MAXXI - The National Museum of XXI Century Arts

MAXXII - Photo © Deborah Swain
New architectural projects in Rome are as rare as hen's teeth and when they do appear, are inevitably met with a mixed reception with Romans either loving or hating the challenging new buildings in the midst of the open air museum that is the Eternal City. Richard Meier's Ara Pacis Museum, for example, has received considerable flack in recent years with the city's mayor even proposing the dismantling of part of the structure to appease the Vox populi, although as a fan of that particular building, I for one hope that was merely an empty election promise that will never be realised!

The brand new National Museum of XXI Century Arts aka MAXXI, which opened its doors to the public in May this year, is just far enough away from the city centre and its ancient monuments to avoid the controversy that Meier's building has met. Instead, this enormously ambitious gallery, designed by London-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, is safely situated on the spacious site of the former Montello military barracks in Rome's Flaminio district, a primarily residential area. The spark of urban vitality that planners had hoped to bring to the area, however, was immediately dampened this summer when residents protested about the noise-level of evening concerts in the grounds of the museum, leading to the cancellation of a programme of summer music shows. With Renzo Piano's world class concert venue the Auditorium Parco della Musica only a stone's throw away from MAXXI, however, this is surely only a minor hiccough, in the museum's inaugural year.

MAXXII - Photo © Deborah Swain
MAXXI has been a long time coming, taking 10 years to complete at a cost of 150 million euro – the mind boggles at the feasibility of Rome's 2020 Summer Olympic bid – but the result is a stunning work of architecture. Eschewing the rectangle, its snaking galleries make for a positively labyrinthine and, at times, bewildering experience. Time and time again I found myself disorientated, until I gave up trying to understand where I was on the map and simply went with the flow and let the museum's stairways and walkways funnel me where they wanted! Gallery 5 is perhaps the most bizarre of the spaces. Currently showing the third part of the Gino De Dominicis show entitled The Immortal, the gallery is for the most part spread over a slope, so that one is forced to walk up hill through the works until one reaches the striking glass fronted top of the gallery with views over local roof tops. As it happens, I actually saw a family group with an elderly woman being pushed in a wheel chair in that section and was immediately made aware of the potential difficulties of tackling that gradient for some visitors. The somewhat mystifying, but curiously beautiful tempera and gold panel panel paintings by De Dominicis are displayed in the top space. Sadly, housed as they are behind glass, the glare from the floor to ceiling windows and consequent reflections made these final works hard to view on a bright and sunny afternoon. The space would lend itself maybe better to sculpture or installations.

MAXXI is undoubted a fabulous architectural space and an exciting building – as to whether it works as an exhibition space, the jury is still out – I need more time on that one, although I'm extremely curious to see how the curators will continue to meet the challenges of this most unconventional of galleries in the years to come.

The other major challenge facing MAXXI at its inception was that of creating an art collection from scratch. Whereas recent critically acclaimed structures such as the Tate Modern in London, were built to house an existing collection amassed over decades, plans for MAXXI were laid before the new century had even begun. Whilst the architecture has excited interest and curiosity, what about the work inside its meandering walls? For this inaugural period 90 pieces from the 300 odd works in the gallery's possession are on display (until 23 January 2011) under the loose umbrella title of Spazio (Space), a suitably vague expression that seeks to unite both the building and its two permanent collections of art and architecture. This Space is then subdivided into four further thematic areas - Natural Artificial, From the Body to the City, Maps of the Real and The Scene and the Imaginary - where an eclectic mix of works by relatively little-known artists of the new century are displayed alongside minor works by some of the big guns who made their names in the last. There's the ubiquitous, yet nevertheless lovely, Sol LeWitt wall painting tucked in behind the cafe on the ground floor, not far from the must-see 15 metre long structure by Anish Kapoor Widow, one of his monumental tube sculptures that emerges from the wall like a giant, elongated gramophone horn. Bill Viola's video installation Il vapore and the always thrilling Anselm Kiefer with the stunning painting Sternenfall are worth tracking down, as are the photographic triptych Fille aux fleurs by Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus and South African artist William Kentridge’s delightful model theatre Preparing the Flute.

What we've seen so far may be a little patchy overall, but it's still very early days yet and Rome, as the old adage goes, wasn't built in a day. A collection needs time and space, and crucially funding, to grow. With MAXXI the first two boxes are ticked - how much change there was left in the kitty for new acquisitions after construction is anybody's guess. Here's hoping that this is a gallery that will go from strength to strength over the course of the century it was built to celebrate.