PRINT Summer 2016


Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid Architects, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, 2014, American University of Beirut. Photo: Hufton Crow. © Zaha Hadid Architects.

PERHAPS MORE THAN any other architect of our time, Zaha Hadid was celebrated for the visible power of her forms. But to applaud only her spirals, wedges, folds, and ramps, no matter how luxuriant or stunning, reduces her full achievement, obscuring a quality shared by all great architecture—namely, that it deals with concepts and ideas that underlie what we perceive. Hadid frequently claimed that her work was misunderstood. The following remarks, addressing both the architectural (“Hadid”) and the personal (“Zaha”), configure an unusual talent and qualify a specific and significant moment in the evolution of architectural thought.

The ground as an urban material: The ground establishes a new urban condition. Unlike in the modernist approach, which freed the ground by lifting the building above it on pilotis, in Hadid’s projects the ground is first and foremost an artificial landscape integrated into the building itself.

Interior/exterior: The interior is a piece of exterior space that has been sucked inside the project. In this way, ideas of urbanism and landscape take up residence in the building; conversely, the interior can be imagined as an urban condition that expands fluidly to the outside.

Public space: Hadid’s project proposed a new kind of urbanism, formed out of streams or flows of movement that cut into and through the city fabric, commingling public and private realms. A multiplicity of grounds is opened up to the public by internal “public rooms,” suggesting the possibility of concentrated civic activity. Threads of pedestrian movement are pulled into the building, and the building merges with the cityscape, shaping an invented landscape as important as the “real” one on which it rests.

Endless spatial discovery: A richly differentiated sequence of spatial experiences is offered to the visitor. Rather than defining neutral generic spaces, size, proportion, and light are submitted to increasing internal variation. The visitor, as Hadid once noted, “never gets more than glimpses of the spaces yet to be traversed.”

Columns: Historically, columns have been associated with the phallic symbolism of established power. But there are almost no columns in Hadid’s buildings, which instead adopt long, post-free spans and cavernous interiors built through complex structural engineering. When columns are used, they are multiplied in close parallel, as if in a screen made through vertical or skewed repetition.

Structure versus space: Modernism took Le Corbusier’s plan libre as a favored formula. This dialectic between a regular grid of structural columns and interspersed, loosely shaped rooms was not for Hadid. In her work, structural elements were intended for habitation. If Roman vaults preceded her, they lacked the cantilevers that would become a rallying cry of modernism. But with the help of exceptional engineers who specialized in realizing the improbable, Hadid synthesized the spatial possibility of the cantilever with the structural system of the vault.

Program and plan: Hadid’s unbuilt competition scheme for the Cardiff Bay Opera House (1994–96) should be remembered for its program-driven reexamination of public and private activities. Everyday functions typically hidden in basements were “externalized” on the facade; dressing rooms and workshops were made visible to passersby. The intent was to open up a hermetically sealed object and private functions to the city. Hadid’s formal experiments were never gratuitous, but responded conceptually to functional constraints.

Pleasure: Hadid was an advocate for civic spaces that bring pleasure to their users, allowing for intense interactions while contributing to “individual and collective wellbeing.” As I wrote in a text from 1977 that suggests her formal-conceptual collisions and future endeavors: “The architecture of pleasure lies where concept and experience of space abruptly coincide, where architectural fragments collide and merge in delight, where the culture of architecture is endlessly deconstructed and all rules are transgressed.”Pleasure yields a radical unbalancing of expectations.

From collision to “melting”: Fragmentation and the abrupt encounters of spaces and programs soon gave way to a smooth fluidity in Hadid’s work. The explosive juxtapositions, superpositions, and interpenetrations of the 1970s and ’80s become complex and seamless in the ’90s, as if they had melted together spatially and programmatically. The digital technologies that Hadid helped pioneer played a major role in the liquefaction of architecture.

Formal repertory: Hadid focused on the coherence of an integrated repertory of forms, even if the concepts differed from one project to the next. This interests me, since I tend to think in opposite terms, emphasizing conceptual coherence that results in varying formal outcomes.

Notation: Architecture has always been dependent on its modes of representation. Conventional plans and sections are often mutually exclusive since they proceed from different two-dimensional logics. At the risk of oversimplification, one could say that the plan organizes, the section spatializes. From her earliest drawings and paintings, Hadid sought out three-dimensional representations that affected her design strategies, demanding oblique distortion and deformation in order to reconcile the horizontal with the vertical.

Drawing: Intuition is a shortcut of reasoning. So are drawings and sketches, in which head and hand define priorities while editing out secondary concerns. Hadid’s drawings provide a sort of preconcept that anticipates the main ideas of a project. They eventually benefited from the remarkable elaboration and refinement achieved through patient, continuous back-and-forth with her teams of designers and engineers.

History: Five hundred years of architecture have relied on modes of balance, equilibrium, and formal composition. In the ’70s and ’80s, a radical questioning of that inheritance led to two opposed trends: a return to the past, informed by history and widely embraced by the architectural profession, and an optimistic and exploratory turn toward the future and invention, supported by a small minority. Members of the second group, which drew inspiration from the early-twentieth-century avant-garde and contemporary philosophy, were presented in the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988, leading to the first group’s demise. Almost all of the seven architects in the exhibition were connected with the Architectural Association in London, where Zaha was a student, then a tutor. She always kept teaching in Europe and the United States, sensing a connection between the universe of ideas developed in the schools’ studios and the world outside.

“A planet in her own inimitable orbit”: In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Zaha could often be seen from the lofty office of the AA chairman, Alvin Boyarsky, as a mobile spot of bright color crossing Bedford Square with a transparent dog carrier turned handbag on her arm. That blur of energy famously established its own orbit, in the words of Rem Koolhaas; Zaha soon became a member of his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), before breaking off on her own trajectory. While Alvin was close to all of us, he loved Zaha first and foremost, and actively promoted her work. He was right to do so: Alvin was an excellent talent spotter.

“Diva”: Zaha reflected many avatars of history. To her eclectic friends, she was simply a brilliant designer and an engaging, loyal personality. The phone would ring and that deep, gravelly voice, thickened by years of smoking, would erupt: “Bernard, I know what they’re doing to you in that competition, and it is an outrage. An outrage!” Educated in a world of alpha-male architects and conservative, often chauvinist, clients, she knew commissions were hard to come by, especially for women. But she wasn’t a diva so much as a person of strong opinions and easily kindled rage against injustice. Large in stature, spirit, and talent, she wore her celebrity—an undeniable market asset—like a cocoon that at once enabled her professional transformation and afforded privacy to her personal life.

Baghdad: Zaha grew up in a modern house amid a sophisticated culture that valued the professional aspirations of women. She studied math—a field the West until recently reserved for men—at the American University of Beirut. Her father, Mohammed Hadid, was a brilliant businessman turned politician, a founder of the National Democratic Party, a fighter for workers’ rights and a progressive, democratic Iraq. All that ended when the Baathists came to power and imprisoned him. One brother, Foulath, was a central player at the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford; the other, Haytham, taught and lives in Beirut. Zaha designed small but distinguished buildings for the Centre and for the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Her experience offered a unique perspective on the devastation of Iraq. When an administrator chided her for smoking in the “pit” at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the first Gulf War, her response was sharp: “You bomb Iraq. I smoke.” She weathered 9/11 trapped inside her habitual New York haunt, the Mercer hotel. Her quietly internalized anger was a surprisingly moral stance, given the destruction wreaked by American adventurism. When asked, she accurately predicted both the chaos and the void in her homeland that ISIS would fill.

Kids: The iconoclast who despised tradition was also a bit of a traditionalist. She once explained a famous architect’s disturbing freak-out by the fact that he “didn’t have a stable family life.” Without children herself, she was an adoring godmother and remembered children’s birthdays religiously. In New York she was often accompanied on her rounds by former students, many of them female, some of whom went to work for her in London and stayed a decade or more. One such architect, Tegan Bukowski, recently described Zaha’s mentorship of women in her office, observing that she called her designers her “kids.” Several say they would never have become architects without Zaha’s encouragement and example.

Bernard Tschumi is an architect and the founder of Bernard Tschumi Architects, New York and Paris.