July 1, 2009
A Monumental Achievement
The structural engineer of Zaha Hadid’s spectacularly complex MAXXI building offers us an exclusive sneak peek.
Perhaps the most exciting building in modern Roman history, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI (National Museum of the XXI Century Arts) is now virtually finished and will open to the public in early 2010. That is four years later than planned, due to funding problems, an estimated $28 million in cost overruns, and—most of all—sheer technical difficulty. The exuberant 323,000-square-foot structure, Italy’s first national museum of contemporary art, is more like a world unto itself than a mere building. 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. Even so, the finished form looks deceptively clean and simple, an illusion made possible by the Italian engineering team Studio Croci & Associati.
“It took us months just to understand the shape,” Federico Croci says. “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.” The job has taken Studio Croci—which has restored landmarks such as the Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, and the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral—six years and a team of 25 to complete. “The design of this has been the most challenging thing we have ever done,” Croci says.
Specialists in ancient monuments may seem an odd choice for such an utterly contemporary project, but according to Croci, preservation is often more complicated than building from scratch, as it calls for a delicate balance between technical demands and maintaining a particular aesthetic. Similarly, giving MAXXI its floating appearance required pulling off long, curving structural stretches and giant cantilevers, with few points touching the ground. “It behaves more like a bridge than a building,” Croci explains. Ramps oscillate and crisscross so that everything is interwoven: a staircase is partially attached to a wall, which serves as a beam and is itself partially connected to the slab. “You have to build a very complex mathematical model to understand what is supporting what,” Croci says. “It is more difficult than a skyscraper.”
To make matters worse, Rome is in a seismically active area, so the museum—nearly 721 feet long—is filled with joints and shock transmitters. “The smallest displacement in one part of the building could bring cracks in others, which would be immediately visible.” Unlike the Guggenheim Bilbao, a conventional structure in a wild titanium jacket, MAXXI is completely exposed. “It looks like a sculpture made in one piece, but in truth it is not,” Croci sighs. “With the 3-D behavior, the seismic-joint solution, and the cantilever offsets, it is like saying, ‘I would like to do the most complex project ever.’”
Skeptics say the personality of the building is too strong for a museum. But Paolo Colombo, who oversaw the project until 2007, dismisses the criticism. “There is no bad space,” he says. “As a curator, you have to design the show according to the space you have and build the collection to suit the space. I think it’s a fabulous building, a work of art itself.”