One saturday, I took a solo outing north of us (on foot) to check out the MAXXI (Museo Nationale Delle Arti Del XXI Secolo>Museum of 21st Century). I’ve spent a lot of time getting my head around the Ancient Roman, Mideival, Renaissance, and Baroque on this trip, but, having never visited a building by Zaha Hadid and having a family that is tour-weary, I set out to see what it was all about.
The walk was pretty straightforward. The Museum was about 2 km away on a straight axis with the Piazza del Popolo near which we are staying. So I walked across the expansive piazza, past the egyptian obelisk at its center that anchors the Trident of the 3 main avenues in central Rome, out through the gate onto the Via F——-. It was hot, and I broke into a good sweat. Long straight walks through unfamiliar, un-tourist-y areas make me sweat a little, in general, but I got stuck on the wrong side of the tram-way in the beating sunshine.
The museum is located mid-block, behind and on top of a modest 2 story 18th-19th century building that has been painted decorator white to help it stand in sharp, modern contrast to the brick and stucco around it. This, frankly, is unnecessary, since a more striking concern to the average passer-by would likely be the pretzel of concrete wearing aluminum high heels that seems to be winning a leg-wrestling match with the building in front of it.
Jumping around a little: one of the exhibits featured architectural study models from a variety of 20th (and 21st) century architects. Among these were the finalists for the MAXXI project, including many names-of-the-day that some readers of this blog will recognize from their archdaily.com browsing, as well as several models from Hadid’s office. Her presentation models are stunning and must be realized on a 3d printer or something. They are mechanically precise, flowing across their context in Tron-like articulations of parallels line groupings that tie lot line to lot line as they sweep wavelike around each other across a plaza below.. Graphically, these are genuinely compelling, much more so than anything else that was submitted for the project.
One of the Jury’s justifications for selecting Hadid’s entry was that it created a connectivity between two heretofore unconnected urban contexts through the use of a public plaza that is shared with the community. This was, indeed the case. Going only on a map, and lacking any visual image of the front, the first indication that I had arrived was the whiteness of the building in the distance. As I neared it from an acute angle, the next indication was the heavy steel gate that seemed to be in an open position. A big gate on steel rollers, apparent open to the public when the museum is open and closed to the public when it is not. So, thatsa version of public space, I suppose, but not something you can count on if you are lugging your groceries home from the store and want to take the new shortcut by Museo-viaduct.
Indeed, the Piazza has all of the charm that I’ve experienced in other contemporary public spaces. Lots of graphic moves in the landscape that result in pointy, triangular grass patches, an occasional tree, concrete benches that fold topographically out of the ground and return to it, and various paving materials ranging from cut stone to concrete to smooth river stone. The piazza like the adjacent portion of building has a decidedly north-south bias, part of the connectivity concept, I’m sure. But it makes entering the building a little confusing, because the entrance is toward the south (front/approach) end of the building, forcing you to cross the ‘grain’ of the piazza, which means walking around the pointy end of grass at the front>
and then cutting back again around apointy patch of <loose, large gravel/stone
After which you are rewarded with a broad expanse of curtain wall against which leans a shaggy temporary installation and beside which ‘floats’ another temporary exhibit that suspends children’s clothing on wires between parts of the building defining, loosely, a volume in the form of a ship’s hull. All of which probably looked pretty neat on the day of the opening, and which, I’m sure, is supposed to make me explore thoughts on materiality, verticality and the experience of space as well as question my response to questions of public vs private use of common areas. But the true effect of the relatively empty piazza is that I have somehow found myself, sweaty and parched, in the nest of a Wild Thing living under a bridge and that Wild Thing has recently hung someone’s laundry out to dry. Perhaps even eaten them, begging the question of the need to wash them in the first place. Such are the complexities of the contemporary dialogue between artist and art viewer.
So I enter the building through the belly of the Wild Thing and experience that familiar sense of awe and confusion that is unique to contemporary architecture. Tons of dramatic moves—skylights, stairs, walkways, lighting, furniture—all wrapping around and through one another in a space that must be 80’ tall. The color pallette, thankfully, is limited to black (steel), white (plaster), and gray (concrete), with some red bars floating in space. Also characteristically, there is a very large desk in the center of the space as you approach at which you can not buy tickets, and there are a few black clad staffers guarding the stairs to the exhibits. But, overall, the effect is impressive. The lines of the building are bold and intense, but they seem controlled by some sort of logic and not just whimsy.
I buy my ticket, hand my camera bag (its padding soaked with sweat) to the person at the bag check (a modeled white desk opposite and somewhat uncomfortably-close to the bathrooms), and head for the exhibit hall, which I assume is up the monumental stair guarded by a staffer beside the entrance. More sensations of being in Tron, the stair leads to a ramp that has a straight but sinewy profile that leads to
crap, wrong stair. I wander back across the second floor and find a closedpair of metal doors with a small sign indicating there is an exhibit in there. The kind of doors you aren’t supposed to open, but what the hell…okay, back on track
a large curving exhibit space with 2 chairs and a sofa at its center, an oval glass table at the far end, and, in the nearest, darkest corner beside me (because I just entered the anus of the space) is parked a 1970’s Mercedes Benz coupe that periodically turns on and off its lights (blinding the viewer, and in doing so, revealing to the viewer a moment of truth that accompanies the obliteration of your sense of sight, according to the wall plaque). The overall effect is underwhelming. I’m sure Iwould loose a cocktail argument with a curator over how an exhibit of 21st century are should be composed, and perhaps this one was designed for people approaching it (correctly) from the other end, but I couldn’t help getting that feeling of existential hopelessness that often (perhaps by design) comes with big roomsthat are filled with small, inaccessible works of contemporary art. This feeling is compounded in the next room—well, more of an intersection of various stairs, ramps, and hallwaysthan a room—where a colorful bale of clothes sat with a chest harness attached to it behind which played a projected video of the artist lugging it up the main ramp within the museum. I put on the headphones beside a nearby, which allowed me to listen to his heavy breathing and the sound of the bale sliding on the floor.
I just don’t get it—any of it. It makes me feel dumb. Therefore, I don’t like it. That is my general take on the exhibits. Through the course of human civilization, art has provided a way for people to communicate things: stories, moral lessons, humor, higher orders of thought and reasoning. Not always, and not always successfully in any event. And I believe there is a role within the world of art in which the artist (and architect) may use art as a vehicle for challenging our perceptions and preconceptions of each other and our environment. BUT…too much of one thing is not a good thing, and everything on display — contemporary art — seems to require an explanation (an artist’s statement) and some deep, hard, and frequently fruitless pondering. Why? Why can’t we just talk like normal people? Why is every artist in this place speaking pig latin?
But at least there is a building which thankfully overpowers the art itself. It is a powerful building, massive, heavy, sweeping, sculptural and graphic. As a piece of sculpture it really is marvelous. As a piece of urban design, it more or less fails. Yes, it does what it set out to do, but it does so in a self-centered, self-referential way. But is that such a bad thing?
Time will tell, I’m sure. Any tour of Italian landmarks is a tour of adaptive reuse of buildings and sites: palaces become art museums; marketplaces become basilicas; universities become galleries. As civilization evolves, so do the uses of their structures. Hadid’s sweeping concrete walls and ramps are set to last centuries. It remains to be seen whether the narrative of contemporary art and architecture is similarly durable.