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Zaha Hadid in Context

It seems that the currently fashionable architects are competing to plant their “contemporary stamp” on the historic face of the Eternal City. It all began with the completion in 2005 of Richard Meier’s Museum of the Ara Pacis, which seems to have opened the way for new Modernist architecture in the city. Upon its completion, the Meier building prompted protests even from the mayor of Rome, and now its entry plaza is to undergo a makeover in answer to some of the criticisms that met its debut, most notably the wall that blocks the view of two Neo-classical churches from the riverside boulevard of the Lungotevere.

As disturbing as the counter-contextual imposition of Meier’s building is, there is something worse afoot in Rome: the gutting of historic buildings of more recent vintage and their incorporation into crudely cannibalistic new construction. Modernist architects are becoming perversely parasitic in this way: They insist on using historic structures as a “foil” to their unprecedented forms and high-tech materials. Aggressive “shards” and “blobs” are suddenly exploding from the bellies of older buildings like the creature in the movie “Alien” that burst out of the abdomen of an ill-fated earthling. Daniel Liebskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and War Museum in Dresden are the best known examples of this approach.

MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, Zaha Hadid, 2010. View from Via Guido Reni, showing existing and new buildings. Photo by the author.

Designed by Zaha Hadid and holding forth as the latest new building in Rome by a leading contemporary architect, the MAXXI gallery of contemporary art was received with worshipful praise by the establishment, including the 2010 Stirling Prize of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The architecture critic of the Guardian described it as “Hadid’s finest built work to date. . .and a masterpiece fit to sit alongside Rome’s ancient wonders.”

So far as I am aware, there have been no official calls for its demolition, to date, although the future of the building is clouded. It seems the 150 million euros spent on constructing the new museum were invested without providing for operating funds, building maintenance or much of a permanent collection. Recently, the government announced that the building may soon close, a casualty of the economic crisis and government belt tightening.

The Hadid proposal, winner of a 1998 design competition and completed finally in 2010, “convinced the jury by its capacity to integrate itself in the urban fabric and for its innovative architectural solution” proclaims the museum’s website. In what way the new MAXXI can be said to have any relation to its physical context other than brute aggression is puzzling, as it makes no concession whatsoever to anything around it.

Across the street is a 1920s public housing project that, like many from that time in Rome, combines humane urbanism and exemplary traditional architecture. In other words, it creates the benign urban fabric that Hadid willfully ignores. But what many people who have not seen the MAXXI in person may not realize is that Hadid makes use of two existing buildings from an entire district of turn-of-the-20th-century military barracks. These buildings, in contrast to Hadid’s, are very simple and dignified structures, and one of them forms the southern flank of the MAXXI, facing the street.

The new structure, engulfing and extending north from the older one, is entered from a new garden and courtyard, the older building acting as a kind of impenetrable mask behind which the bulk of the new building pokes out at each end. Another of the old buildings, set perpendicular to the street, encloses the new garden on the east and houses additional bookshop and café spaces.

Hadid uses the existing building simply as a shell, hollows it out, paints it white and makes it all but disappear, nearly overwhelmed by the onslaught of the new structure that seems to be attacking it like some colossal monster in a science-fiction film. But, unexpectedly, the old structure’s dignity of composition, satisfying proportions and human scale resist the architect’s act of appropriation. It stands its ground, still recognizable as architecture, refusing to be destroyed. This persistence must keep Hadid awake at night. Not allowed to demolish the buildings, she is powerless to rob them of their meaning, despite the considerable effort she gives to the task.

Maxxi Museum, Rome. View of new museum building from northwest. Photo by the author.

On the other side of the city, another out-of-town. avant-garde architect has attacked and gutted an older building but more ineptly and with a sorrier fate for the “host” structure. The former Peroni Brewery, designed by the Roman architect, restorer and scholar Gustavo Giovannoni and constructed between 1908 and 1912, is a multi-block complex regarded as a landmark of early 20th-century industrial architecture.

Remodeling part of it between 2004 and 2010 for yet another museum of contemporary art – this one called the MACRO – Paris architect Odlie Decq asserted that “it was necessary to maintain both of the existing facades, so we removed a little piece at the corner to show that we existed.” In an egregious instance of “facadism,” the old street walls were isolated and left as mere screens unrelated to the reconfigured spaces behind them. At the corner, the walls are interrupted and penetrated by glass volumes that seem to be breaking them apart.

Projects more respectful of Giovannoni’s buildings and the surrounding context were submitted in the competition won by Decq, but these were set aside for “the lack of risk, novelty and rupture in the schemes, attributes which instead fully characterized that of the winner,” according to the official jury report. Now we know that Ms. Decq exists, but she need not have bothered. An architect who must ruin a historic structure in order to prove her existence has proved what, exactly?

MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, Odile Decq, 2010. Photo by the author.

Demonstrating that the hometown architects are just as capable of contempt for their cultural inheritance as their foreign colleagues, Massimiliano Fuksas has designed a radical alteration to the former Unione Militare building on Via del Corso, right in the heart of the historic center. Among the few examples of turn-of-the-20th-century Classical commercial architecture in the center of Rome, the temptation to mess with its Classical symmetries was irresistible.

Taking a cue from Decq, Fuksas blows open a corner to prove he exists, and a flood of his signature glassy shapes spills out of the breach. Now under construction, this transgressive treatment of the existing building was likely approved by the authorities because the older building, as in the previous two cases, was not considered “historic.” In Italy, the boundary of what usually qualifies for preservation is drawn at the start of the 19th century, which leaves nearly all the excellent architecture of the city from the last 200 years vulnerable to the parasitical appetites of the Modernist architects.

In Italy, as elsewhere, the historic patrimony, viewed by most of us as an evolving tradition to be sympathetically adapted to new conditions, is seen by many architects as material to be “mined” or used as a pretext for dramatizing “rupture” and “transgression.” With the value of 19th- and 20th-century architecture only now beginning to be recognized, this leaves an important part of the European heritage under threat – a loophole architects like Hadid, Decq and Fuksas are only too eager to exploit.


  1. August 3rd, 2012 at 23:10 | #1

    Chicagoans know about this from the “spaceship” that landed in Soldier Field.

  2. Michael Rouchell
    August 10th, 2012 at 03:25 | #2

    Here’s a close up of one of Hadid’s projects. Apparently this received a design award from Architectural Record.


  3. li xing
    November 16th, 2012 at 06:08 | #3

    It is so warm to see there is a post from another chicagoan.

    One month ago, I went to venice for the Venice architecture Biennale. During the trip in Rome, I went to see this MAXXI museum. The flow of the museum and its fie with the triangular site inspired me huge.

  1. July 26th, 2012 at 14:30 | #1
  2. August 2nd, 2012 at 14:14 | #2