The French historian Georges Duby wrote a famous book where the subtitle ‘Art and Society, 980-1420’ stands under this significant title: The Age of the Cathedrals. The entire Western civilization of the Middle Ages is therefore, metaphorically and literally, represented by architecture, or rather a special type of architecture – Gothic cathedrals. The cathedrals summarized artistic and intellectual tendencies, complex social relationships and spiritual inclinations in a whole, where the architectural framework was the most prominent cultural achievement, but also a space of togetherness and homogeneity. The architecture of cathedrals, in its cultural wholeness, embodied the period’s ideas of the universe and allowed all members of the community to experience the collective idea of the world with their senses and their mind, getting closer to spiritual horizons.
Can we use an architectural type to describe our time, however approximately? The closest equivalents to the cathedrals are the new art museums, which are also the meeting places of the highest building ambitions, of artistic works that are generally thought to be the spiritual pinnacle of their age, and of complex relations between economic power and cultural efforts of institutions and individuals that enable the existence of ‘public culture’. But the universal idea of the world has been replaced by heterogeneity. After the rebellion of historical avant-gardes, followed by the deconstruction of the artistic artefact, today’s difference in artistic approaches and expressions is so great that it is hard to reduce them to a specific genre description such as ‘visual arts’; instead, the cultural production populating the museums is an expression of the cultural fragmentation of contemporary society. Art museums provide a home to works and events which use various media and very different methods to express the current state of civilization or to point out archetypal phenomena and values. For that reason, the spatial framework containing contemporary art cannot be unified either. There is no architectural code that would reflect a collective idea of a ‘world view’ because there is none; in the same way, contemporary art is not fixed in any form that would have its ideal architectural expression. Moreover, exciting and up-to-date art is first conceived in informal and ‘alternative’ spaces, to be (maybe) adopted by the mainstream culture of the large museums, which try to be relevant by attempting to adapt to new explorations and new phenomena. For that reason, the radically different concepts and forms of museums are not only a consequence of the much-criticized desire for distinct architectural design as a mark of identity or an attraction/attractor for cultural consumerism, but also a consequence of the fact that the architecture of museums in the spatial sense is free of literal utilitarian value, just like a cathedral. Their Baroque, minimalist or other spatial ideas serve the experiential event unifying the heterogeneous nature of artistic works, giving the visitors what they expect from art – some kind of a sensual pleasure related to a special ‘consecrated place of culture’, which may sound conservative from the viewpoint of progressively oriented artistic theory and criticism, but it is well-founded considering the cultural and spiritual shortages in today’s everyday life.
‘I did not understand a single exhibit, but the building is wonderful’, said an elegantly dressed visitor when leaving MAXXI, the Museum of 21st Century Art, which had just opened in Rome. When the museum was opened, the waiting in queues stretching for 300 metres in front of the entrance was patiently endured by the members of the Roman cultural establishment, but also by ‘ordinary’ citizens on the next day. This reveals a great collective excitement, a desire to visit a safe haven of collective culture, embodied by both architecture and art. Zaha Hadid’s building won the competition in 1998 (i.e. before MSU in Zagreb) from among 273 candidates; what is it like? Hadid said that it came at a crucial moment of her transition from an ‘abstract’ phase to a ‘fluid’ phase, showed by a series of 12 reliefs/studies revealing the gradual transformation of the spatial concept of the building, from a deconstructed fractal structure to dynamic and curved space flows that overlap, intertwine, slip away and spread to the environment. Hadid came to Flaminio, the pleasant but relatively bland northern district of Rome, with a project which demolished most of the existing industrial buildings and injected a new urban DNA, like a big imprint of modern culture into a neutral environment.
Traces of that fluid graphic language can be found in the vicinity of MAXXI, in the neo-Classicist building of the National Gallery of Modern Art (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna) north of the Borghese Park, where the central room contains the best of the museum’s collection: a large Klimt and two canvases by Giacomo Balla with unusually calm compositions, where round and soft surfaces twist and emerge from the background, with tonal transitions and folds suggesting spatial depth. It is not a narrative Futurism of machines and war, an attempt to get paintings to literally incorporate the temporal component mimicking film; it is a spiritual Futurism with a free and vibrant form, a painting that feels like an event. Balla’s paintings show a fascinating resemblance to Hadid’s architectural Suprematism almost a century later, her ‘unwound Guggenheim’ (the Wright building, of course) or spatial Futurism. ¶ The MAXXI ensemble is articulated as a series of wavy sections/strips forming linear flowing spaces that are interconnected in a complex organism. The building is accessed from a spacious yard under concrete curves jutting from the building and hovering above the foyer entrance. The foyer reaches the full height of the building and contains a three-dimensional network of stairs and passarellas, like a circulatory system, creating an exciting three-dimensional choreography of movements. This assembly is connected to galleries, which follow different spatial directions, gradually rising, falling, rotating by ninety degrees, only to reconnect to the blood flow in the foyer at one point. The visitor does not wander through the building, but follows the spatial strips, deciding in which direction to proceed only after reaching a connection point or a branching. The spaces change their size and shape, from corridors to larger exhibition halls, but all the transitions are experienced gradually and smoothly, without any drastic breaks. The spaces are not too high, and some segments of the interior even have quite an intimate character, more oriented towards the public space of the courtyard. The physical experience of movement is strongly stressed by slanting floors and walls, coming upon staircases, the feeling that the spaces really stimulate the flow of energy. A certain disappointment is felt with the place that should be the climax: the highest point, the end of all the routes and the end of the gallery with the slanted floor is concluded as a large window overlooking an unattractive neighbourhood. The visitors come into a somewhat dull collision with the glass opening, which is shaded by curtains most of the day, so they must simply go back where they came from.
Considering that the body of the building is arranged as a series of successive strips stacked one over another, most spaces have a fine overhead light. Going against the elementary structural logic in favour of a fantastic spatial impression, the strips are longitudinally flanked by extremely thin and tall concrete beams carrying the glass cover and movable lamellas used to darken the place and which serve as protection against direct light entering the rooms. The design is minimalist and the details are visually very simple but flawless – grey epoxy flooring, precisely executed raw concrete, black staircases with treads of steel grating (very hard to negotiate in high heels). An objection may be made to the lighting built into the soffits of stairs and passarellas, designed as continuous translucent stretches, emphasizing formal fluidity but being too uniform and lacking subtlety. Also, the relations between indoor and outdoor spaces are not resolved with equal success everywhere. The jutting, hovering corridors provide an exciting view of the courtyard and crevices within the body of the building, but certain spaces, especially some of the ground-floor galleries, are completely closed and look like blind, insufficiently articulated spaces that fail to maintain the dramatic tension of the building.
The volume of the building is laid and wrapped around a segment of the former industrial building, retained as a scenery piece and memory of a previous state. Although only a small part has been preserved, the new structure profits from its relationship with the old. While the entry sequence is volumetrically exciting and shows what is going on inside, the flank and rear sides look like enormous, elegantly rounded concrete masses that are fully enclosed and inert to the environment. It should be noted that the complex has not been finished and that the further development of the project should form interstices that would create a richer building fabric. The project demonstrates the genuine and convincing design method of combining a generative process design that gradually forms the fabric of the building through a sequence of iterations with space improvements by means of adjustments of certain assemblies and sequences. In the genesis of the building, an algorithmic process is combined with authorial control; such actions are already known from programmed art, for example, but they are much harder to accomplish when it comes to a complex spatial organism. Also, the principles of pulsating space and higher-order geometry and mathematics of infinitesimal calculus are close to the Baroque, and the Baroque means Rome.
According to the curator concept, the museum has no permanent exhibition, but insists on the equivalence of architecture and design, which is an international innovation. The phenomenon of equalizing the architectural with the artistic at the Biennale in Venice will have its official amalgam in MAXXI, presented during the inauguration, with specially commissioned installations by prominent architects who tend to experiment, like Lacaton Vassal, R & Sie(n), Teddy Cruz and others, combined with other, mostly uninteresting exhibitions, which are housed in separate segments but also overlap with each other in some places. A heterogeneous approach is also present in the architectural exhibition curated by Pippo Ciorra. In the front courtyard, Rintala Eggerton architects set up an architectural two-storey bivouac with an atrium in the spirit of habitable and meditative ‘singular objects’ by Donald Judd, while Diller and Scofidio have installed a machine that gradually grinds the wall and deepens its trace in the body of the building. Helena Paver Njirić presented moiré, a well received and subtle installation. The work examines interactive and dynamic ways of forming space, articulated in the installation as a fine veil made of nothing but pulsating vertical threads with light refracting and flowing over them. At first glance, it is not clear whether the resulting area is passable/inhabitable, because it is hard to fathom the density and permeability of the ‘material’ it consists of. Approaching the installation, one discovers a passage through the surroundings of optical and spatial distortions and impermanence, activated by a sensor at the precise moment when one enters the space. Moiré operates on the border between material and immaterial, between dynamic and fixed. Moreover, Helena Paver Njirić offered a vision of the fluidity of space, which stands in a dialectical relation with Zaha’s museum. Zaha provided a configuration with solid boundaries and fluid, formal physical flows spreading beyond the field of vision, which is best experienced through movement, but Paver Njirić conceived a defined spatial frame where the very boundaries pulsate and offer a variable, non-hierarchical spatial experience without any need for the visitor to move. An abstract phenomenon of ‘empty’ space has been made visible, solid and concrete – the visitor can feel immersed in an isotopic fluid.
Rome, overripe with layers of history, lacked a relation towards the current moment of civilization, and it lacked a new cathedral. MAXXI, along with the annex to the exhibition space MACRO, opened at the same time and designed by Odile Decq in a radical manner, found its place on the map of the international network of museum pilgrimages in an era which has replaced the universal spiritual world view with a heterogeneous culture. Museums have never had so many visitors, even though most modern art is not particularly communicative – its potential to emancipate the community is still limited, and the community has not accepted the fact that the adoption of art needs an active investment of both emotional and intellectual capacities. MAXXI is a pure space, basically self-sufficient and ‘inadaptable’ to art: the floors and walls are inclined, each exhibition and each exhibit requires a new extension. The literal physical availability and popularization of culture does not mean a convergence of art and community. Nowadays, such bridging is performed by the architecture of museums, which is becoming the most prominent cultural achievement at this point in time, at least as important as art itself. It is a kind of reversal: architecture may well be the home of art, but it rather seems that art is a filling for architecture. This is not architecture in the spirit of radical or utopian ideas. Nor is it an open, ephemeral or critical architecture, but a perceptive architecture in the spirit of the monumental tradition of cathedral art, which authentically represents the actual social relations and trends of today’s democratic society.