Minimalism at MAXXI
At Rome’s newest museum, ma:design interprets Zaha Hadid’s vision and choreographs an interplay between architecture and environmental graphics.
What is the relationship between art and architecture? Between painting and engineering? Between a museum and its contents?
Internationally recognized architect and artist Zaha Hadid asks us to consider these questions as we explore MAXXI, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome that spotlights Italian contemporary art and architecture. But long before MAXXI opened its doors in May 2010, designers Massimiliano Patrignani and Monica Zaffini of ma:design wrestled with these same questions as they conceived the environmental graphics program for the unique building.
Set on an L-shaped plot, the museum bends around neighboring buildings in a bundle of ramps and sinuous volumes made of cast-on-site concrete ribbons. Hadid often begins her projects by painting abstract “landscapes” that explore the character of the space. Her paintings of MAXXI illustrate the twisting and overlapping channels that would make up the interlocking chains of galleries, amenities, and public spaces in the museum.
Interpreting Hadid’s vision
Both commissions—the building and its environmental graphics—were the result of design competitions. Hadid won the international competition to design the museum in 1998. More then 10 years later, as the building was nearing completion, the MAXXI leadership held a competition to select an environmental graphic design firm for the project. They selected ma:design of Rome, headed by principals Patrignani and Zaffini.
Throughout the five-month design process, the ma:design team worked in concert with museum leaders to define the look and feel of the sign system. Early sketches illustrated colorful, freestanding elements, but as the design team grew to appreciate Hadad’s minimal landscape, their designs took on a more graceful and integrated tone, sometimes melding into the architecture itself.
Margherita Guccione, director of MAXXI Architettura, remembers the earliest days of the collaboration. “From the beginning, ma:design has been able to interpret the Zaha Hadid building, recalling the serpentine lines of the architecture in the sign system to effectively catch the attention of the visitors.”
Starting the conversation
The first challenge for Patrignani and Zaffin was to identify the museum from the street. Its narrow frontage means that most of the museum is obscured from the entry. To introduce the simplicity of materials that the building and its signage system share, the ma:design team chose to create a supergraphic of the museum logo in black and white paint on the existing fence and gates.
After passing through the gates, visitors walk along a landscaped plaza toward the museum’s entrance. For Patrignani and Zaffini, the long expanse of glass on the façade became a canvas for messaging. They invited their clients at MAXXI to identify quotations from architects, philosophers, and writers and used the quotes to welcome visitors and begin the dialogue about the art and architecture that await them inside. The quotes correspond to the spaces they envelop. The staff’s sense of humor was revealed when they chose a quote from the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger to enfold an architecture gallery: “Felix illud saeculum ante architectos fuit.” (“It was a happy era, the one before architects.”) The letters used for the quotes are cut in their original silhouette in a way that recalls the stark lines of the building and creates an intriguing visual effect.
A modern piazza
Once inside, visitors look up at the confluence of passageways leading to the galleries and auditoriums that converge above them. Vast expanses of raw concrete, black stairways, and white walls imbue the tangled space with the stillness one expects of a museum.
The design team envisioned the lobby space as a piazza. “Every Italian city, even the smallest one, has its own piazza, which is the heart of the city, a place to meet,” explains Patrignani. “We see MAXXI as a small city of its own, within the city of Rome.”
A rectilinear LED screen curves with the concrete wall above the reception desk and provides information about current exhibits and upcoming events. The subtle bend in the screen conveys an undercurrent in the design of the system: harmony and congruity with the building itself. The designers could have identified a flat wall to mount a standard digital display as an applied appendage, but instead, the shape of the building dictated the unique and unexpected solution of an inclined display.
A spare palette
As the ma:design team developed the sign vocabulary for the facility, they were determined not to interrupt the visitors’ experience of the remarkable interior spaces. “Our aim was to provide essential information in a clear, visible, but non-invasive way,” says project team designer Doretta Rinaldi. “In keeping with the mood of the building and its concrete and white walls, we developed a linear black and white signage system.”
The team found inspiration in Hadid’s building plans and adapted the clipped shapes of angled galleries to become the arrows, signage frames, and tabletop placards in the wayfinding system. The vertical fins that frame the ceiling skylights were reinterpreted as wall-mounted, three-dimensional striped numbers that identify each gallery.
The signs are predominately white planes of various thicknesses on white walls. Rinaldi explains: “The volumes of the sign elements are created only thanks to the contrast between light and shadow in the otherwise pristine environment. This is why we conceived the signage structure as shaped and cut elements.”
Fitting for a museum whose collections convey the relationship between architecture and art, the sign system extends and transmutes the visual vocabulary of the architecture.
“Get lost and find yourself again”
Hadid describes the museum as a conflux of major and minor streams, meaning the curvilinear intersections of large galleries give way to narrower passages. Visitors “float” from one gallery to the next, often unaware of what is around the next bend. The ma:design team understood that the concept of wayfinding took on a particular meaning within this museum—it was difficult to get disoriented in these interconnected spaces. Zaffini explains, “The fluid architecture by Zaha Hadid invites the visitor to explore without a preset route. We borrowed this simple concept as our guideline: to get lost and then find yourself again.”
As visitors wander through the series of exhibition galleries (which are numbered in sequence as a wayfinding cue), they can refer to a wall-mounted map that shows the gallery they are in as a black plane layered on top of an abstracted white floor map. The composition of sandwiched enameled-MDF planes is as artistic as it is informative.
Ma:design and fabrication company Arpa pubblicità have partnered on a number of successful projects over the years and they collaborated to build the MAXXI graphics. Arpa pubblicità manager Ciuffoli Danilo recalled that even though the black and white system looks simple, “It consists of handmade shapes and reliefs laser cut in different materials, including Plexiglass, aluminum, MDF, and polystyrene.”
Accolades and another piazza
The museum has been open more than a year and has won some of the most prestigious awards in architecture, including the Stirling prize from the Royal Institute of British Architects and World Building of 2010 at Barcelona’s World Architecture Festival. And now the graphics program has received its due with an SEGD Design Award.
MAXXI Architettura Director Margherita Guccione affirms that the environmental graphics program has been a great success. “It has proven to be effective both inside and out, thanks to the clarity of the communication system and the use of forms and materials that are in perfect symphony with the essential character of the building itself.”
Guccione and ma:design may collaborate again on MAXXI’s expansion into an adjacent 17th-century building that will house a library and amenities. Patrignani reports, “We are developing a proposal to evolve the museum signage system for this new context, reinterpreting the idea of the piazza yet again. Wish us luck, won’t you?”
--By Leslie Wolke, segdDESIGN No. 33, 2011
“Extremely well integrated wayfinding program. Uniquely appropriate and complementary to the architecture. It just works!”
“The strength of this award winner is the idea of not letting the wayfinding graphics overpower the clean lines of the space. Simple changes to arrows and service symbols make for very intelligent design. There is a subtle hierarchy of the signs that range from painted graphics on a wall to dimensional letters and letting the gallery numbers become three-dimensional, sculptural pieces. Simple is better, which this project portrays exceptionally well.”
“Elegantly integrated signage and wayfinding system. Unique and appropriate for the site, subtle and fresh!”
MAXXI NATIONAL MUSEUM OF XXI CENTURY ARTS
Client: Fondazione MAXXI
Architecture: Zaha Hadid Architects
Design: ma:design SRL
Design Team: Massimiliano Patrignani, Monica Zaffini (principals in charge); Doretta Rinaldi (designer); Giovanni Salerno (production coordination/material research)
Fabrication: Arpa pubblicità srl (wayfinding structures, videowall), G2 (gate painting)
Photos: Rossano Ronci/Cesare Querci