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ROME (Reuters Life!) - Iraq's Zaha Hadid, one of the world's most acclaimed architects, has given this ancient city that normally shuns modern intrusions another controversial building -- a new museum dedicated to contemporary design.
The MAXXI -- which stands for Museum of Art for the XXI Century -- is one of the few ultra-modern spaces for the arts to be built in Rome and is Hadid's biggest project so far.
The complex, now getting the final touches ahead of a public opening in the spring, will house two museums: MAXXI Art and MAXXI Architecture, as well as spaces for live performances.
"It is the first public museum in Italy dedicated to contemporary creativity," Pio Baldi, president of the MAXXI Foundation, said of the 27,000-square meter structure.
The collection will contain more than 350 works by such artists as Alighiero Boetti, Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge and Andy Warhol, as well as designs by 20th-century architects and engineers such as Carlo Scarpa, Aldo Rossi and Pierluigi Nervi.
"It's so exciting see the building finally come to life," said Hadid, who won an international competition in 1998 to design the 150 million euro complex.
Built on the site of former army barracks, the vast building contrasts sharply with the surrounding residential area.
"I think it's very important that historic cities are allowed to reinvent their future," the London-based designer told Reuters in an interview.
The building flows freely between interior and exterior, with steel stairs and columns twisting to become walls and ceilings. Lighting plays a key role as sunlight floods through the glass ceilings and the galleries' wide open spaces.
"The idea is that you will be able to view the art or live performances through the many different layers of the building, and see people moving around above and below you," Hadid said.
Organizers hope to attract 400,000 people in the first year but not everyone loves the futuristic structure. Detractors say it looks like a space ship and call it "relentlessly hideous."
Hadid came to Rome with a long list of credentials and successes. Among her designs are the Vitra Fire Station in Germany and Cincinnati's Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.
In the Italian capital however, the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize -- architecture's equivalent of the Nobel -- has come in for some fierce criticism.
Hadid's projects are renowned for controversial delays and spiraling costs but this time the problem may have more to do with what some have called the "Roman curse" -- delays caused by the snail-paced bureaucracy.
"Architecture's always so slow," Hadid said. "Especially mine. Especially in Rome."
Unlike New York, London or Berlin, Rome's ventures into modern architecture often meet resistance from traditionalists who feel modernity has no place amid the glories of antiquity.
In the late 1990s, two mayors, Walter Veltroni and his predecessor Francesco Rutelli, both from the center left, tried to put the city on a new path with architectural competitions for public projects such as new piazzas and churches.
But Rome's current conservative mayor, Gianni Alemanno, has made no secret of his dislike of modern architecture. He has famously said that if he had the funds he would demolish its most controversial modern museum, the Ara Pacis.
The modernist glass-and-stone structure by American architect Richard Meier, which opened in 2005 after much controversy, encases the Altar of Peace, built by Augustus in the 1st century BC to celebrate his war victories.
Hadid is no stranger to controversy and disappointment. Her design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House was abandoned by the Millennium Commission after opposition from local politicians.
Reaching the level Hadid has would be a feat for any architect, let alone for a woman from Baghdad, but her combative and outspoken nature has gained her a reputation as a sometimes difficult diva.
Her response is simple: "If I were a man, they wouldn't call me a diva."
Reporting by Ella Ide; editing by Philip Pullella, Stephen Brown and Paul Casciato