MAXXI Museum

What is it?

The MAXXI National Museum of Art from the 21st Century is a recently completed and much lauded project by Zaha Hadid in Rome. So far, it has won the 2010 RIBA Stirling Prize and, just last month, the 2010 World Architecture Festival World Building of the Year award, both prestigious and well-contested accolades.

What do we think?

The relationship architectural photography has to architecture is a complex one, never more so than in our information-saturated epoch. Digital photographic media, coupled with an ever-growing number of international awards programs, competitions and architectural websites, provide vast diffusion of the world’s best buildings. It no longer matters that Australia is so geographically isolated, we simply open up, log on or browse and we have these buildings at our fingertips.

Or do we? A photo is not the real thing, after all, merely a two-dimensional representation of space, structure, time and light. During our recent travels, this is a fact we have discovered to be not only true but a powerful indication of the fundamental quality of a building.

We have visited Bilbao, Lisbon, Barcelona and Tokyo and seen work by Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Herzog + de Meuron and Toyo Ito. We have discovered that Calatrava and Ito produce sublime architecture that, despite prior knowledge, still manages to surprise and excite. And we have discovered that Gehry and Herzog + De Meuron produce work that generally looks better on the page than it is in the flesh, surely the most condemning praise one can offer an architect.

So what of the MAXXI Museum – into which category does it fall?

Aerial photos of the museum reveal a complex series of forms sliding along and around the existing building on site, which together with elaborately striated roof planes emphasises the movement of visitors and the general public around and through the site. Yet from ground level, none of this dynamism is apparent. Almost every part of the building visible from surrounding streets is blank concrete, generating a surprisingly static and unwelcoming urban response.

The top floor, cantilevering over the entry courtyard, proffers the only view into and out of the exhibition spaces by way of full height glazing to its end wall. Hadid has indicated in no uncertain terms, through form, programme and detailing, that this is an important window. But what is its purpose? Sure it looks out over Rome, but not from a great height and hardly across a breathtaking view – there is not a Pantheon, Colosseum or Trevi Fountain in sight. The view is intimate, at a height that is level with surrounding buildings – pleasant but hardly equal to the expectation with which the armature of the architecture has filled us. It’s a curious anticlimax that feels like it was designed to please whilst inside someone’s 3D modelling software, with only a weak acknowledgement of its context.

The rest of the museum proves to be equally underwhelming. This is not a beautifully detailed project: plasterboard is left strangely unfinished in parts, with sloppy paintwork and exposed stopping bead channels; the pale concrete floor was a poor choice, with prodigious scuffing after barely more then 6 months of use; and the black-painted steel stairs, its programmatic heart, have handrails with mismatched steelwork and, worst of all, translucent white panelling to their soffits that display a bewildering quantity of dirt and grime collected from visitors’ shoes through the open grating treads.

What did we learn?

Dare we say that we feel somewhat cheated? Hadid is celebrated as an architect with an excellent understanding of urbanism and the role a building plays in the wider city context. Yet urbanism does not happen from the air, especially not in Rome, where buildings are generally betwen 5 and 8 storeys. So why does the MAXXI Museum present a blank face to the world?

Why also is the existing building on site, around which the new structure so elaborately wraps, closed to the street? Approaching the site from Via Guido Reni, we were momentarily confused – did we come on a day when the museum was shut? It is understandable that Hadid sought to establish a new entry for the museum, but why then go to so much effort to have the new flank and embellish the old?

Perhaps it is our fault, simply a case of unreasonably high expectations. We have after all known about this project for years, have read about it across every media format and most recently watched as the judges at the World Architecture Festival drooled over it.

Or then again, perhaps our expectations were justified – Zaha Hadid is one of the most famous architects in the world, has won almost every prize there is to win, and works exclusively on high profile projects with what we can only imagine are stratospheric budgets. This should have been an extraordinary building. Thus it is even more disappointing to discover that it is primarily an indulgent exercise in form making.

The MAXXI Museum looks nice in photos, but fails to insipire in the flesh.

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