Even visitors who know Rome well are unlikely to venture north along the Via Flaminia, beyond the Aurelian Walls that encircle most of the city. Compared with what lies inside the walls, and with a few exceptions beyond, there is little to see in this clean and barren part of town. Though the streets are graced with names like Via Sandro Botticelli and Via Guido Reni—this is still Italy, after all—most of the drab building stock evokes the postwar years, and there is little or no street life.

But recently a new kind of creature has been spotted in these parts. Male or female, it is clearly foreign—usually German or French or American—and is arrayed in such varied plumage as you might see in Chelsea, on London’s Cork Street, or at the sundry art fairs of Basel and Brazil. And each time you encounter such creatures in these parts, you know exactly where they are going or where they have just come from: the new Maxxi museum, which opened last summer. Its full title is Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, or National Museum of the Arts of the 21st Century.

Though Rome has hardly been without artists in recent years, the remoter past weighs so heavily upon its living citizenry, as well as upon visitors, that few people associate it with any important contemporary developments, as they might Venice or Milan. And even with the much-publicized opening of Maxxi, one has the vivid sense that most tourists, having come to Rome for the Pantheon and Colosseum, will not make it this far north along the Via Flaminia. Let it also be said that, on a recent visit to the museum, I do not believe that I saw a single Roman.

And yet, someone apparently felt that Rome needed a contemporary art museum, and not just any, but one designed by Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, winner of the Pritzker Prize and, by general consent, the most “advanced” architect of the moment. Before we go any further, however, let us delve a little more deeply into that word, “advanced.” In the semiotical context that Hadid favors, it surely qualifies as a “floating signifier.” That is, it is essentially, crucially voided of any real meaning beyond its being an honorific term roughly equivalent to “good.” As such, the “most advanced” architect is synonymous with the “best”—even if the criteria by which that assumed excellence is ascertained are never spelled out or understood. Certainly the attribution of vanguardism (or whatever you want to call advanced-ness these days) no longer has to do with any formal system or program, as was the case with Modernism. Rather, it has to do with a vague attitude of relevance, of cutting edges, of contemporaneity.

That the Maxxi should be consecrated to contemporary art was probably a bad idea to begin with. For one thing, its collection is not very good or interesting or even representative of the generality of artistic practice at the present time. It consists of the usual, if somewhat arbitrarily selected, stars of the international art scene (Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge, Gilbert and George, etc.) and many more Italians who are apt to be unknown beyond, or even within, the borders of the Bel Paese. As for the building itself, both in its huge dimensions and pretentious massing, it seems altogether too established, too solid and permanent, for a movement as decentralized and anarchic as contemporary art is supposed to be. The smaller, humbler scale of the recently completed New Museum on the Bowery in Manhattan seems far more appropriate to that museum’s equally contemporary mission. By comparison, the Maxxi feels about as antiestablishment as the Pentagon, and leaves no doubt as to where the power, muscle, and sheer monetary heft of contemporary culture reside.

Nor does it help that the first two major exhibitions staged at Maxxi are devoted to dead cultural figures, one a fairly mediocre painter and installation artist named Gino De Dominicis, the other Luigi Moretti, an accomplished architect, to be sure, but a Modernist, rather than a contemporary, who died almost 40 years ago. (His most famous project, by the way, was the Watergate complex in Washington.)

As attested in this latest project, as well as in many earlier ones, the dominant aesthetic of Hadid’s architecture consists in transposing the aesthetic of mid-20th-century infrastructure—highways, garages, airports, and the like—to postindustrial buildings of all sorts. The Maxxi alludes, perhaps inadvertently, to such antecedents as Pier Luigi Nervi’s railway station in Naples, as well as his bus terminal under the George Washington Bridge in Upper Manhattan. There is also a bit of Paul Rudolph thrown in for good measure. But while Nervi and Rudolph were Modernists who generally respected symmetry and the laws of gravity, Hadid is a deconstructivist who seeks, through the metaphors of form, to convey the flux and instability that she and many others find in the modern world.

Properly understood, this doctrine is more an attitude and a taste than a series of articulated ideas, but it is apparently quite enough to qualify Hadid as a profound architectural thinker. In any case, this building is ultimately more about itself than about the art that it contains. Indeed, you begin to suspect that the art that resides within its walls is there more as a pretext for the building’s existence than as a justification for the visitor’s venturing so far out of the center of the city. Even large works looked bullied and belittled by the walls that contain them. By the very nature of Maxxi’s incessant swerves, its vertiginous layout, and the bottlenecks that result from its highly cluttered spaces, you could reasonably question whether any work of art would appear to advantage in such a context.

From the air, the structure looks like a meandering segment of highway. From the ground, where humans are usually to be found, its totality cannot be grasped or understood from any single or dominant perspective. You enter through chicken-wire gates that are presumably suggestive of proletarian candor. From there you pass a deceptively simple barracks from the 19th century. Hadid’s new section, however, rises up behind this older building like a cobra inhaling a small bird. Is there a trace of generational arrogance to this revision of a humbly utilitarian structure from former years, the revenge of the living upon those who are no longer around to defend themselves?

Past the gates, the visitor enters a sea of gray, a walkway of concrete paths that alternate with pebbled parterres and dull steel pylons, gray upon gray upon gray. With its irregular ribbon windows, the main structure reads at times like an homage to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Like her mentor Rem Koolhaas, Hadid is capable of coming up with the occasional felicity of form—as when some element of massing succeeds in suggesting the movement and energy that she aspires to—but the improvisational nature of her design process means that she is more apt to miss the mark.

This is evident in the interior, which possesses even less unity and coherence than the exterior. Every space flows, willy-nilly, into the next, affording the frazzled visitor no sense of structure or relief. Jagged black stairways descend from upper floors down into the middle of nowhere. Metal mesh steps clash with wooden floors. Spaces end abruptly or else continue on exasperatingly beyond the point where we might pray for them to end.

Such inadvertence might appear as a catastrophic loss of control. But Hadid and her many admirers would more charitably see it as “deconstructing” the traditional museum. By their lights, the Maxxi would appear to be an unqualified triumph—one that, culturally speaking, has finally put Rome on the map.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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