Friday, February 10, 2012

MAXXI, Liquid Chocolate, and Ammonites in Italia

Rome is a city of the past-ruins lay throughout the center of the city,allowing the city to only grow on its fringes. Also quickly apparent was its much larger scale than Paris; large streets, huge monuments, often built at the top of tall hills...everywhere Rome reminds you of how small you are-a fish in a very large pond. Compound that with the ancient history of it all, it's often times overwhelming in its monumentality.

Among the unbelievably old ruins of ancient architecture, however, lie a few gems of modernism. For example, Zaha Hadid's MAXXI museum for contemporary art and architecture. Perhaps the main attraction at this museum is the museum itself, whose criss-crossing black paths of circulation command attention, and bring to mind the secondary, or in some cases, primary purpose of museums-to see and be seen. In very Hadid style, the museum had a very fluid style and small moments of discovery pull visitors in and out of the museum experience and act to connect the outdoor plaza with the building. Of many of the museums I've visited, this one seemed to be one of the most dedicated to providing a place for the intermingling of people, much like a modern Roman piazza.

We also stopped by a small sports center, designed by Pier Nervi, whose concrete structure was more beauty than a means to hold up the building. We did pay visits too, to the main attractions of Rome, including the Colosseum, St. Peters in the Vatican, and many churches, but what was impressive about all of them again was the scale. You could really feel the power of the civilization that built the Colosseum when standing next to its massive walls, or the strength of the catholic church under the towering vaulted ceilings of St. Peters. The Romans, we realized, are also masters of perspective-warping geometry so things appear to be something they are not, as in Borromini's San Carlino church and his built "Perspective" which is only about 9 meters long, but looks much longer due to the warped perspective. And lastly, there's color-Rome is much more tropical than I would have thought and its brightly colored buildings work to reflect the almost endless sun, a welcome change in late January.

Upon arriving in Venice, the contrast to Rome is startling. Gone are
the huge boulevards, grand monuments, huge piazzas, and in its place are small "campos," also plazas but at a much more human scale. Small streets wind every which way over canals and under buildings becoming covered walkways, and store displays come right up to eye level-enticing by-passers with their colorful displays of blown glass animals, pastries or costume masks. Many windows look like something right out of an I SPY book. Small cafes contain a welcoming yellow-ish glow and serve up some of the richest hot chocolate I have ever tasted.

Here we visited many museums of art from all ages, one of my favorite being the small Guggenheim in Venice, with just enough modern art to not become overwhelming, but rich in its offerings-everything from Kandinsky to Picasso. We also came upon our first Carlo Scarpa building-the showroom for Olivetti typewriters. Scarpa is a little bit Frank Lloyd Wright in his Japanese influences and a little bit Siza with the small tricks he plays with materials. The renovated interior of this small space was very rich in architectural details and an exquisite stone stair that seemed to just float in space.

From Venice it was just a short train ride to Verona, home of the
tale of Romeo and Juliet, where I fell in love with another of Scarpa's buildings and some prehistoric fish. Every
where in Verona, including its ancient stadium, is paved in a limestone that have embedded into it imprints of ammonites, a type of nautilus-like animal from the Jurassic period. These remainders embedded into rock used to build structures already thousands of years old really make you realize how old our world truly is.

Among our visits in Verona was a museum designed in part by Scarpa that was absolutely amazing. Constructed in the remains of an old castle, the additions made by Scarpa touch the remains very lightly, reminding me of the archive building we visited in Toledo, Spain. Scarpa is a master of material again and uses every small detail to incite surprise in his insertions-small openings in material to reveal the knobs to turn on heaters, and every type of door and stair you could imagine. Scarpa's imagination seems endless. Needless to say, the guards were certainly confused why we paid so little attention to the art as compared to the doors, heaters and stairs of the building.

Built at the base of the alps, Verona has some amazing views from its hills, however we wanted to get higher, so our last day we took a train through the alps to the small town of Bolzen or Bolzano, a German and Italian speaking town (hence the two names) resting in the middle of the mountain range. A funicular ride up the mountain allowed us to further explore, via hiking and a small train, more small towns nestled in the mountains with amazing views and frozen over ponds for impromptu ice hockey games. Sometimes its nature's architecture that amazes the most.

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