Rome Travel Guide

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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Zaha Hadid, Rome "Starchitect" and Designer of MAXXI, dies at 65

The Iraq-born "starchitect" Zaha Hadid died Thursday, March 31.  Her architecture has been widely praised for its ground-breaking, geometrical forms, constructions that owe more than a little to her background in mathematics and study in London with Rem Koolhaas.  She designed only one building in Rome--the state's contemporary art gallery known as MAXXI, which opened in 2010.  In our opinion, it's not her best, but we're glad Rome has this example of her work, described in the New York Times as "voluptuous and muscular, muscular...with ramps that flowed like streams and floors tilted like hills, many walls swerving and swooning."  That's the best description we've read of the building's atrium, though we remain ambivalent about MAXXI, in part because of the way it interacts with the surrounding Flaminio neighborhood.  We expressed that concern in a 2010 post, reprinted below.  An indication of her enormous influence, even with one building in Rome, Hadid shows up in more than a dozen RST posts.  We've provided links to the most significant ones just above the 2010 re-post.  Today, we, too, mourn the loss of a superb and influential architect. 
Significant past RST posts on Hadid and MAXXI:
As #30 on RST's Top 40:
Hadid as one of Rome's "Starchitects":
One evening at MAXXI:
A comparison of MAXXI to the City's contemporary art gallery, MACRO:
A walk-through of a major exhibit at the collection-deprived MAXXI:
And the October 7, 2010 re-post:
We opened the Monday morning New York Times to discover that Zaha Hadid had won the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Stirling Prize for MAXXI, Rome's new modern art gallery.  The prize is given to the architect of the building that has "made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year."  It made us wonder about the state of British architecture.  Our doubts were confirmed when we checked a website that handicapped (like the horse races) the finalists in the competition, recently listing MAXXI as the odds-on favorite at 4:6, with another exciting and glamorous entry, Clapham Manor Primary School, at 8:1. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that the massive MAXXI, the Titanic of Museums, is not our favorite building; we're already on record suggesting that it doesn't really fit into the Flaminio neighborhood (or any neighborhood, for that matter).  And it may seem unfair that we should take another potshot at it.  But the RIBA announcement offered new inspiration.

And we were inspired enough to include MAXXI on the Flaminio walk of our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  See more on the book at the end of this post. 

In awarding the RIBA prize, the judges described MAXXI as the "quintessence of Zaha's [what's with the first name stuff?] constant attempt to create a landscape as a series of cavernous spaces drawn with a free, roving line."  Cavernous, yes, and the caverns are not all that badly connected inside, if that's what's meant by a "free, roving line."  So maybe the award's for the interior.  [We added the two interior photos below to the original post]

MAXXI lobby, 2010

Cavenous gallery
Outside, things are different.  We discovered the problem on a very hot day in June, escorting New York City friends to MAXXI for their first visit.  After a miserable bus ride (the tram lines were under construction), we found ourselves on the block north of the only entry point, looking forlornly at the entrance--only 50 yards away, but inacessible--and faced with a MAXXI-walk around the block with an unsettled companion who was both irritated and near prostrate with the heat by the time we were able to enter the museum's air-conditioned interior.

Maybe we should have known better where we were going, but the experience made clear to us that MAXXI's mass--its dominance of nearly an entire block--and lack of accessibility were real and related problems. 

And so we returned one evening to document the source of our irritation--and maybe have some fun.  On this occasion, the museum's offer of free admission and music had brought young people out in droves and long lines--so many that we immediately gave up any thought of gaining access to the courtyard, let alone those roving caverns inside.

Instead, we scootered around back and took some photos (above and left) of MAXXI's intimidating,  inaccessible, and ugly back side, dominated by windowless concrete massifs, colorful barriers, and fencing.

Watch for icebergs! 


The large space outside the gallery entrance works well with "big" art [photo added to original post]

(Dianne points out MAXXI is #30 on our Rome the Second Time  Top 40.) And, as noted above, it is on our Flaminio tour - both its front and its back.  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler 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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