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ROME (Reuters) - It took Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid 11 years, 150 million euros and six Italian culture ministers to build Rome's first state museum for contemporary art -- one of the few futuristic spaces to rise in the ancient city.
"Every time there was an election and I had to come here to meet the new minister, my heart dropped and I nearly panicked," Hadid recalled as she finally inaugurated the MAXXI -- the Museum of Art for the XXI Century, her biggest project to date.
"When I first came to Rome as a child in the 1960s and posed for pictures in front of the Trevi fountain, I never thought I would be here today."
The coiled, concrete 27,000 square meter structure -- dubbed "the silvery boa" -- houses two museums, MAXXI Art and MAXXI Architecture, as well as spaces for live performances.
Its collection contains around 300 works by the likes of Alighiero Boetti, Anish Kapoor, Anselm Kiefer and Andy Warhol as well as designs by 20th-century architects and engineers.
Built on the site of a former army barracks, the vast complex contrasts sharply with the surrounding residential area -- and a Baroque church just a few meters down the road.
A giant human skeleton by Italian artist Gino De Dominicis, to whom the museum is dedicating an ample retrospective, lies just outside the entrance.
Inside, steel stairs and columns twist to become walls and ceilings, creating multiple layers, corridors and smaller viewing rooms within the galleries' wide open spaces.
Lighting plays a crucial role, with sunlight flooding through huge windows and glass ceilings.
Organizers hope to attract 400,000 people in the first year but not everyone loves the ultra-modern structure in a city that normally shuns high-tech ventures. Detractors say it looks like a space ship.
Hadid, who won an international competition to design the new museum in 1999, came to Rome with a long list of credentials and successes. Among her works 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.
Her projects are renowned for controversial delays and spiraling costs but this time she also had to battle her way through Rome's snail-paced bureaucracy.
The museum, one of the most ambitious in a string of projects meant to turn the eternal city into a hotspot for contemporary art, had initially been due to open in 2005.
But construction started late, and was further delayed by lack of funding.
Unlike New York, London or Berlin, Rome's ventures into contemporary architecture often meet resistance from traditionalists who feel modernity has no place amid the glories of antiquity.
Things, however, are slowly changing.
New York's influential art dealer Larry Gagosian picked Rome for the opening of his first gallery in continental Europe in 2007. And a smaller, city-run modern art museum in Rome, the Macro, is inaugurating a new wing this weekend.
Rome's conservative mayor, Gianni Alemanno, has made no secret of his dislike of modern architecture, and current Culture Minister Sandro Bondi once famously said that he did not understand contemporary art -- and was at pains to find any beauty in it.
But on Thursday, all that seemed forgotten.
"Our first duty is to safeguard, preserve and make the most of our historic heritage. But we also have a duty, which is as important, to support and promote the cultural spaces and the artists of our time," Bondi said at the MAXXI inauguration.
(additional reporting by Ella Ide)
Editing by Steve Addison