Zaha Hadid, MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts

Zaha Hadid, MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, 1998-2009 (opened 2010), Via Guido Reni, Rome

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re just north of the center of Rome, looking at Zaha Hadid’s relatively new building, the MAXXI Museum, devoted to 21st century art.

[0:15] As we approach the museum, we walk by military barracks, and we just begin to spot the concrete facade of the museum resting gently on the older buildings, poking its nose around the older buildings, until we walk into a large piazza, where the full width of the building is apparent.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:34] In some ways it seems to have almost landed on that older structure.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] The fact that it feels like it’s landed suggests weightlessness, despite the fact that it is an almost unbroken slab of concrete. That’s in part because of the shadow created by the overhang of that concrete, reminiscent of the International Style and the work of people like Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] And in the facade of the building, rows of metallic columns that might remind us of Bernini’s Piazza at Saint Peter’s.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] There’s also the historical precedent of the use of concrete, a material that the ancient Romans perfected and used to shape space, and she is very much the inheritor of that tradition.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] Although we don’t see those round arches like a Roman aqueduct or like the Pantheon, it’s almost like those round arches have tilted and become horizontal and move the visitor to the museum through ribbons of space.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] Zaha Hadid has won virtually every major international architecture prize.

Dr. Harris: [1:30] She was born in Iraq, but is a British architect. She holds faculty positions at numerous universities all over the world.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] Right after school, she had worked for Rem Koolhaas at his Office for Metropolitan Architecture. This was one of the most inventive and theoretically important architectural firms in the 1970s and 1980s.

Dr. Harris: [1:48] Hadid is clearly drawing inspiration from Modernism, from Constructivism, from the work of the great Russian painters of the early 20th century like Malevich, embedding a kind of early 20th century utopianism about the modern city.

Dr. Zucker: [2:05] In the warm grays of the concrete, in the silvery grays of metal flooring, and in the blacks and whites, it reminds me of the interest in translucency, transparency, and opaqueness that you see especially in the work of artists like Moholy-Nagy in the early part of the 20th century, as well as unabashed interest in the power of pure geometry.

Dr. Harris: [2:25] Looking toward Islamic art as well as modernist architecture.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] In fact, she mentions the importance of having seen the minaret at Samarra, this massive figure that creates very clean, stark, geometric lines, and that creates a ribbon for people to walk up.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] There is that sense of ribbons of space, of that path around the minaret coming undone and branching out when we walk through the spaces of the museum.

[2:54] There is something very exciting about moving through this building and not knowing what one will come across next. No matter which galleries we go into, we’re drawn back to these fabulous stairways that are black but lit underneath with white light.

Dr. Zucker: [3:09] We’re walking on metal grids, and this entire interior space seems to be a contrast between these wonderful curvilinear ribbons and strict rectilinear geometries.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] We see those rectilinear geometries in the walls with the blocks of concrete, in the stairs, and in the concrete beams that almost read as blades along the ceiling.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] Our eye shoots along those beams and are slowed only by the fins of the louvers.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] But these stairways move like bands in and around those rectilinear shapes and feel very playful.

Dr. Zucker: [3:43] The staircases not only bend, but also double back, creating sharp angles. They do feel playful, almost as if you could have a huge metal ball that runs along as if they were a track. There’s also a hint of the sinister, and at least one critic has likened it to the prints of Piranesi in the way that they seem to move in every direction with endless multiplication.

Dr. Harris: [4:04] Of different spaces weaving together and going back out again.

Dr. Zucker: [4:08] Sometimes rushing from one space to another and sometimes slowing down.

Dr. Harris: [4:12] The architect said, and I’m quoting here, “My first idea was about a delta where the main streams become the galleries and minor ones become bridges which connect to them.” Of course, a delta is a river that forks and flows into the sea.

Dr. Zucker: [4:26] What does it mean to design a museum in the 21st century? If you think about the history of museums, they’re generally palaces that have been repurposed. For example, the Louvre in Paris, which was the royal residence of the king of France, or here in Rome, the Vatican Museums, the papal palace.

Dr. Harris: [4:40] Or you could think about many of the palazzi in Rome that were once family palaces that are now museums.

Dr. Zucker: [4:46] The Barberini Palace, for example.

Dr. Harris: [4:48] Or we could think about the early modernist architecture of the Museum of Modern Art. Museum architecture says a lot about how we see ourselves and how we see our cultural heritage and how we move into the future. Do we look to the past? Do we look forward?

Dr. Zucker: [5:03] That’s an especially salient issue here in Rome, a city with an overwhelming history.

[5:08] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”MAXXI,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Zaha Hadid, MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed July 19, 2024,