vision even before we have to worry about what content will be strong enough to flex its sinews and shapes against such spatial magnificence?
Alas, the gathering of those whose mandate it is to program the MAXXI under the direction of architect Pio Baldi, reinforced by a few of us nasty foreigners, gave little hope. The current state of Italian architecture, at least that which leads to realized buildings, is dismal. That of the visual arts is not much better. So the MAXXI must overcome its local roots and the nationalist tendencies of the current government to play on an international stage, becoming a node in the networks of displays of Hirst, Murakami, Gehry (currently on view at the Triennale in Milan) and, yes, Hadid, in order to attract an appropriate audience. At this point, I doubt they will, leaving the MAXXI to be an instant ruin that perhaps, as Wigley went on to suggest, might make a great architecture or art school fit to train future native talent equal to the challenge Hadid has flung through the far reaches of the Eternal City.