Is speed an essential quality of the 21st-century museum? If the architect’s job is to oil the wheels of the culture industry, then perhaps it is. With Tate Modern getting 4 million visitors a year, you need to drive the culture-hungry through the pens quickly. But the museum is not traditionally a place of swift passage, it’s one of thoughtful wandering and edifying pauses
Is speed an essential quality of the 21st-century museum? If the architect's job is to oil the wheels of the culture industry, then perhaps it is. With Tate Modern getting 4 million visitors a year, you need to drive the culture-hungry through the pens quickly. But the museum is not traditionally a place of swift passage, it's one of thoughtful wandering and edifying pauses.
So what to make of Zaha Hadid's MAXXI, the National Museum of the 21st-Century Arts in Rome? Every inch of it is an expression of its motility. There is no distinction here between corridors and galleries, there are no rooms, just sinuous arteries of free-flowing space. The building takes corners like a Formula 1 Ferrari.
The MAXXI is Rome's overt stab at updating itself. The design dates back to 1998, when the Bilbao Guggenheim had opened, London's Tate Modern was in the works and Rome was looking anything but the modern cultural capital. After years of delays during which the museum's funding tap was turned on and off with each successive political administration, it emerges with the branding to compensate – a museum to the max, as Pepsi would say. Hadid feels triumphant – now she can finally close the book on her early built works.
"We remember every line of this building," said Hadid on the day that it opened. What she meant is that she drew many of them personally. Back in 1998 hers was a smallish practice of 20 people. These days she presides over 300. With her global success, "Zaha" has become sloppy shorthand for a range of perceived vices: iconism, disregard for context, egomania and, least popular of all, parametricist fervour (a kind of morph-happy digital programming). This building doesn't conform to any of those epithets.
MAXXI belongs to the period when the buildings were still extrapolated from her paintings. Think of the car park in Strasbourg (designed in 1998) or the BMW plant in Leipzig (designed in 2001): they're ribbons zooming off towards a vanishing point. Their language is graphic, diagrammatic, almost two-dimensional.
Standing on Via Guido Reni, you can barely see the museum. It stretches out behind the retained facade of a former barracks that used to occupy the site. It's a groundscraper – iconic, but not from the street, only from the air. On Google Earth you can see the diagram perfectly. It looks like four overlapping sections of racetrack or a complex railway junction. Either way, it reads as transport rather than culture.
From the middle of the foyer things look different. This is much too swish for a transport node. The space is draped with criss-crossing staircases that are as fluid as treacle. But if you look up you can still see those tracks on the roof that are visible from the satellite. In the BMW plant these ribs running the length of the ceiling would be ferrying car parts to assembly. Here they have nothing to do with the production line, but serve as louvres, a support system for suspending temporary walls and artworks, and as visual lines accentuating the movement of the long galleries.
Apart from the swooning crowd attending the opening, the museum is empty. The first exhibitions open in the spring, with the ground floor dedicated to architecture and the upper floors to art. For now though the walls are bare, and I believe this is the best the museum will ever look. The MAXXI is an impressive exercise in fluid space and it should be enjoyed as a purely spatial experience, as architecture for its own sake. If Steve Martin were to whizz through on roller skates, as he did the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in LA Story, he would be ecstatic. Personally, I prefer travelators, and this is the first museum I've seen, except perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim, where they might be appropriate – because it's the closest a museum has come to the ideal airport.
The problem is that without its content the museum is actually quite disorientating. There is no basis on which to choose one route or another and so the seeming speed on offer is compromised by the aimlessness of the journey. Staircases and walkways seem to branch off all over the place. It's hard to tell how much of this is an embrace of connectivity and how much is decorative. Which raises the question of style. The MAXXI is a singular stylistic vision and so, delayed as it was, it is no wonder it feels strangely dated. Those sculptural staircases have a late-1990s aesthetic that you can imagine filed next to Marc Newson and Ron Arad in a compendium of late 20th-century design.
This stylistic ambition has led some observers to make casual allusions to the baroque (the New York Times' analogy would mean that Hadid is to Berlusconi what Bernini was to Pope Urban VIII, but anyway). In the spiritual home of the baroque it is an easy reference but there is one crucial difference: there is no synthesis of media, and only if Hadid were to hang her own work here would she achieve it. That total environment will not be realised by installing the MAXXI's collection of Richters, Kapoors and Clementes.
In many ways Hadid's language of speed, her zooming and whooshing spaces, is still channelling an early 20th-century preoccupation. The MAXXI recalls the Architectural Fantasies of the Russian constructivist Iakov Chernikhov, an early hero of hers. The difference is that finally Hadid can turn such drawings into buildings – the streamlining of architecture has been slow to catch up. Or perhaps that's an overstatement and really it is the streamlining of the museum that has taken so long. It would be interesting to hear from the MAXXI's curators what the benefits of fluid space are to the display of art.
At the opening, Hadid was at pains to point out that this building is not an object but a "field". That is a fair assertion. However, as always with the rhetoric of the Zaha PR machine, other statements don't stand up to scrutiny, like the fact that this is not a "closed" building but one "woven" into the urban fabric. Stand on Via Masaccio, along the north of the site, and you are confronted by a pretty imposing fence. Beyond it, the museum itself is one long stretch of unbroken concrete wall. It's impenetrable and as isolated as can be from the ochre apartment block on the other side of the street. If people could wander freely up to the museum then at least the street wouldn't seem quite so ignored. There is a second phase planned for the museum, with a few smaller buildings added to the site for library and studio facilities, which will apparently turn it into more of a campus.
The MAXXI is the most significant contribution yet in the plans to turn Flaminio into a new cultural district of Rome. At the moment, though, it's hard to imagine rivers of people coursing through Hadid's sinuous galleries. It is a rather lonely and disconnected streetscape. There has been no masterplan, there are just isolated sites. Around the corner is Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica and, more interestingly, two buildings by Pier Luigi Nervi, Italy's mid-century structural engineering genius. In the Palazzetto dello Sport and the Stadio Flaminio you can see concrete as a pure expression of structural forces hitting the ground. What a contrast to see what Hadid can do with the material half a century later. In the MAXXI's only overt outward gesture, the top floor projects out in a dramatic cantilever, like the head of a coiled snake in mid strike. Like Chernikhov, she has no time for gravity.
Fluid staircases criss-cross over the foyer