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As soon as it opened its doors, Rome’s MAXXI (it stands for National Museum of XXI Century Arts) was the subject of divisive debate. In the UK, architectural critic Ellis Woodman said he had never seen a gallery “that addressed its nominal function with such seeming cynicism”. But that didn’t stop it winning the prestigious Stirling Prize. Based in the city’s Flaminio district, the open ambition from the start was to have a project with the same impact of the Guggenheim Bilbao – a piece of architecture that would pull in the crowds, and not just because of the art.

The project’s genesis was complicated and dates back to 1998 when the site, a former barracks, was earmarked for transformation into a contemporary art centre. A year later Zaha Hadid won the competition to build MAXXI, and on 30 May 2010 it opened.

It’s a museum but it is also an archive and it has an education department run by Stefania Vannini (her projects include working with local old folk and the mentally ill, who act as special-project guides). According to MAXXi, visitor numbers are ahead of plan (on average 1,200 a day; although it’s quiet on weekdays). The standard adult ticket is €11.

Neighbouring buildings are still to be converted for use as offices and a restaurant and there is a sense that this is a project still growing and feeling its way.

Location

On the up

Flaminio is not central Rome – but you could never fit this building into the heart of a city where every time you dig a hole you hit an ancient relic. Twenty minutes by taxi from the centre, it’s a working class quarter by the Tiber that is being woven increasingly into the city – a new river bridge is being erected.

Branding

Name to remember

Who can’t say the word MAXXI? It’s a name that works in all languages and makes a strong logo.

Architecture

Star attraction

In austerity-hit Europe, institutions would now want something less showy. It’s clearly a commission from a time past. However, as a tool of regeneration and pride, it does something special. People just like it – although so much so, you wonder if the shows will always be outshone by the space.

Information

Front of house

The oval information desk at MAXXI operates as a gathering place for visitors and staff – sort of a bar without the drinks. There isn’t a large amount of information on hand but again, these are early days. However, the signage and labelling of the artworks is smart and coordinated.

Collections

A work in progress

MAXXI has two institutions; one dedicated to art, the other to architecture and photography. These are building up permanent collections – as well as curating and bringing in visiting shows. The artworks owned by MAXXI include pieces by Francesco Clemente and Anish Kapoor.

Exhibition spaces

Let it all hang

When MAXXI first opened, some critics sneered that Hadid had banned pictures being hung on walls in favour of attaching them to suspended screens. Well, plenty of nails have gone into those walls since then. Curators admit the space poses challenges but these have led to inventiveness (of a good kind).

Café/bookshop

Low-key

For visitors used to the commercial muscle of most museums, MAXXI seems a little slow off the mark. For now, there’s a good, if small, bookshop and a cute espresso bar.

Vox pop

What the visitors think

Chiara Santarelli grew up in the area and is visiting with her French partner Hugues Lawson-Body. She is sure that MAXXI “is really great for the neighbourhood – and really great for art”.

Lars Brinkgaard, trainee teacher from Denmark, says, “The building disorientates you – in a good way. Without set rooms, you are not sure where you have been.”

Students Francesco Ramazzotti and Girolama Filippo Colonna say, “It’s the first museum of modern art we’ve been to. It’s strange – but we like the messages you receive.”

The directors

Meet the team

President Pio Baldi is assisted by director of architecture Margherita Guccione and Pippo Ciorra, senior curator for architecture. “We want to achieve innovation and continuity with the art history of Italy,” says Ciorra. “This is a cultural [institution] for the future,” adds Guccione.

Room for improvement

Four Monocle fixes

  1. Patronage
    Lobby government to change tax laws to make being an art philanthropist easier (and profitable). With state support set to fall, the museum will be rethinking its funding model.

  2. The framework
    The building still feels like the star here with the art playing the role of extras. This will change. They need to keep Zaha Hadid at a distance – in a nice way.

  3. Communal space
    More places to eat; more places to shop. These should come soon as neighbouring buildings are incorporated into the MAXXI campus.

  4. Seating
    That lobby is a little unwelcoming.

The pitch

Why do it?

Back in 1998, the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage decided it needed a museum that celebrated contemporary Italian art and culture. It was also perhaps a little jealous of the then new Guggenheim Bilbao that had made Spain look so good. Sure, Italy had amazing collections but they were all of the dusty variety. For ministers it must have seemed like the perfect tool for projecting a fresher image of Italia; for the art world it would be a chance to catch up with other European capitals. And in the process they would attract young art tourists.

The verdict

Watch this art space

Critics love reviewing a just-opened play or restaurant, but what is often more interesting is to see how it beds in after a few weeks or months. At MAXXI you are aware of the curators’ courage growing as they make the space work for them. President Pio Baldi says, “This is the innovative museum of the 21st century,” but that point can only be proved over years. And as European museums such as MAXXI face funding cut backs, it will be an increasingly tough challenge.

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