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MAXXI Museum, Rome, Italy

Issue 59 Feb / Mar 2011 : Retail : Museum


The Stirling Prize winning MAXXI Museum in Rome, designed by Zaha Hadid, is one of the most startling pieces of architecture to emerge in modern times. Mark Hensman of GIA Equation explains the concept of the lighting design.

It is rare, as a lighting designer, that one gets the opportunity to work on a project with the genuine mixture of complexities contained within the MAXXI project – a mixture of complexities that resulted in what was such a significant architectural statement.

There is little doubt that Zaha Hadid Architects has a reputation for producing distinctive and iconic architectural forms but MAXXI, as was the case with BMW Leipzig, (a previous project that we worked on with the same practice) is founded on strong and relatively straightforward functional principles.

So, for the lighting designer fortunate enough to be conceiving a lighting approach for MAXXI, this was our natural starting point; one that supported the primary architectural and functional philosophies being developed for the project.
This is our concept...

Much has been written and spoken about the shape and form of the MAXXI building, its derivation and whether the inherent architectural style of the architect is too present in the final result. The simple fact is that it owes much of its dynamic expression and fluidity because of a simple response to the urban grain and fabric of its particular location in Rome. As a design team member that was around early in the process, GIA Equation was fortunate enough to witness this process in action.
Therefore, the development of a clear architectural response within the lighting presentation to reinforce the sinuous nature of the building, to accentuate the building lines and geometries, is solidly founded in this initial principle that was being developed by Zaha Hadid Architects.
An obvious expression in this respect is the high level linear lighting treatment that was developed as part of the daylight and roof light design. Not only did this treatment provide artificial light in a manner that was cognisant of the character of the daylight performance, it immediately created the benefit of accentuating building lines and forms. It is thus a direct expression of the urban response of the building.

Another major benefit of this element is that is it provided an integrated, primary platform within the lighting installation. This was another important principle of our approach; to simplify the lighting presentation and pare it back to core functions and applications across the scheme.

The basis of this ‘stripped back’ approach was again about allowing the building to clearly express itself, but it was also to do with the development of a lighting response within MAXXI that would aid and communicate circulation. This indeed, became one of the primary thrusts of the lighting concept.

Clearly, as a public gallery and arts based building, one of the key requirements is that way-finding and direction should be relatively easy, ensuring a positive and responsive experience for gallery visitors. The creation of a specific lighting language around the building’s circulation was therefore a natural development of the lighting design – it is the simple use of light as a communication medium.

This conceptual principle emerged as a sequence of back illuminated panels and integrated details around the various circulation elements within the building, clearly defining a desired circulation methodology.

In addition to dealing with these primary, functional aspects of the building, there was of course the need to provide optimal lighting conditions for the display and illumination of art. There is a nice overlap in this area with some of the ‘ambient’ treatments described above, in particular the high level artificial roof lighting, providing a diffused base upon which to build these lighting functions. The nature of these ‘building’ lighting treatments provided good basic gallery illuminance, particularly when coupled with other direct lighting arrangements.

From very early on, a design intent developed to combine lighting functions wherever possible. Again this was a response to the paring down of the installation and the retention of a cleanness to the design and building presentation. An example of this was the provision of a supplementary technical lighting element within the roof lights themselves, adding a third lighting function within these components. This took the form of a track on the underside of the trusses to enable focused, targeted light onto three dimensional pieces or indeed onto specific wall displays.

Other supplementary technical lighting elements included linear direct wall washing and the introduction of an opal diffusing panel arrangement to areas where daylight supplementation was required.
The physical expression of both of these elements once again helped to ‘join-up’ the lighting/architectural/functional expression of the MAXXI building. Linear washlight treatments flow and move though the building, accentuating building lines in much the same manner as the roof lighting and these lines are also present in the large opal panel arrangements, making the building geometry clear and evident.

It should also be noted that the performance required from this ‘technical’ lighting component embraced all of the design requirements normally associated with an international gallery of this standing. The lighting installation needed to incorporate all of the key optical performance characteristics (hang uniformity, colour rendering, modelling etc.) together with the very important conservation requirements that included illuminance level management, ultra-violet control, infra-red filtration, lux hour monitoring and so on.

The duration of this design process is also perhaps worth noting, particularly within the context of another key design philosophy; the provision of an energy efficient, low running-cost building. GIA Equation started work on this project at the beginning of 2001 when the term ‘sustainability’ was firmly associated with the Green Movement and placed in the realm of the ‘tree-hugging’ fraternity.

However, for us, sustainability has always been a central part of our design approach with the recognition that a lighting installation is a living, breathing part of a building that places a demand on building operators long after we have left the project. The requirement therefore, to provide that much overused phrase ‘a sustainable design’ is deep within our DNA – we have been doing it since our inception back in the mid ‘80s.

Within MAXXI, this philosophy is clearly in evidence, tying in with the broader design philosophy of the team and indeed other elements of the building design. The artificial design solutions that were first conceived nearly a decade ago were inherently efficient and pointed in the direction of anticipated product development. The result of this is a building that employs current technology, despite the duration of its delivery period, and therefore has what would be termed in today’s language a sustainable, energy and maintenance efficient lighting solution.


A footnote to everything written above relating to this project had some significance for us as lighting designers, but substantially more for the core members of the MAXXI design team and in particular Zaha Hadid Architects.

We have now delivered a number of projects in Italy, some of them in the public sector. The process is long, drawn out and bureaucratic to say the least. The movement and sign-off through the preliminare, definitivo and esecutivo design stages can take a long time with periods of inactivity between stages being considerable. It is interesting then that MAXXI, in its delivered form, so clearly resembles its earliest design concepts. This is something that I think can only be attributed to the strength, robustness and quality of the original design vision and, if you ever get the opportunity to go and visit this wonderful piece of architecture, is worth keeping in the back of your mind.

Project Details
MAXXI Museum, Rome, Italy
Client: Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, Rome
Architect: Zaha Hadid Architects
Lighting Design: GIA Equation
Electrical Design: Max Fordham, The OK Design Group
Roland Halbe pics courtesy of Zumtobel

Lighting Specified
Foyer: Zumtobel Tecton continuous-row luminaires, ERCO Stella Projector Spotlights (with framing devices), Barrisol Lumière system
Exhibition Areas: Zumtobel Tecton continuous-row luminaires, Zumtobel Vivo L spotlights, Zumtobel Panos downlights, Luxmate Litenet light management system
Exterior: BEGA in-ground luminaires, BEGA recessed wall luminaires, BEGA bollards, BEGA pole-top luminaires


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