Zaha Maxima

Zaha Maxima

The museum opened to much fanfare despite taking more than a decade to construct at twice the expected cost.
Helene Binet

The opening of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI (an acronym for Museum of the Arts of the Twenty-First Century) on November 14 in Rome was a momentous occasion for so many reasons. Although the museum’s design is revolutionary and extraordinarily complex by any standard, for a city that has long shunned new architecture—and is subject to the vagaries of Italian politics—its realization is something of a miracle.

A lobby in the serpentine museum.
Stairs criss-cross above one of the galleries.
Richard Bryant

Completed ten years after the international competition at a cost of €150 million (about $223 million), more than double the projected budget, Italy’s first national museum of contemporary art and architecture will encompass two institutions, administered jointly by directors Anna Mattirolo and Margherita Guccione.

Not long after groundbreaking in 2005, with only the foundations complete, the first installment of funds had already been spent and a government budget crisis made it unclear that the Ministry of Culture would be able to come up with more. Even so, the MAXXI has been largely immune to the type of controversy surrounding other recent architectural commissions, notably Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis, which Rome’s mayor made a campaign promise in 2008 to dismantle.

The MAXXI’s sleek exterior conceals a baroque belly full of drunkenly tilting walls, undulating ramps that dissolve into space, and vertiginous cantilevers rotated around a soaring double-story atrium. Hadid’s new Italian “creature,” as the behemoth 322,000-square-foot museum has been called, was unveiled with theatrical panache as modern dancers, choreographed by Sasha Waltz, guided spectators through the pristine empty space. It was also a creative way to inaugurate a museum sapped of the funds to mount a proper exhibition, thanks to cost overruns attributable mostly to the sheer technical difficulty of the construction.

Hadid’s exuberant conceptual scribbles were transformed into concrete structure largely thanks to a structural engineering team with expertise in the restoration and reinforcement of ancient monuments, an important consideration in such a seismically active area. “The whole structure is more or less floating; there are relatively few points that actually touch the ground,” said engineering consultant Federico Croci of Studio Croci & Associati. “But the most impressive thing about this building is the skeleton—it is like a wild animal.” The crisscrossing horizontal strips of the structure traverse inside and out, oscillating and twisting so that walls seamlessly become floors, ceilings, and windows.

The last time anything of this scale was constructed in Rome was under Benito Mussolini, who exploited the use of monumental architecture as a demonstration of power. The Fascist dictator left a significant modernist architectural legacy, including the iconic Palazzo della Civiltà in the EUR quarter, and the neoclassical Foro Italico sports complex just across the river from the MAXXI.

It is difficult to compete with the sweeping efficiency of dictatorships, especially under an epically unstable democratic government. But Rome’s monumental scale demands an architectural statement of suitably grand proportions, and MAXXI certainly fits the bill. Arguably the most successfully realized building by Hadid to date, this explosive colossus of glass, steel, and concrete could also be the Eternal City’s first contemporary monument, putting it back on the architecture map.

The question that remains is whether the new museum will be a welcoming host to the institution’s modest collection of contemporary art and architectural drawings, supplemented by an annual acquisition budget under $4 million. The response of Paolo Colombo, the former director of MAXXI who oversaw the commission, was clear: “I don’t care: The building itself is a masterpiece.”