Zaha and the Italians

Reggio's new Maritime Museum
Reggio's new Maritime Museum

Last night the Italian Embassy played host to an innately Italian affair: the ceremony to mark the signing of an agreement between Zaha Hadid Architects and the Southern Italian Municipality of Reggio Calabria for the Regium Waterfront Project (pictured). Part of a regeneration initiative, the commission for a new museum and conference centre has been awarded to a typically Zaha, but nonetheless beautiful, proposal. In the sumptuous rooms on Grosvenor Square, swarms of immaculately groomed Italians spontaneously applauded as guest of honour Zaha Hadid took her seat. Although perhaps a natural response to the celebrity aura that surrounds the architect, it could also be an indication of the hope pinned on the success of this project.

Reggio di Calabria, a historically poverty-stricken town on the straits of Messina (between the toe of mainland Italy and Sicily) is allegedly trying to redress the economic troubles of previous decades. With the ascendancy of Dr Giuseppe Scopelliti, the current Mayor, in 2002 a regeneration programme was launched and the €400m project is its flagship. The ambassadorial official opening the ceremony praised Scopelliti for his trust in the virtues of open competition in the face of the ‘current situation’. Perhaps also political bravery in the face of precedent?

With completion set within five to six years, this is a long-term investment, but will hopefully signal to the people a change of fortune for the region. It’s also a celebration of the long cultural history of Reggio Calabria, originally a colony of Magna Graecia, in that one half of the project will be a new ‘Museo del Mare’. The Greek Bronzi di Riace statues – two full-size bronze warriors dated circa 460BC – will be rehoused here. Dedicated to one of the most famous Reggians in recent history, Gianni Versace, with this project the city is evidently trying to re-establish some self-confidence after debilitating times.

The Regium Waterfront is the latest in a series of Italian projects by Zaha Hadid Architects. In finishing her presentation Hadid listed Rome, Florence, Naples, Salerno, Sardinia and the Veneto as sites of construction currently underway. Although I think most architects have a natural soft spot for Italy – the birthplace of modern western architectural tradition – the Hadid/Italy relationship seems to be very much a 2-way affair. On reflection it’s clear that of course they would  love her work. Hadid’s buildings are nothing if not sexy. The designs that come out of Hadid’s office have just the kind of sleek polished lines that Italian style is bound to appreciate.

Actually, although occasionally underwhelmed by the sameness of Hadid’s work, the house style is particularly well-suited to a building about the sea. Its form apparently inspired by a wave, renderings show fluid, folding and unfolding spaces that reveal multiple changing views, internal and external space merging – as of course it is much easier to do in a Mediterranean climate. The ‘rooms’ are beautifully generous and public spaces grand and soaring. Co-designer Patrik Schumacher joked that partly because they didn’t expect to win, they really let go the creative reigns on this one. The result is a hugely ambitious project – new engineering techniques will no doubt have to be invented to construct it – but once completed it will be nothing less than a truly breath-taking building.

In the closing comments, the Mayor was again commended for his innovative plan. Commissioning a bankable celebrity architect to design a new signature building that will generate income? Investing in infrastructure and re-asserting the city’s cultural identity? It may not sound wholly original, even if it is a very good idea. However, seen in context, perhaps this is the fresh move that Reggio needs.

This article also appeared on Blueprint’s website.

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