Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Maxxi Museum, Rome

The MAXXI museum designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid is the latest and most ambitious project to try to refresh the Italian capital's image of a decadent city bent on its glorious past. MAXXI, officially called the National Museum of the XXI Century Arts, houses not only important works by Anish Kapoor, Sol Lewitt and Andy Warhol but also an auditorium, libraries, workshops and spaces for live events and commercial activities.

The euro150 million ($223 million) MAXXI is made of white curving cement walls, intricate black stairways that connect halls and pathways, and floor-to-ceiling windows that give the museum natural light and visitors a look out onto the neighborhood. From the outside, the museum looks like a wide structure that expands horizontally rather than vertically. Built on the grounds of a former military barracks — of which a facade is still recognizable — MAXXI is located in a residential neighbourhood outside the city's historic center.

Officials unveiling the opening exhibit stressed the link between old and new, their belief that a city and nation that have been on the avant-garde of art and architecture for centuries should be promoting contemporary arts.

For Hadid, who became the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, the challenge was to work with the "layers" of Rome's artistic past and bring a new space for art in the city. She recalled visiting Rome in the 1960s and posing in front of the Trevi Fountain, a masterpiece of Baroque art. "Rome has fantastic light," Hadid said. "The idea of this project is about layering and bringing in light to the space so that you have a naturally lit space — and to give the curators tremendous freedom in the way they can organize exhibits."

Rome is visited by some 12 million people each year, mostly attracted to the artistic glories of its past — the ancient ruins, the Colosseum, the fountains designed by Bernini or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. In recent years, officials have tried to expand Rome's culture offerings with some cutting-edge works, but these efforts have met mixed responses. Romans have been hostile to some new buildings, apparently not convinced that a modern structure can successfully stand beside the marvels of the past. As for the MAXXI, the jury is still out.


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