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Modern Rome: MAXXI vs. MACRO
An Italian critic weighs in on Rome's latest museums by Zaha Hadid and Odile Decq
A catwalk is suspended beneath a dramatic skylight inside architect Odile Decq's MACRO.
Paola Maugini Comunicazione

The law of the ten and two rules Rome. Ten is the minimum number of years required to build a public project, while two is the minimum number of inaugurations required to celebrate the event. The first inauguration takes place when the building is more or less complete, and even with a few closed rooms and ad hoc screens, able to welcome visitors; the second takes place when the decision has been made about the funds available for its activities and those who manage it.

Interior of Zaha Hadid's MAXXI
Sinuously curving concrete walls on the INTERIOR OF ZAHA HADID'S MAXXI.
Helene Binet

Thanks to these two proven rules, on 27 May 2010 it was possible to simultaneously inaugurate the MAXXI, designed by Zaha Hadid and the MACRO, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Roma, designed by Odile Decq. For the MAXXI, some 13 years on, it was the second inauguration, while for the MACRO, ten years into the project, it was the first (in fact, it will close only to reopen at the end of the year). There was a great deal of curiosity, for a twofold order of reasons. First because the two museums, both dedicated to contemporary art, are the responsibility of two different institutions: the State for the MAXXI and the City of Rome for the MACRO. Secondly, because both works are designed by women architects, both with extraordinary personalities, united by a subtle relationship of rivalry.

It was thus inevitable that visitors, shuttled back and forth between the two museums, located close to one another in the city, by dedicated buses, could ask the question: Who won? The question is perhaps banal and out of place because both structures are optimum. However, it is irresistible and impossible to avoid. The vox populi, rapidly synthesized by Alessandra Mammì, a journalist with Espresso magazine, in her blog, is that Decq is the winner. I can only agree, and I add, by a score of three to one. 

First and foremost for its cost: The MAXXI cost 150 million Euros for approximately 215,280 square feet, while the MACRO cost 20 million for 107,640 square feet. In other words, the first cost a staggering 7,500 Euros/m2, and the second a more reasonable 2,000 Euros. One nil.

Exterior of Odile Decq's Macro
The exterior of Odile Decq's Macro reveals a 19th century setting surrounding the modern museum.
Paola Maugini communicazione

However, the MAXXI is a fascinating building, an extraordinary wind tunnel in which sculptures, paintings and installations ideally float, suspended in a wrapping spatial continuum. A work of elevated architectural poetry, it is a challenge to exhibitors, who can survive inside the structure only by setting aside their mental laziness. What is the more, the excessive cost of the building is perhaps due more to the system of Italian tendering than the effective difficulties of building what, in the end, are concrete tunnels, even if curved. One all.

Odile Decq opens MACRO's interior spaces with large skylights.
Paola Maugini communicazione

Yet it must be said that the MACRO also boasts an extraordinary spatial fascination. Located in an unhappy portion of a tight lot trapped in a nineteenth century grid, it could easily have been another of the many banal, suffocated and scarcely illuminated buildings typical of this neighborhood. Odile Decq had the intuition to open the building to the sky, organizing an attractive sequence of paths. The visitor crosses a delightful entry courtyard, passing through the heart of the building, filled by the explosive red volume of the auditorium, moving through the galleries on suspended walkways, passing through the bar which wraps around the entry court from above, and arriving in the end on the roof terrace, transformed into a piazza suspended above the city. An architectural landscape of such contagious beauty that it manages to transform even the mediocre gallery in the pre-existing part of the museum into a pleasant spatial insertion (Decq’s project is an addition). Two to one.

The primary quality of Decq’s building is, finally, its generosity. Its spaces never run the risk, typical of the works of the Star System, of being sculptural envelopes and thus to a large degree self-referential. They are spaces in which it is possible to organize events, where the public can rest and enjoy an unusual point of view. The lack of orthogonality is not the result of formalist presuppositions, but rather an elevated treatment of complex geometries as a means of responding to social requirements, as per the best teachings of the French tradition, from André Bloc to Claude Parent, and the vast organic and expressionist school. What gives character to the spaces is the choice of colors, which range from red to black, from shiny to opaque, and the use of materials: some modern, others recovered and left raw, such as the old concrete columns, structurally reinforced with steel cages. The objective is that of stimulating perceptions, exalting the senses, creating empathy in order to ensure that the building does not appear as extraneous, or unwelcoming. Three to one.

Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi