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Energy: zero impact

This new exhibiton is only the second so far to be developed just by the Maxxi’s curatory staff. Zaira Magliozzi writes on whether it meets the expectations of the new museum

More than three years since the Maxxi opened in its new Zaha Hadid building, current exhibition Energy: Oil and Post-oil Architecture and Grids is only the second to be entirely conceived and curated by the museum’s curatorial staff (rather than imported from elsewhere). There were high expectations for this exhibition to be the standard-bearer of the Maxxi’s cultural approach.

Curated by Pippo Ciorra, the show examines the impact of energy on architecture and on the landscape; on the past (Italy’s heritage) and the future (of architecture). From the oil boom to renewable energy, there are three sections: Stories (recounting the past), Frames (investigating the present) and Visions (exploring diverse hypotheses for the future). Stories, curated by Margherita Guccione and Esmeralda Valente, is the most Italian section. Apart from some rare exceptions, it is hard to find masterpieces or cutting-edge architecture here. There is a focus on postwar Italy, with 80 historic drawings and projects of road and motorway architecture, most of them from the archives of Eni SpA, the largest Italian oil and gas company and also the main partner of the exhibition. The result is confused and the presentation of the selected projects unexciting. This section hobbles the show, preventing it from crossing Italian borders.

The second section Frames is curated by Francesca Fabiani. It seems detached from the rest of the show, unfairly relegated to a tiny corner at the end of the exhibition. Here, the remarkable pictures of Italian photographers Paolo Pellegrin (below), Alessandro Cimmino (above) and Paola Di Bello capture the impact of the oil industry on the Italian landscape. These images get to the essence of the architecture and its context better than any words could.

Paolo Pellegrin

Paolo Pellegrin’s brooding oil landscapes reveal an alarming impact on the Italian vista

The core of the exhibition is Visions, both in terms of scale and the curator’s intentions. Seven architectural firms were invited to make proposals for the third millennium’s energy distribution, illustrated by site-specific installations. Among them, Guillermo Acuña Arquitectos Asociados (Chile) presents an installation reflecting ‘virtual interaction’ with the energy of Santiago de Chile; Lifethings (South Korea) envisages a refuelling clinic; MODUS (Italy) depicts a futuristic motorway to supply energy along its length; Noero Architects (South Africa) works on a fishing village that generates its own energy; OBR Open Building Research (Italy) exhibits an interactive installation with energy coming from pedalling; Sou Fujimoto (Japan) has conceived a service station as a forest and TERROIR (Australia/Denmark) combines local identity and advanced technology to create sustainable energy.


‘Heads Up, Highway!’ from MODUS architects imagines a dodgem-like electrical grid powering cars over motorways

The responses are as varied as they are distant from the curator’s brief, leading to some pleasingly unexpected interpretations. But asking an architect to create a site-specific work depicting his or her vision of a future energy distribution station, although clever, has its shortcomings. On the one hand, it has the merit of overcoming the long-standing dichotomy between architecture and the way it is displayed. On the other hand, the approach seems reductive, because such a wide-ranging topic as energy cannot be considered through one specific object. Visions demonstrates exactly this: the impossibility of thinking about a single element when it is not part of a more complex system. So most of the proposals are disconnected from the central theme, and weakly outlined instead of being deeply analysed and clearly proposed to the viewer.

On balance, the work featured is valuable but at the same time parochial. Even if the seven architectural firms of Visions are from all over the world, two of them are Italians, and those are not exactly pivotal. There is too much local work for the show to have much international relevence, or for it to make a decisive step forward in the contemporary debate. Sadly, it also fails the institution: this is no clarion call announcing the Maxxi’s arrival on the global stage as a truly world-class museum.

ENERGY: Oil and Post-oil Architecture and Grids

Where: Gallery 1 and Architecture Archive Centre, Maxxi National Museum of XXI-Century Arts, Rome

When: Until 29th September 2013

Click here to visit the exhibition website.

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