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Maxxi-mum Exposure

Is Rome’s newest museum an ornament, or not?

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By JAMES GARDNER
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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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