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The Carletonian

Architecture of chaos and cake: Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI

Two days ago I went to the National Museum of 21st-Century (XXI) Arts (MAXXI.) It’s Rome’s only museum of contemporary art, and if you’re not an architecture buff, it’s a pretty wacky looking building. Actually very wacky. And it has a name. Deconstructivist. To be blunt, the building makes concrete look liquid. 

Designed by Zaha Hadid in 2010 after winning an international competition for the site in the ‘90s, the building mimics a river in its organic layout. From the inside, it seems like a walk-in version of Jenga; the floors are laid haphazardly one atop the other and upper-floor walkways wind through empty space. I ran into a lot of dead ends, slanted walls and enormous proportions for seemingly no reason (like an elevator that channeled overwhelming Dr. Doofenshmirtz energy). But this makes sense, or as much sense as a deconstructivist building could make: there is supposed to be no “right” way to be in a building. The building need not be optimal, and in fact could (and maybe should) be hostile. 

It’s a fantastic idea, fresh out of the ’70s postmodernist wave, where people were getting freaky in the phenomenological and semiotic sheets — looking back on a world built on the miniscule scope of the white male monolith. It’s radical, energetic and especially silly. 

Deconstructivism isn’t the first to this rambunctious philosophy. In fact, the architectural style emerged in large part from Jacques Derrida’s theories of literary deconstruction. Where he asked why society subscribes to the idea of words carrying single units of meaning, architects like Hadid, or Frank Gehry or Peter Eisenmann asked why we’ve implicitly followed the notion of a “building” as little more than a rectangular hunk of steel and glass. 

The point is to think about hierarchies and binaries, questioning why society blindly accepts an “either/or” mentality as opposed to “both/and”. In MAXXI, this means imbuing an undercurrent of chaos from the very start: the building’s entrance is ensconced among concrete folds rather than clearly demarcated, and once surpassed, provides no clear guidance to start looking around.

If you try to assert a familiar sense of order upon the space, you will be forced to sidetrack, as the galleries spill into each other without warning, giving those with decision paralysis a whale of a time. Luckily for such people, MAXXI is actually quite small. I tackled it in two hours, even after many a circle-back to places where the exhibition “river” forked. 

There were two things, though, that I didn’t like:

For all the credit MAXXI has received and the gloating Romans indulge in for hosting its splendidness, the building is little more than a decorated cake — the biggest critique postmodern architects spewed against their modernist predecessors. This is a tragic but common irony for deconstructivism as a manifest philosophy. It usually fails, and on a massive scale at that. Unfortunately, Hadid’s work is no exception.

What really irked me were the sounds of dripping water mixed for my subliminal noticing, reminding me that the space was fluid, practically a body of water — as if the white walls, red posts and glass ceiling “lid” didn’t already conjure such an image (they didn’t). It felt slapped on, tacky and worst of all, a bit campy, which, although entertaining in its own right, butted heads with the image of immature brilliance the space intended to cast. 

And second, the exhibitions themselves were lackluster, which made for the worst kind of decorated cake: the frilly, behind-the-counter tempter with a Betty Crocker inside. From the box. A bit dry. It was a bummer to say the least. 

The museum made an effort to highlight Italian artists in its galleries, after being criticized  for choosing a foreign architect in the first place. While I take no issue with this stance, I found the curation underdeveloped and senseless beyond that of Derridean infinite meanability, strung loosely together by their “contemporary” nametag. I saw early 20th century folk art, Alvar Alto’s furniture (a precursor to IKEA’s style), and cerebral up-and-coming mixed-media projects — the one that sticks being a COVID-19-era mask preserved under a glass bell jar. 

Perhaps it comes of no surprise that a building not necessarily scaled to human size felt jarringly empty. But I think the double emptiness, both from the massive scale and minimalistic curation made me question the purported intellectual richness I was immersed in. Can this space be used any differently than a normal building if its walls, tall and slanted, deliver the same “don’t touch” message as any other museum? I posited not.

As a deconstructivism lover, Barthes reader and general geek, I couldn’t help but feel crestfallen after I’d walked through the four floors. But I do think the space has the potential to better reflect its ideology. The liquid-seeming concrete certainly feels space-agey, and with a bit more tailoring I think the exhibitions themselves could, in their own right, connect to this theme better. It would not be the end of the world for a deconstructivist building to have small morsels of order. If nothing else, sitting by a fountain outside the building was a transformative experience. I’ve just got to remember that the prettiest cakes never taste best, and to instead enjoy them, perhaps unfortunately, from afar. 

Drew Rodriguez-Michel is currently on a Carleton OCS program.


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