Parasitic Modernism

Steven Semes, author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation (a voice of reason in the confused world of historic preservation), has called attention to the new plague of parasitic architecture:

It seems that the currently fashionable architects are competing to plant their “contemporary stamp” on the historic face of the Eternal City. It all began with the completion in 2005 of Richard Meier’s Museum of the Ara Pacis, which seems to have opened the way for new Modernist architecture in the city. Upon its completion, the Meier building prompted protests even from the mayor of Rome, and now its entry plaza is to undergo a makeover in answer to some of the criticisms that met its debut, most notably the wall that blocks the view of two Neo-classical churches from the riverside boulevard of the Lungotevere.

MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid. Photo by Steven Semes.

As disturbing as the counter-contextual imposition of Meier’s building is, there is something worse afoot in Rome: the gutting of historic buildings of more recent vintage and their incorporation into crudely cannibalistic new construction. Modernist architects are becoming perversely parasitic in this way: They insist on using historic structures as a “foil” to their unprecedented forms and high-tech materials. Aggressive “shards” and “blobs” are suddenly exploding from the bellies of older buildings like the creature in the movie “Alien” that burst out of the abdomen of an ill-fated earthling. Daniel Liebskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and War Museum in Dresden are the best known examples of this approach.

Turning to the example of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome, Semes comments:

Hadid uses the existing building simply as a shell, hollows it out, paints it white and makes it all but disappear, nearly overwhelmed by the onslaught of the new structure that seems to be attacking it like some colossal monster in a science-fiction film. But, unexpectedly, the old structure’s dignity of composition, satisfying proportions and human scale resist the architect’s act of appropriation. It stands its ground, still recognizable as architecture, refusing to be destroyed. This persistence must keep Hadid awake at night. Not allowed to demolish the buildings, she is powerless to rob them of their meaning, despite the considerable effort she gives to the task.


Daniel Libeskind’s War Museum in Dresden
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