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MAXXI exhibition: tribute to the act of recycling

Luigi Puglisi reviews the new exhibition at Zaha’s MAXXI, which offers a large collection of drawings, buildings and projects, united by the theme of recycling

The MaXXI Museum in Rome has a tormented history. Zaha Hadid’s magnum opus took 12 years to complete, had one of its wings chopped off and ended up costing around €150 million. This works out at between €7,500 and €10,000 per square metre; an outrageous amount by normal Italian standards. (MaCrO, rome’s other new modern art museum designed by Odile Decq, cost approximately €3,000 per square metre.)

But such sacrifices were considered acceptable because an Italy corrupted by veneration of the past and historicist nostalgia could finally boast a new museum dedicated to contemporary culture.

Yet this proved to be the beginning of an increasingly embarrassing situation for critics of MaXXI’s architectural exhibitions. Following its opening in 2010, it has staged shows dedicated to Luigi Moretti, Pier Luigi Nervi and Gerrit Rietveld, but these could just as easily have been hosted by the city’s Galleria Nazionale d’arte Moderna, the national museum dedicated to the 20th century.

Rendering the situation even more depressing is the fact that these shows were not even produced by the MaXXI, but by others: so-called ‘ricicloni’ (‘recycloned’ exhibitions: a play on ‘recycled’ and ‘clones’). RE-CYCLE, at MaXXI until 29 April is, then, paradoxically, the first major architectural exhibition not to have been recycled.

Darmstadt, Germany

A swarm of common items discarded in the Georg-Büchner-anlage park in Berlin are transformed into a public gathering space by German design agency, Raumlaborberlin. At once both a recycled object and a tribute to the act of recycling the project is one of many examples featured in the MaXXI’s recent exhibition

In other words, it is the first to be conceived and produced in-house by the museum’s curators, and thus the first to offer a critical statement on the condition of contemporary architecture. Responding to the times and Italic prudence (which counsels not to aggrandise one particular person or philosophy), MaXXI’s curators rejected international starchitects or national practitioners in favour of a politically correct theme. Who could possibly object to the need for a more sustainable world?

Offering a disparate collection of projects, drawings and buildings, the exhibition is thoughtfully designed. There are also two site-specific installations. One, a protruding and hairy portal in wood and synthetic raffia indicating the museum entrance, is by the Brazilian Campana brothers, rising stars of fashionably arte Povera design. The other by the German group Raumlaborberlin is a shack constructed from recycled materials.

However, in analytical terms, the exhibition is less than convincing. The term ‘recycle’ is vaguely and confusingly employed to indicate five different activities: re-programming, land reclamation projects, the reuse of buildings, inverting the meaning of an object and the recovery of materials. Re-programming occurs when a product intended for one use is transformed to accept a radically different one − for example, the idea of shipping containers as shopping centres, proposed in beijing by LOT-eK. Yet with the exception of a few examples, the results are bizarre, kitsch and aesthetically depressing.


Using shipping containers to build shopping centres, as proposed in Beijing by LOT-eK

Land reclamation is another potentially intriguing conceptual thread, as demonstrated by James Corner on Staten Island, where nature is used to recover a former waste dump. However, it is difficult to see this as recycling in the strictest sense of the term. even more singular is the third definition, the reuse of buildings. Describing it as an act of recycling is a bit far-fetched, and by this measure, Italy is the most virtuous of nations, where nothing is demolished (not even when constructed illegally) and everything is transformed.

And if it is only possible to discuss recycling within the context of employing raw or basic materials, the confusion only increases. for example, it is misleading to present the work of Lacaton & Vassal at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, because beyond conveniently chiming with the theme of recycling, it explores a different and more challenging idea, the aesthetic of the unfinished and the temporary.

The fourth definition deals with the world of art. yet if in a certain sense Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa is a work of recycling, it cannot be seriously proposed in an exhibition with the subtitle ‘Strategies for architecture, the City and the Planet’. Finally, the fifth definition: the reuse of materials and primary resources. Disappointingly, little is shown.

Standouts include buildings realised from leftover material after an earthquake in China for the rebirth brick Project by Jiakun architects, but more examples would have amplified and enriched the theme.The sense is that curator Pippo Ciorra focused on aestheticising the exhibition, rather than confronting the problem of the lifecycle of materials based on rational criteria. The show appears to be just the latest victim of an Italian obsession: conserving everything without throwing anything away.

Visit Re-cycle

Where: MAXXI Centre (Galleries 1, 2, 2a and Carlo Scarpa Room), Rome

When: 1 December 2011 – 29 April 2012

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