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Ultimate Goal: A Building That’s Impossible to Build

When does modernist architecture become monumental sculpture?
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A recent news item made me realize that the Holy Grail for many of today’s “starchitects” is to design a building so convoluted that no one can possibly build it. And we’re getting closer to realizing that “impossible dream.”

Raves in the architectural press are already starting to appear for Rome’s new National Museum of the XXI Century Arts (called MAXXI for short). Designed by architect Zaha Hadid, the structure is everything you’d expect a contemporary art museum to be: monumental sculpture pretending to be a building.

Architectural writer Cathryn Drake (who likes the building) describes it this way in Metropolis magazine: “It is massive in scale and has drunken, fragmented spaces: slanted walls, dizzying elevations, unevenly staggered staircases, steep skateboard-worthy ramps, and extreme cantilevers with precipitous views.” Imagine what the people who don’t like the building are saying!

What struck me even more was the quote in the same article from Federico Croci, head of the firm that had to build MAXXI: “It took us months just to understand the shape. What you see is not what it seems. It looks like all one piece, but there are joints everywhere, structures tilting out, and you don’t understand what is supporting what. It behaves more like a bridge than a building.”

Over-budget and behind schedule

After reading the above, would anyone be surprised to learn that the building (scheduled now to open early in 2010) is already four years behind schedule and $28 million over budget?

But wait – there’s more. Some of us are naïve enough to believe that an art museum should serve the needs of the museum’s curators and its collections. But apparently I have it backwards. Here’s a statement from architect Paolo Colombo, who oversaw the MAXII project until 2007, in dismissing criticism that the building makes it too hard to display art: “As a curator, you have to design the show according to the space you have and build the collection to suit the space.” In other words, curators are now expected to be servants to the building.

Cynics might say this project is just another case of architectural hubris. Designing a building that is deliberately a puzzle for both the people who build it and the people who use it is especially ironic when it occurs in Vitruvius’s hometown. Rome’s tastemakers have declared that the Vitruvian virtues of firmitas, utilitas, venustas are now dead. Buildings such as MAXXI are not the product of logical left-brain rational analysis, but rather a right-brain creative hallucination. Irrational processes can create imaginative sculptures, but should such processes also be applied to building design?

On second thought, perhaps this irrational building is the perfect symbol for our time. We live in an irrational era, a time when opinion carries as much weight as fact and fervently held beliefs substitute for reason. And the starchitects’ ludicrous buildings certainly please the architectural critics who are consumed by a never-ending lust for novelty.

However, when the ultimate goal is achieved, and a designer finally comes up with a building that is too contorted to build, will the critics blame the architect – or instead seek to repeal the laws of physics?

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