When I saw the first public Italian museum of contemporary arts and architecture (which also serves as a multidisciplinary research centre for art, design and cinema), it had not yet opened to the public and so I could only notice its exterior smooth grey surfaces, its porch set into a swerving curvilinear wall and supported by what looked like Le Corbusier-type thin concrete columns or pilotis. Who was the bold architect of this strange building? When I went back to Rome I discovered that it was designed by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who only last October won the important RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture. Actually, the judges decided that the MAXXI Museum (Museum of 21st Century Arts) is her best work. Then in November the building was voted the ‘World Building of the Year’ at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona.
The new building is located in the 1930s Quartiere Flaminio, a residential part of the city and an improbable host for new architecture; except that only a few minutes away is Renzo Piano’s Auditorium (2002) which has become a centre for music in Rome, with its three beetle-shaped concert halls arranged around an open-air amphitheatre. The other major architectural intervention in Rome is Richard Meier’s controversial Ara Pacis Museum (2006). So the MAXXI is the third post-Jubilee Year building to make it to construction. Quite an event. They are the first new public works in Rome for over sixty years.
‘The Eternal City’ is the eternal nightmare for anyone trying to build in Rome, unless you are Mussolini, tearing up the housing between Colosseum and Piazza Venezia to make space for your triumphalist military parades, or flattening the huddle of medieval dwellings around St. Peter’s to make way for a road to symbolise reconciliation between Catholicism and Fascism and spoil Bernini’s Baroque surprise: the embrace of his twin colonnades suddenly opening out from crowded buildings.
Building anything in Rome is a challenge because the city is a palimpsest of overlapping cities, like an ancient manuscript with layers and layers of inscriptions scratched off its skin, written over or crowded with marginal notes made by different scribes in different centuries. Just imagine: baroque façades, Egyptian obelisks, Renaissance domes, early Christian mosaics, post-unification palazzi and the chaos of noisy traffic everywhere. If you have been to the basilica of San Clemente you will have seen a twelfth-century church built over a fourth-century basilica, above a Roman domus and Mythraic temple at street level, ending abruptly at the edge of the excavation where, many feet below ground level, a wall of rubble at the end of a barrel vault denies the view of the rest of the second century city.
‘New’ often spells an arbitrary intervention in the existing cityscape. This is true of Meier’s design which rejects its surroundings outright; the new outer piazza is a scar, cutting across the sight line of two Renaissance façades in Via Ripetta. But aerial views of the Maxxi show how well this building fits into its urban grid (actually an awkward L-shape) where once rows and rows of boxy army barracks stood. One glance at the blueprint makes this quite clear. Then, when you look at it in its urban context, the Maxxi is a light grey concrete construction which does not offend the Pompeian reds, desaturated yellows and terracottas that surround it. What is so striking from the outside is not the new building’s ghosted colour, but its sinuous design that rejects both the earnest engineering look of much British architecture, for example, Stirling’s, and the many postmodern parodies of recent memory, showing how here, as in all her work, Zaha Hadid has opted for a celebration of contour, of the craft itself, and for extending technical possibilities. At the heart of it all is the foundation: drawing, disegno.
In the Maxxi strange shapes billow out of their controlled grids to spill and sway, somehow seeming to resist the solid constraints of hard building materials at every turn. These soft, opaque surfaces look so very different from the textured concrete that ages so badly which Rayner Banham once championed. At first glance, I thought they were stuccoed. Overhanging the façade is a box, a gallery on the upper storey that brings to mind playful Surrealist biomorphism in how this structure seems to flop over the wall below and ‘look’ outward, mask-like. Once inside, you enter another world, structured around the fluidity of sculptured space, curvilinear shapes defying Cartesian coordinates and geometrical symmetry. Instead, slim black staircases swoop down seemingly with no support, breaking into the hues of whites and greys on walls and floor. You get the sense of being in multiple buildings, never the feeling of being in a fixed space, in a boxy room defined by sharp verticals and horizontals. And when you look up, what you see is a ceiling in the plural. Skylights filter the southern light with vertical rows of slim blades stretching the full length of the curvilinear walls. Hadid herself thinks of this interior in terms of a flow, rather than of a solid object: the walls give rise to what she calls major and minor “streams”. The major streams are the galleries, flexible open spaces. These are flanked by bridges and long suspended ramps (the minor streams) which are fixed, but seem fluid in the way they connect and intersect space. From the ground floor, ramps reach up, smashing orthogonal planes into diagonal cuts, dark grey against the pale greys of walls, floors and muted light let through by thin blades of metal. Space extends in all directions, seemingly defying units of measurement; 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 been possible without the engineering research. Technical innovation has always played an important role in Hadid’s work. Here it includes self-compacting concrete; casts made on site; entire walls cast in fifty metre lengths; newly designed concrete mixes and laying techniques that result in surfaces as smooth as stucco. When the artworld speaks of its galleries it refers ironically to the white cube. But here the underlying conception of space is challenged by a shape of thought that opposes unicity with multiplicity, the One with the Many. You have to set aside residual visual hierarchies of (classical) architectural orders or of symmetry, because the Maxxi bursts the solidity of boxed white spaces into dynamic flows. Instead of a closed off cube, what you experience is more like a temporary assemblage, a building conceived as a paradox of ordered chaos.
Maybe one can define surprise as what happens when there is no pre-existing cognitive map; in the place of demarcation, the hesitancy of endless possibility. When we are taken by surprise, perhaps it is because what we perceive does not quite make sense; we have to think again, discard what we already know. This building seems on the verge of collapsing in on itself, unstable, forever becoming.
Yet, there is no doubt that it serves its purpose; I could not say that it distracts from the works that are on show, but it is far from an invisible shell. Maybe the best way to convey this experience is the mental conception of the rhizome in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987): the rhizome ‘operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots’. I tried to square this idea of multiplicity applied to Hadid’s architecture with the oneness of a built structure. After all, I thought, in the end what she calls the major and minor flows are contained by a perimeter, a plot of land, so what happens to Deleuze’s rhizome? Then it occurred to me that in his book Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, Alain Badiou argues quite convincingly that ultimately multiplicity in Deleuze ‘adds up’ (to unicity), taking us back from the Many to the ontological One of being. Badiou calls it provocatively ‘the triumph of the One’. Maybe Badiou is right.