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Why Architect Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Is So Welcome

Hadid's MAXXI in Rome

Hadid's MAXXI in Rome

The last time foreign architect Richard Meier designed an art museum in Rome, but that is never welcome due to lack of traditional features. So the new National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, or MAXXI, by the British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, might have been expected to provoke similar controversy. With its deconstructivist mix of irregular angles and flowing curves, seemingly endless variety of perspectives, and lack of any main facade, the building aggressively flouts architectural tradition in this most traditional of cities.

Yet the local response so far has been one of enthusiastic curiosity. The museum’s inauguration is not until May 30, but when the still-empty building was opened to the public for a single weekend last fall, an estimated 10,000 people came for the rare chance to view a major work of architecture unencumbered by occupants or furnishings. The MAXXI’s authorities say they hoped thereby to prevent Ms. Hadid’s design from overshadowing the inaugural exhibitions. Judging from the numbers who continue to peer over the zinc-coated steel fence and beg for a quick look inside, such overshadowing may be inevitable.

Located in a quiet north Rome neighborhood dominated by nondescript apartment blocks, the MAXXI’s site is much less of a preservationist’s stronghold than what Mr. Meier had to confront. Ms. Hadid has nevertheless treated the surroundings with a tact verging on deference.

The only part of the building that actually sits on the street is a restored portion of an early 20th-century military barracks, which Ms. Hadid integrated into her own design. You have to walk through the gate beside it in order to see her work in all its provocative originality. From some angles, it suggests a snake tentatively raising its head over the edge of its own coiled body.

The building’s strangeness is beguiling rather than jarring. In large part that’s because Ms. Hadid’s structure occupies less than half of its site, much of which is taken up by a plaza dotted with linden trees and Lombardy poplars. This keeps the structure from looming over viewers in a domineering way, while allowing them to step back and take it all in.

Another key to the MAXXI’s disarming character lies in the refined use of its main material. Concrete suggests modesty, not only by virtue of its cost, and thus its association with utilitarian or unfinished structures, but in the bland inconspicuousness of its color and texture. We are a long way here from the shimmering titanium skin of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Yet the smooth lines and unblemished surfaces of the MAXXI’s curving walls, a discreet display of engineering bravura, dispel any sense of cheapness or crudity.

Whereas Bilbao welcomed Mr. Gehry’s spectacle for bringing glamour and prestige to a provincial industrial city, Ms. Hadid faced a very different challenge in Rome, where any building of such size and exalted cultural purpose must justify its presence in the company of world-famous monuments to imperial and papal glory. Her shrewd solution has been a combination of flamboyant experimentation with implicit respect for the past.

A related challenge will face the museum once it reopens with its collection on display. Richter, Warhol and Merz are not exactly names to rival Caravaggio, Raphael and Michelangelo. How to lure visitors from the inexhaustible riches of Western art and archaeology perpetually on show a few minutes away? Ms. Hadid’s answer to this problem has been to make the MAXXI bold and intriguing, but also inviting and accessible.

The glass entrance doors are flush with the ground, and visitors will pass directly through them into the three-story-high atrium lobby. Although tickets will be necessary for admission to the exhibition galleries beyond, casual sightseers will be free to linger in the building’s largest space and ponder the spindly staircase-ramps that branch and intersect like floating rivers overhead.

Nothing here says “Rome” in any obvious way. There are no classical arches, columns or pediments. Yet the city’s distinctive light, ever-shifting in tone and brightness, is a constant presence. It enters through the glass rooftop, and passes through a system of computer-operated louvers that open and close according to the intensity of the sun. So although the level of illumination remains constant, its quality changes continually with the weather, season and hour, linking the internal and external environments in a pervasive yet largely subliminal way.

Awareness of place becomes explicit at the museum’s highest point, an entire wall of glass at the end of a cantilevered gallery. The window leans outward from its base (in a way reminiscent of Eero Saarinen’s Dulles airport terminal), inducing a mild sense of vertigo, and the spectator suspended in midair feels like he is at once taking off and falling down.

As for the view, the most remarkable thing about it is the absence of landmarks, since the window faces pointedly away from Rome’s historic center. Perhaps Ms. Hadid meant this as an act of generosity to the works her building will shelter, by sparing them immediate comparisons to masterpieces of the past.

From the outside, the same trapezoidal window produces one of the building’s most characteristic effects. It draws the eye like a church’s bell tower, beckoning to the faithful even in silence. Yet those gazing up from the plaza will see not an icon of religion, or even of art, but a group of people like themselves, standing behind a reflection of the buildings nearby.

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