Nicolai Ouroussoff recently paid a visit to the new Maxxi contemporary art museum in Rome, designed by Zaha Hadid. He regards the Maxxi as a welcomed bit of panache and daring in fusty old Rome, a showy scarf over a worn overcoat. Rome is a city so stuck in the past that a survey of contemporary architecture includes the ridiculous EUR buildings, commissioned by Mussolini.
Because he’s in Rome, Ouroussoff can’t resist a historical analogy. He suggests Pope Urban VIII would have loved Hadid’s building, and Ouroussoff is probably right: the Maxxi is a deeply anxious building in the baroque manner, where nothing can simply exist as itself, but must show traces of an aspirational, and existentially troubled, imagination. I’m struck, for instance, by that little jag in the stairway trim in the image above from the New York Times article. Why is that there?
As for the entrenched conservatism of contemporary Roman architecture, I don’t know if it can be entirely attributed to timid design community or civic leadership reluctant to tamper with a tourist attraction. It might also be worth thinking about the problem using an old-fashioned base-superstructure model. The backbone of the Italian economy is still the small, family-owned business of fewer than 20 employees. The Italian manufacturing sector is getting clobbered by the Chinese and their low-wage workfarms. Public architecture in Rome and other Italian cities may reflect the moribund quality of the Italian economy as a whole.
Hadid’s work has always looked best in countries with more thoroughly globalized economies, like Germany and the UAE. This may be why her Maxxi museum is so jarring. It’s abstractions and engineering complexity–there are reports that it posed a formidable challenge to Italian structural engineers–seem out of place in such a localized economy.