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Zaha Hadid Goes Maxxi-malist in Rome

Slated to open in February 2010 is Zaha Hadid’s plan for Maxxi, the Italian national museum of 21st century art. The museum is situated in the northern outskirts of Rome, near the grounds of the 1960 Olympics and a stone’s throw away from two other architectural attractions, Renzo Piano’s music hall and Pier Luigi Nervi’s sports palace. The museum, empty of artwork until the spring, will be the main exhibition this weekend during a two-day architectural preview for the citizens of Rome, an urban center steeped in ancient history and curiously devoid of any groundbreaking contemporary architecture.

As New York Times architecture critic (and our idol) Nicolai Ouroussoff writes, Hadid’s quietly incendiary design “jolts this city back to the present like a thunderclap.” Find out why after the jump.

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The exterior of Maxxi Roma, by Zaha Hadid: “Its sensual lines seem to draw the energy of the city right up into its belly, making everything around it look timid.” Photo: Helene Binet for the New York Times.

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Maxxi is set back on from the street on a wide, L-shaped plot, its smooth concrete exterior elegant and “surprisingly sedate,” offering none of the punches typically associated with Zaha Hadid: spaceship pods, angled exteriors sheathed in glass, logic-defying cutouts. What’s all Zaha about the building are the flowing pathways throughout, like densely packed neural pathways transmitting information, or traffic, from one area to another (a brilliantly conceived notion for a museum). While the exterior is a static structure meant to contrast with moving bodies in space, i.e. a bustling street, the interior undulates between curved and linear shapes, like the snaking stairwell suspended under steel grids blocking out harsh southern light from the skylights above.

Ouroussoff underlines the essential challenge in a starchitect’s rendering of a museum space: maintaining the recognizable design hallmarks that made one famous while creating a neutral backdrop for viewing other people’s creative output.

If a question remains about the building, it has to do with the galleries, which are arranged as a series of long intertwining bands, some 300 feet long, as if the ramps of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim had somehow come unraveled. The slight curves of the spaces lure you forward in anticipation of what’s around the next bend. What we don’t know, however, and won’t know for a while, is whether the galleries strike the right balance between the need to move crowds and the stillness required for contemplating art. Ms. Hadid has created a flexible system of hanging partitions that can be used to divide the spaces into smaller galleries; and as you climb to the top, one of the bands breaks into several discrete spaces on different levels.

Only time will tell how successful Hadid’s gallery spaces and “relentless flow” will be in terms of exhibiting contemporary art. As for Maxxi’s new building, bravo. In a nifty turn of hand, the so-called grand dame of deconstructivist architecture is proving herself as more than a conceptual designer or fashion’s trend du jour.

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“The sense of forward momentum is reinforced by the lighting system: a glass skylight that is broken up by long, knifelike metal fins that run the entire length of the room.” Photo: Rolande Halbe for the New York Times.

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