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The Place of MAXXI in the Oeuvre of Zaha Hadid
Patrik Schumacher, London 2017
Published in: Zaha Hadid in Italy, Exhibition Catalogue, MAXXI, Rome

MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Arts, is in many respects Zaha Hadid’s most important project. I might cite (not always undisputed) characteristics like its rugged beauty, originality, complexity, rigour, ambitiousness, quality of execution, its congenial fit with respect to place and purpose, as reasons for the project’s importance, or point to its prominent programme and location, or to the success (and stimulating controversy) of its reception. These are all factors and aspects of MAXXI’s importance as a contribution to world architecture. However, in this essay I would like to take an internal perspective and describe the place this project holds in the oeuvre of Zaha Hadid, i.e. how the project fits into the developmental story of Zaha Hadid Architects, with respect to the development of ideas, ambitions and capacities, as well as in relation to other projects that preceded, paralleled and followed MAXXI.

MAXXI Competition 3D digital model, 1998

We started to work on the competition for MAXXI in 1998 and the competition was decided in early 1999. To win this important competition was a major boost to both our confidence and our credibility. We incorporated Zaha Hadid Architects the same year. Soon after, in the same year, we also won the competition for the Contemporary Arts Centre for Cincinnati and then the Wolfsburg Science Centre soon after, in early 2000, and then the Salerno Ferry Terminal, also in 2000. So the winning of MAXXI coincides with the take off point of Zaha Hadid Architects as serious architectural practice to be reckoned with, although it took quite a while for these projects to be realized and thus to be available as hard evidence of our competence. The Cincinnati project was the first of the four projects to be completed, in 2003, the Wolfsburg Science Centre was next and opened in 2005. MAXXI opened only in 2009 (and the Salerno Ferry Terminal in 2016).

The Peak, 1983                                                                    Vitra Fire Station, 1989 – 1993

In terms of compositional strategy and architectural language the design of MAXXI was not a very original effort within our studio. We relied here on well-rehearsed precedents that go back to Vitra and even the Peak. In fact our design for MAXXI was the result of a deliberate toning down of the complexity, dynamism and fluidity that we had aspired to in the immediately preceding sequence of competition designs which included proposals for London’s V&A, IIT’s student centre, the Doha Islamic Art Museum, Madrid’s Royal Collection, Madrid’s Reina Sophia, Kunsthaus Graz and the Quebec National Library. Zaha always considered this sequence of designs as our best work.

V&A Extension, 1995
IIT Student Centre, 1996   
Doha Islamic Arts Museum, 1996 
Royal Collection, 1996


Reina Sophia, 1996  
Kunsthaus  Graz, 1997 
Quebec National Library, 1997

The problem was that we had lost all of these competitions. While we had delighted ourselves and our peers with these delicious “out of this world” designs, when the MAXXI competition came around we felt that we should shift gear and seriously aim at winning (rather than only delighting). This implied toning down the geometric complexity. In the previous designs we had indulged in the dynamism offered by spline geometries and even used the double curvature afforded by nurb modellers. In Maxxi we went back to much simpler geometries, even simpler than Vitra where we had used some spline-like space curves (albeit constructed without the aid of computers). In Maxxi everything was rationalized into straight lines, arcs, planes, cylinders and cones, while still achieving a considerable sense of dynamism and fluidity as we blended these simpler forms into a flowing composition. On this basis we could maintain and demonstrate buildability while increasing compositional complexity. The overriding will to win (rather than to charm ourselves and our peers) also meant that we made a bigger effort towards a comprehensive, rational and realistic documentation and presentation. We worked out the geometry much more thoroughly via a full 3D computer model (in 3ds max) and worked up a full set of coherent CAD drawings for the competition. The 3D model also allowed us to generate visualisations. For the first time we even produced an animated fly-through. However, we also produced – nearly for the last time -  a series of beautiful semi-abstract paintings, as we had done in earlier days.

Cincinnati Art Centre, 2003                                     Bergisel Ski Jump, Innsbruck, 2002


Land Formation One, exhibition building, Weil am Rhein, 1997-1999

The same spirit of rationalisation, realism and readiness to win also animated our design efforts for Cincinnati and Wolfsburg, with equal success. MAXXI was the biggest and most prominent of these winning schemes. With Wolfsburg and Salerno we already started to increase geometric complexity again, and not so much later, on the basis of having boosted our confidence and prestige in the world of clients through these winning schemes, we increased complexity further with the Guang Zhou opera house and some smaller schemes like the Innsbruck train stations and the Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion until we  - via projects like Dong Daemon and Baku -  finally realized the full geometric complexity and fluidity we had sketched out in the mid-nineties.

Zaha Hadid Architects, DongDaemun Design Plaza, Seoul, Korea, 2013

Zaha thought of her oeuvre as composed of project families, as a series of formally defined species or lineages, i.e. we group our projects by formal-diagrammatic similarity. We refer to these groups or families as “conceptual morphologies” and in many of our lectures we explicitly present our work thus ordered. MAXXI is classified within the conceptual morphology of “Bundles and Networks”, together with ‘Land Formation One’, BMW, and the Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion among others. MAXXI is  - next to the BMW Central Building in Leipzig – the most elaborate of these bundle schemes. The Key concept here was the “irrigation” of the site with a “stream” of walls. The idea was to take the display/exhibition walls of the prospective art museum as the primary register from which to compose the parti of the project. The concept was also animated by the strategic aim to create the museum as a “field” or “fabric” rather than as an object. The fabric of our project was to embed itself into the horizontally expansive, striated fabric of the immediate urban context. Our design with its field of walls thus engulfs and incorporates the existing buildings on our site and flows around the corner to fill the L-shaped site. The play of parallel walls, which also bifurcate and intersect at times, sets up a series of interior as well exterior spaces captured between the walls. These walls also align with the urban context. Since the urban context is complex due to the fact that two urban grids meet at the site, this complexity imprints itself within the project as our design strategy includes contextual affiliations and alignments. The two urban directions have been picked up within the project. The curves mediate and ameliorate the clash of directions but their intersection is also represented on the interior of the space via the meeting and intersection of two rib formations with their respective directions.


The field quality of the project is further enhanced by the use of deep ribs that are placed between the walls to hold and shade the glass roofs that cover the interior spaces. The field concept further implied that the project would not be dissected into separate rooms but would let the space flow so that the galleries are identifiable as open zones within a continuum. This is a space of continuous movement, which never terminates. The curvature helps to create this sense of continuous movement. With every step new expanses of space become visible, while other expanses drop out of view. Sometimes the path bifurcates, and then there are confluences and intersections. At points of confluence or intersection we offer vertical connections. This happens both in the public lobby space and within the gallery zone. The rule “confluence implies sectional connection” aids the navigation of the field.

The project is conceived in “layers”, both in elevation where the different parallel walls or layers are revealed via large cut-outs  – i.e. walls continue above as beams –  as well as in plan where three layers of walls are placed on top of each other. The layered walls are traversing the space and are intersecting each other’s trajectory in such a way that the lower walls offer support points for the bridging and cantilevering action of the higher walls.  There are many occasions where the complexity of the layered spatial arrangments are revealed in deep vistas that allow the eye to penetrate into the expansive, layered depth of the composition. The view from gallery to gallery also crosses exterior spaces as well as levels. One of the galleries traverses a diagonal trajectory across different levels. Internally this gallery is structured by terraces with a ramp moving along. These terraces allow for vistas to the outdoor entrance zone below. Bridges pull away from the galleries on the second level affording future connections for the museum’s expansion as well as further layering ripe with deep vistas. The overall composition is inherently open ended and ready to receive extensions. The character and identity of the project is a field identity that is independent from its current overall shape or figure.

The staircases and bridges are articulated in such a way that they contribute to the coherent linear formal language set up by the walls and ribs. The lighting follows the same formalism. In this way identity is forged and mundane clutter is avoided. The BMW project works with the same strategy of bringing all the required elements under this ruthless formalism. In the BMW case this was a harder job as more elements had to be brought under formal control, including the steel structure, the openly visible M&E systems as well as an open conveyor belt. The formal assimilation of diverse pragmatic elements is an important strategy of formal articulation and resolution that prevents a complex composition with many requirements from disintegrating into an illegible visual chaos. Another successful example of the strategy is ZHA’s park & ride scheme at the outskirts of Strasbourg.

Park & Ride scheme, Strasbourg-Hohenheim, 2001


MAXXI was conceived as a “machine for the staging of exhibition events”. The ribs have been sized and equipped to allow for the hanging of art works as well as for the hanging of exhibition walls. These walls were conceived to receive projections and art works also on the exterior. This architecture is not meant to remain pure. It is robust enough to carry a lot of content without losing its own identity, the identity it imprints onto the institution. The M&E systems are running within the walls thus keeping the ceiling free to bring light and receive art. The floor was thus also kept free to receive the heavy loads of large art works. The walls are also the primary structure of the project. They have the capacity to traverse long spans like bridges as well as to cantilever.
This idea to using the primary structure to remain visible and shape the building has been used by many of our projects, including Vitra, Wolfsburg, Salerno and Strasbourg. The Wolfsburg project is particularly remarkable with respect to this theme of allowing the structural concept give shape and character to the building and its spaces. The cones that carry the slab are at the same time entrance spaces. The slab is articulated as waffle slab that reflects the trapezoidal shape of the overall volume. The roof constructed via a continuously differentiated space frame that is visible on the inside. This strategy of using structure to characterize our buildings coincides with the use of fair faced concrete. However, this idea of using visible structure to give shape and identity to our buildings has recently further evolved with our oeuvre along with the expansion of the range of programme types we are addressing. We have developed an interest in expressive skeletons for towers as well as an interest in shell structures and tensile structures, e.g.  for sport and conference facilities. The spirit of tectonic articulation animates all these diverse efforts.
While our oeuvre has evolved significantly since MAXXI, the project remains of critical importance as a major milestone in our development, with respect to both our artistic and professional trajectory, and indeed MAXXI remains a crucial achievement we are still very much cherish and are proud of and keep referring back to when we try to explain who we are and what we are trying to do.




















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