Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, January 11, 2010

RST Top 40. #30 Zaha Hadid's MAXXI

Only a few months ago we had Rialto Sant'Ambrogio, a hip and alternative cultural center, in this #30 spot on the Rome the Second Time Top 40. But it recently closed, perhaps a victim of Rome's ex-thug Mayor Gianni

Alemanno and his right-wing fear of creative and artistic endeavors. Whatever. Anyway, in its place we offer Zaha Hadid's new MAXXI gallery. Although spectacular inside and out, it's arguably already an anachronism: a symbol not only of the affluent 1990s, when the project was conceived, but of the liberal mayors who once governed Rome and cared about the arts. As you'll see below, our take on MAXXI is not usual one.

For more on MAXXI, ,as part of a walking itinerary of Flaminio, see our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Along with the tour of Flaminio and, across the river, Mussolini's Foro Italico (also site of the 1960 Olympics), Modern Rome features three other walks: the 20th-century "garden" suburb of Garbatella, the Mussolini-built suburb of EUR; and a stairways walk in classic Trastevere.  More on the book is at the end of this post.

A "Conversation" with Nicolai Ouroussoff
We have great admiration for Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architectural critic of the New York Times. His views of modern architecture have always seemed to us smart and judicious, based on knowledge leavened by common sense; we thought we were on the same page. And so we were surprised on a recent Sunday (12/20/09), in a story in the Times that discussed (among other structures) Zaha Hadid's recently completed MAXXI--Rome's national museum of 21st century art--to find Mr. Ouroussoff expressing opinions with which we didn't agree. It's not Mr. Ouroussoff's opinion of the building that we don't share, but rather his understanding of the area--the Flaminio district--in which the building is located, and his view of the building's relationship to its surroundings.

"The museum's sinuous concrete forms," he writes, "which seem to draw energy from the surrounding streets, play a game of hide and seek with the neighborhood. [See photo at right, for the "hide-and-seek effect Mr. Ouroussoff describes.] Tucked mid-block between rows of nondescript buildings, it is less about the hard sell than the slow seduction." (In November he had written something similar: "Its sensual lines seem to draw the energy of the city right up into its belly, making everything about it look timid.") Later in this Sunday's piece he writes about MAXXI's "ability to infuse a drab, lifeless neighborhood," "a derelict postwar area at the far edge of Rome's historic center," "with a sense of joy." In his November comments, he said this about the neighborhood:. "The museum stands in a drowsy neighborhood of early 20th-century apartment buildings and former army barracks called Flaminio."

There's much of interest in these remarks, and we will try to simplify things. Mr. Ouroussoff thinks Ms. Hadad's MAXXI is a very powerful and sensual building, and that it is located in a miserable neighborhood--"drab," "lifeless," "derelict" (except that the neighborhood, despite its lifelessness, seems to have energy on which the building can draw, bringing the city "right up into its belly"). Is the building good for the neighborhood? Here Mr. Ouroussoff is not clear. On the one hand, MAXXI "makes everything around it look timid," which doesn't sound good. On the other hand, it infuses the neighborhood with "a sense of joy," which does sound good.

Our differences with Mr. Ouroussoff start with the neighborhood.
(See the aerial photo at right, looking south). The immediate neighborhood--the streets immediately surrounding the new museum, are not the most lively or fascinating in Rome; several schools and state installations are located nearby. But Flaminio is not Detroit or Newark or Cleveland or Dayton. We lived in Flaminio for 3 months in 2008. Only a few hundred feet west from MAXXI on via Guido Reni is a thriving indoor market, a crowded bakery, and many other shops and coffee bars. Less than three blocks south and southwest from the new museum is the active commercial and residential corridor of viale del Vignola and, just beyond, a humming via Fracassini. On the northeast side of the museum, Piazza dei Caracci is home to one of our favorite wine bars (photo at left) and a large, well-appointed coffee bar that's busy all day.

But Mr. Ouroussoff makes it seem as if MAXXI is coming to the rescue of a sleepy, even "derelict" neighborhood with little going on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without or without MAXXI, the area is a hub of cultural offerings and impressive modern architecture. A quarter mile to the east, across the trolley tracks of via Flaminia, stands a playful complex of buildings known as Parco della Musica (photo below). Designed by Renzo Piano, it is to Rome as the Kennedy Center is to Washington, D.C--except more inviting and accessible. Nearby are the buildings designed for the 1960 Olympic games, including a multi-building housing complex of considerable architectural merit, and Pier Luigi Nervi's famous Palazetto dello Sport. To the east down via Guido Reni, and just across the Tevere (just off the right/west edge of the aerial photo), is one of Fascism's monumental works of architectural modernism: the Foro Italico, designated the Foro Mussolini when it was unveiled in 1927. Ms. Hadad's MAXXI joins these works; it confirms Flaminio's claim to be (along with EUR) the heart of Rome modernism.

We are left with the building's impact on the neighborhood, on the streets around it. As I understand Mr. Ouroussoff, he isn't sure whether the building provides energy to the surrounding streets (infusing them with a "sense of joy"), or sucks the life out of them ("makes everything look timid"). The second alternative gets my vote. The back of the building is just an enormous concrete wall (note that one never sees photos of it), shunning neighbors and pedestrians. The front opens on an enormous, empty, lifeless, pedestrian-only plaza of the sort we've seen before and that never work (think the Albany Mall, although it's not quite that bad). People don't eat lunch in these plazas, or walk in them (and why should they? the bars are cosier, and the city streets more entertaining). Maybe some kids will use it to kick a ball around. Like most modern, concrete plazas, the function of this one is to display the building, to make a spectacle of it--and it does that well.

But to spectacularize MAXXI, worthy as that goal may be, the neighborhood and its residents must be held at arm's length, as in the photo at right. Jane Jacobs, who understood how cities function--and how they don't--would understand.


As noted above, MAXXI  - both its front and back - are featured in the Flaminio walk in our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Modern Rome features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

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