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Rome goes MAXXI

Rome has an ambivalent attitude towards contemporary architecture. It’s partly history’s fault, of course. Mussolini used new buildings to update the city’s image and impose his party’s ideology. After the war, probably in reaction to the unsavoury associations of such strongman tactics, conservation or imitation of existing buildings became the watchword, and the new was viewed with a certain suspicion. The few identifiably ‘modern’ projects were mostly small-scale or commissioned privately (like Sir Basil Spence’s new British Embassy building, inaugurated in 1968).

It was only in the late 1990s, under centre-left mayor Francesco Rutelli, that Rome plucked up the courage to commission the sort of audacious contemporary buildings that had long been attracting attention (and visitors) in Paris, London, New York, and Bilbao. The first, US architect Richard Meier’s new casing for the Ara Pacis (www.arapacis.it), has attracted controversy ever since it was unveiled in the spring of 2006, and soon after his election, right-wing mayor Gianni Alemanno (an outspoken opponent of the project) even threatened to have it pulled down. A compromise has now been reached with Meier: the long curtain wall that blocks the view of the Baroque church of San Rocco will be partly demolished, but the rest will stay.

Personally I’ve never really made my mind up about Meier’s building. I like what it does to the Ara Pacis itself: the monument is better lit and certainly better protected from the elements and temperature swings than it ever was by the old teca (pavilion) that used to house it. But at the same time, this is a fairly undistinguished example of Meier’s art; it looks like a miniature airport terminal, or a state-of-the-art sports hall. Not a bad one – it would look fine somewhere like Rotterdam or Lyon or even on the outskirts of certain northern Italian cities. But it doesn’t have a lot to do with Rome.

But then I say to myself that this wouldn’t actually matter if it were a more exciting building. After all, what does the Centre Pompidou have to do with Paris, or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum with Bilbao?

This was brought home to me when I went for a sneak preview of Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it) in the northern inner suburb of Flaminio – not far from another meaty Roman new-build of recent years, Renzo Piano’s Auditorium – Parco della Musica performing arts centre.

Hadid’s museum, designed to display exhibitions and a permanent collection relating to contemporary art and architecture, is astonishingly imaginative. It’s one of those buildings that exhilarates and energises you, with its flow of spaces and levels, like part of a circuit board, except stretched into three dimensions.

It helps, of course, that the site was that of an entirely undistinguished police barracks, and that the surrounding area of suburban palazzi, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, offers little in the way of architectural competition for Hadid’s party piece. In the centro storico, Hadid’s concrete wave forms might look like vandalism; but here in the suburbs, they’re a thing of beauty, grace and power – and it’s Rome’s first piece of really world-class contemporary architecture since Angiolo Mazzoni’s Termini Station.

MAXXI opens to the public on 30 May.

For more expert information, see my Rome pages.