By NICOLE WINFIELD
Italy is opening its first national museum for contemporary arts and architecture in a bid to shed its image as merely a keeper of a glorious artistic past.
The euro150 million ($223 million) Maxxi cultural center opens Saturday, November 14, for a limited weekend run before its full-fledged opening in a few months. The museum, located in a residential area of Rome, was designed by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who was the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004.
The Culture Ministry decided to build the museum in 1998, recognizing that the country that produced Giotto, Michelangelo and Bernini - the avant-garde artists of their times - must continue to promote contemporary creativity if it wants to have a cultural heritage in the future.
"It is inconceivable for this very long flow of Italian creativity to be interrupted and do without the promotion and support which, over past centuries, have generally kindled it," said Pio Baldi, head of the foundation that runs the museum.
The center, officially called the National Museum of the XXI Century Arts, is the latest in a series of cutting-edge architectural projects to be built in the Eternal City, which is better known for its Roman ruins, Baroque basilicas and Renaissance palazzi.
Renzo Piano's Auditorium opened in 2002, giving Rome its first major-league concert hall. More recently and controversially, Richard Meier's Ara Pacis museum, which houses a 2,000 year-old altar, opened in 2005. Critics complained the box-like shell was a modern blot in Rome's historic center - to some, a gas station blocks away from the Spanish Steps.
No such protests befell Hadid's design, which is located on the grounds of a former military barracks in Rome's Flaminio neighborhood, far from the cobblestoned streets of the center but close enough to be reached on public transport and near the new concert hall.
Hadid said she intended the space to be an "urban cultural center," an arts campus with indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces. The building itself - a sleek, windowed box on top of a box - is made of cement walls, steel stairs and a glass roof, giving the galleries a neutral backdrop illuminated by filtered natural light.
"I see Maxxi as an immersive urban environment for the exchange of ideas, feeding the cultural vitality of the city," she said.
Indeed, the museum is designed to be a research workshop of sorts, not just exhibiting contemporary art and architecture but incorporating contemporary design, fashion, film and advertising in a multidisciplinary cultural center.
Maxxi technically is two museums: Maxxi Art and Maxxi Architecture, which includes the files of architecture designs. The campus - which covers 29,000 square meters (312,000 square feet) - also includes an auditorium, library, media library, study rooms, laboratories, a bookshop, cafe and spaces for live events and commercial activities.
Rome has several other modern and contemporary art spaces but the Culture Ministry says Maxxi is the first national museum devoted to contemporary arts.
Baldi, the head of the Maxxi Foundation, said the aim is for the museum to act as a sort of "antenna" which broadcasts Italian contemporary art overseas and receives international culture at home.
"Art and architecture are essential components of the image and perception of a country abroad," he said. "This holds true today ever more immediately and rapidly" considering the globalized world.
Hadid is best known for her tram station in Strasbourg and her Vitra fire station in Germany, which was cited by the Pritzker jurors in awarding her the 2004 prize, architecture's most prestigious honor. More recently, she designed the aquatics center for the 2012 London Olympics, the games' architectural showpiece.
While Maxxi museum opens to the public officially on Saturday, it's a limited two-day opening. The museum will formally open its first exhibits in 2010, when five shows are planned.