Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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Rome Redux

I’ve just returned from a symposium in Rome, “Whatever Happened to Italian Architecture?” co-sponsored by the Depart Foundation and the Swiss Institute. A dozen architects grappled with this question, and the answers were far from reassuring. American architects are having a hard time finding work; imagine what it must be like in Italy, where 150,000 registered practitioners compete for the few projects that win approval from a corrupt and scelerotic bureaucracy. Competitions are rigged, jobs are handed off to political cronies, and the reactionary mayor of Rome has blocked almost all the projects initiated by his predecessor.

Happily, the Italians have become adept over the centuries in surmounting or evading every obstacle. The symposium offered more rhetoric than substance but a few glimmers of light shone through, notably in the presentation by Modus, a small firm working in the Alto Adige region near the Austrian border. They have abstracted the rural vernacular in a series of sharply angled houses that contribute to a flourishing local scene. And Massimiliano Fuksas (whose name was scarcely mentioned in the symposium) is building a grandiose Palazzo dei Congressi in the EUR district of Rome, featuring an auditorium that is supposed to float within the huge glass-walled container. 

After two days of talk it was refreshing to make a trip out to MAXXI (above), and discover that Zaha Hadid’s contemporary art museum was bursting with life. I saw it last year before it opened--a Piranesian labyrinth of black ramps and walkways threading through a white void--and wondered how it would work for art. The answer seems to be: pretty well, and when the exhibits fall short it’s a spectacular work of art in itself. Two of the principal galleries were given over to architecture: a retrospective on Luigi Moretti, who was as eclectic as Philip Johnson, and the sketches that Carlos Scarpa made during his classes at the University of Venice. Still to come is Odile Decq’s stunning extension to MACRO, the city’s museum of contemporary art, which is scheduled to open at the end of the year.

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