Another setback for famous architect whose buildings tend not to get off ground

She was famous for years as the avant-garde architect whose visionary works remained firmly glued to her drawing board.

Amazing designs had flown from her imagination for more than two decades: she had sealed her reputation as one of the most distinctive talents, had beaten the world's best with winning entries for the Cardiff Opera House and an exclusive club on the Peak of Hong Kong. But nothing got built. For years, the only Zaha Hadid building was a strange little fire station with a roof like a paper dart in northern Germany.

That's all history now. Without diluting her ideas, Hadid, born and raised in Iraq but based in London since her student days, is accumulating a tidy collection of real buildings. The Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art in Cincinnatti is up. Works in Germany, France, Italy and Taiwan are all in progress. And she has just won the competition to design a new building for the Architecture Foundation near Tate Modern in London.

But a recurrence of her old problem has loomed with news that one of the biggest and most ambitious buildings of her career, already on site in Rome, is about to run out of money.

Maxxi, the Italian acronym for Rome's new museum of 21st century art, is as revolutionary as anything that has emerged from her pen. Occupying the site of an old army barracks in the Flaminio district north of the centre, it is not so much a building as some glass-and-steel worms slithering over each other.

Maxxi is intended to put Rome on the map as a city that takes modern art seriously. Choosing Hadid, who last year won the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious architectural award, underlined the importance of the project.

Since Mussolini, who promoted new architecture, Italy has been slow to grasp the challenge of energising its cities with good new buildings. Instead, it has thrown a girdle of dreary high-rise estates round its cities. Now Rome and some other cities are trying to show that they are on the same wavelength as the rest of western Europe, and perhaps bolder than most in their commissioning.

The new museum, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture but partially financed by the Ministry of Infrastructure, is budgeted at €60m (£32m), and the first tranche of €15m has already been delivered and largely spent. Behind the exterior wall of the old barracks, which Hadid retained in her design and which is now being supported by scaffolding, the foundations are nearly complete.

"We're working flat out," Claudio Cerasi, head of the SAC, the main contractor, told La Repubblica: "We're about to start on the first level. It's a complex work, using a very unusual type of cladding and delicate materials. We've got at least a year and a half's work ahead of us. But if the next instalment of money doesn't arrive within a month, we'll be forced to down tools."

With economic growth at a standstill for many months, cuts in the Ministry of Culture's budget have been feared since last year. In August, the Minister of Culture, Giuliano Urbani, warned that a rumoured reduction of his budget by 25 per cent would "cut into cultural assets in a heavy and indiscriminate fashion."

But if Maxxi's building site were to go dark, it would throw a shadow over Mr Urbani's reputation. Gianluca Racana, Hadid's project architect, told The Independent: "The materials we are using for the museum are high-tech and cannot be left in the open indefinitely or they will deteriorate. In particular there is the roofing material, already ordered, made of crystal ... the car's in motion now. We can't afford to put on the brakes."

The arrival of the next instalment of €15m, due by the end of February, is awaited anxiously. Last night, a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture said: "There are some problems with financing Maxxi. But we do not intend to abandon the project."

Claudio Cerasi sighed: "I ask myself if this building is ever going to get finished."

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