Zaha Hadid’s design for MAXXI and Odile Decq’s addition to MACRO challenge curators to present and visitors to experience contemporary art in radically different ways. Most museums are static and serve as a neutral foil to the exhibits; these new arrivals are dynamic and interactive. They blur the divide between circulation and display, and substitute a fluid interplay of open spaces and promenades for the conventional sequence of orthogonal white galleries. Consciously or not, both are inspired by Le Corbusier’s concept of the architectural promenade, and the spiral ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, which achieved a similar goal, fifty years ago. The two museums are located to the north of the walled city and seek to generate a new audience while engaging the local community. There are other similarities. Both are grafted onto existing buildings: Hadid wraps the remains of a barracks, Decq extends a converted brewery. The two architects won competitions within a few years of each other and their buildings are both scheduled to open in May. It’s also notable that both principals are foreigners-something that would be unremarkable north of the Alps, but is a rarity in Italy-and (though one risks the wrath of Hadid in mentioning the fact) they are women who have triumphed in what is still predominantly a male profession. MACRO is a city-sponsored institution that began collecting in the 1950s and remodeled the former Peroni brewery just beyond the Porta Pia in the mid 1990s. Odile Decq Benoît Cornette and associate Burkhard Morass won a two-stage competition in 2001 with a design that turned tight physical and budgetary constraints to advantage. The site is an irregular rectangle to the rear of the existing buildings: two linear blocks linked by a glass-roofed atrium. The old street façade had to be preserved and this was 4.5 meters lower than the main entrance to the south. To provide a second point of entry and accommodate a lofty 1000 sm. gallery, the architects excavated the slope, and turned the roof into a public plaza, with a fountain that bathes the expansive glass lantern in a thin film of water. To use the traditional right of passage across the site, residents climb to the plaza, where they can linger at the café-restaurant, and then take a glass-enclosed walkway that descends to the atrium. Ticket-holders have the choice of going up, down, or taking an elevated walkway to a second major gallery. “We wanted to create a new world behind the façade and respect the dense tissue of that quarter of Rome”, says Decq. She worked closely with the former director of MACRO, who persuaded the mayor that an ill-defined program should be changed to focus exclusively on art from 1950 on. The stage and lighting grid were dropped and a 150-seat theater for videos, movies and lectures was inserted into the central gallery. This tilted box is painted bright red and lit from below, so that it appears to be suspended within the void. Art works can be displayed around and atop the theater, which is a massive sculpture in itself, bathed in watery light from above. The architect was inspired by a comment that Daniel Burren made to Frank Gehry while he was designing the Bilbao Guggenheim, urging the architect to create spaces that artists could react to. Decq loves bright colors and has a streak of red in her own black tresses; here the theater serves as a vivid accent in the black and white interior. To filter the sun without recourse to louvers or blinds, Decq worked with Simone Prouve, a daughter of the great French engineer, to develop a laminated glass that would contain a layer of stainless steel mesh. This is used in different densities and it serves other purposes. It conceals dirt that may accumulate on the roof lantern, and it veils the art works beyond the walkways, encouraging people who are passing through to buy a ticket and become active participants. As an industrial building, the brewery contained raw open space and precisely engineered machinery. Decq has picked up on both cues, using rough concrete in the walls and floors, and giving the steel brackets that support the glass a Scarpa-like refinement of detail. On a trip to New York, she was impressed by Michael Maltzan’s conversion of a warehouse in the borough of Queens that served MoMA as a temporary home while Yoshio Taniguchi was extending the old space in mid Manhattan. Frugal and improvised, MoMAQNS had more energy and character than the huge and hugely expensive new museum. “Contemporary art is all about freedom, and MACRO has a young and dynamic new director [Luca Massimo Barbero] who will make good use of these spaces,” says Decq. Hadid and her partner Patrik Schumacher faced some of the same challenges on a much larger scale and budget. MAXXI is an ambitious new institution, established by the Ministry of Culture as a catalyst for the creation and collection of 21st century art. The L-plan site in the Flaminio district, near Renzo Piano’s Parco della Musica, wraps around the remains of an army barracks. Most of this was derelict, but two neo-classical blocks have been restored, to serve as a restaurant-bookstore to the north and a temporary exhibition gallery to the east. As project architect Gianluca Racana explains, “MAXXI was conceived as a campus-a field of elements rather than a stand-alone object”. The first phase comprises a 18,000 sq m complex of galleries opening onto a paved piazza. In the second, bridges will link this sinuous block to four satellites containing artists’ ateliers, a library, and more galleries-for architecture and art. It has taken 13 years to realize the competition-winning design-about the same amount of time it took to complete Walt Disney Hall and the Getty Center in LA, though the reasons for the delay were different in each case. Miraculously, little was changed, and it’s the firm’s most ambitious work to date, more expansive than the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, which opened in 2006. “It was conceived in a sudden burst of creativity”, says Racana, “and refined over the next two years.” The blank concrete walls will serve as a projection screen for videos and light works, and the only hint of the interior complexity is a gallery with a glazed end wall cantilevered out over the entry. A wall of glass, recessed under two sweeping first-floor galleries lights the linear foyer, which doubles as an exhibition area and draws more natural light from a glass ceiling, 18 m above. Staircases with black steel balustrades snake up through the void and morph into walkways that lead into three top-lit galleries that the architects call “suites”. There’s an easy assurance in the flow of curvilinear lines through space, and it’s easy to make an association with the billowing folds of the pleated Issey Miyake capes that are Hadid’s preferred attire. The deep ceiling beams serve as wayfinders, drawing you forward as though on the current of a steam, and opening up a succession of vistas. The body language of the building provide a sensual experience that was put to good use by a modern dance company at the public preview last November. As Hadid wrote in a recent monograph, “Conventional object-focused paths are replaced by fields of multiple associations, so that the center becomes a pliable and porous organism promoting several forms of identification and activity at once…Movable elements enable ‘sets’ to be constructed giving new curatorial freedom and redefining art spectatorship as a liberated dialogue with artifact and environment.” One can hope that the director and curators of MAXXI will rise to the challenge of curatorial freedom and a liberated dialogue of artifact and environment. Empty, the building is a self-sufficient work of art as was Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin at its inception. Exploring the shifting levels and axes of that masterpiece, passing from shadow to light, and from confined to vertiginous spaces offered an excitement that a pedestrian installation of historic artifacts has smothered. MAXXI will be relying on loans from a network of international museums to supplement its own fledgling collection for years to come. Artists should seize the opportunity to respond creatively to this lucid labyrinth, as others have to Wright’s vortex in New York. MAXXI, MACRO, and Fuksas’s Congress Center, now under construction, are wake-up calls for Rome. A city that was once in the vanguard of artistic expression is now lagging behind. The architects of the Pantheon and the Coliseum, and, later, Bernini and Borromini, were on the cutting edge and their work has endured. The present administration has no vision. Political factionalism, bureaucratic inertia, and an obsession with preserving every fragment of the past combine with public indifference and a fragile economy to marginalize architects. Italy and its capital deserve better.