By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Wake up to reality

Zaha Hadid's radicalism is undimmed, but as her increasing workload allows her vision to be realised, she is evolving and redefining her approach

We are very lucky to have Zaha Hadid in London. Architecture needs an avant-garde, a critical leading edge, questioning conventional ideas of the rational, the reasonable and the appropriate, and Hadid's office virtually constitutes an avant-garde in its own right. In 'Hadidland,' the critic Aaron Betsky has written, 'gravity disappears, perspective warps, lines converge and there is no definition of scale or activity.' Fifteen years ago, when Hadid established her office, she was one of a generation reared under Alvin Boyarsky at the aa who were redefining the terms of reference of the architect. Her project for the Peak in Hong Kong defied conventional criticism. For a time Hadid was subsumed under the Deconstructivist banner, but the label was inadequate and served to reinforce the image of the Iraqi-born architect as a theorist and non- builder. (With her drawings, who needs words?) Hadid is, in fact, as keen to build as Koolhaas or Libeskind and, not before time, her projects are beginning to be realised. She has cast off the false image imposed on her and emerged from the huge shadow cast by the sabotage (for such it was) of the Cardiff Bay Opera House scheme - and her architecture is as challenging in its built form as it was on paper.

Zaha Hadid's current team is youthful, but there are some experienced hands to guide it. Hadid herself is still the prime source of ideas in the office, but its growing workload means that team working is vital and that the practice can be more selective in its approach to competitions. According to Hadid's colleague Graham Modlen (who joined her in 1994 to work on Cardiff), 'We've learned that you can invest a lot for very small rewards. But the last thing we'd do for a competition is to 'dumb down'. What we are always concerned about is the quality of presentation - making sure our ideas are properly understood.' The paintings, a hallmark of Hadid's work since the 70s, remain, but other media, including cad presentations and video, are increasingly used too. For the South Bank, the office produced a 'tower of cards' which formed the basis of Hadid's presentation - it was a way of asking questions about the site, rather than a developed scheme. This open-mindedness is typical of Hadid's approach - indeed, it is fundamental to her view of architecture. 'Back in the 1970s,' she says, 'typology was all. There was a preconceived idea of the way a building should look. We rebelled against that to make a new statement about the look of things.'

Hadid's recent work faces up to the potential conflict between building as statement and building as functional object. The issues had already been addressed, of course, in such built projects as the Vitra Fire Station and the iba housing in Berlin. Yet both these schemes were to some extent special cases, showcasing Hadid's approach. More recently, Hadid has been active in competitions where buildability is a key issue and her work is pitted against that of very different, more obviously 'pragmatic', traditions.

The lf (Landscape Formation - see Working Detail, p36-37) One building at Weil-am-Rhein, the small German town famous as the home of Vitra, is clearly related to the closeby Fire Station. Vitra's Rolf Fehlbaum was closely involved in the commission to Hadid, but the client for this modestly scaled (and, at £1.2 million, priced) pavilion, designed for Weil's 1999 garden festival, was the municipality. The site was a disused gravel quarry, which has been transformed into a new public park. Compared with the Fire Station, lf One is more relaxed, more sensuous and more clearly intent on establishing a relationship with context. Any idea that Hadid's work is 'of the soil', in the Arts and Crafts sense, would produce a vehement denial from the architect. Yet the building seems to 'emerge' from the ground: it is in the tradition of Taliesin West rather than Farnsworth House. The contours of the site are brilliantly used. The building is itself part of the network of paths around the park. Paths become roofs. The building is, on one level, a bridge, on the other an inhabited mound. Hadid admits that the project is one of a sequence in which the landscape and natural world are evoked, producing a new fluidity in her architecture: 'whereas architecture generally channels, segments and closes, landscape opens, offers and suggests'. Expressed in those terms, Hadid's new direction sounds like an enrichment and deepening of ideas which have preoccupied her for 20 years.

lf One will be retained by the town as a permanent amenity after the closure of the 1999 festival. It is built of concrete for hard wear and a long life, with few trimmings - 'there was no desire for, and no budget for, materials fetishism,' says project architect Markus Dochantschi. Looking at its forceful shapes, one can understand why Hadid so admires London's Queen Elizabeth Hall/Hayward Gallery complex - itself, in essence, a landscape project. But the South Bank is a place of steps and staircases: the key theme at Weil is the ramp - late

twentieth century connections instead of 60s confrontations.

Although suburban in its location, lf One clearly has implications for the urban architecture of the future and underlines Hadid's frustration at the lack of opportunities to work in central London - the South Bank could have been a breakthrough. For the moment, Hadid's most important British project is the Mind Zone in the Millennium Dome. The form of Rogers' great tent imposes a discipline of its own. At £5 million - more than four times the price of the Weil pavilion - the Mind Zone is a building in its own right, planned to handle up to 5000 visitors per hour. Hadid's team feels 'very lucky' that the project, though relocated within the Dome, has not been significantly compromised in realisation. Hadid herself, mindful of the radicalising impact of great exhibitions, feels hopeful that the structure will advance her cause in Britain. The theme, basically about perception, seems well-suited to Hadid - as Graham Modlen memorably expresses it, the designs will be 'like walking into a brain scan'. Construction work is now well under way.

The Contemporary Arts Center (cac) in Cincinnati, Ohio, due to start on site later this year, will be the first art museum in the us designed by a woman and Hadid's first building in that country. If the Weil-am- Rhein pavilion reflects Hadid's musings on nature and the landscape, the £16.7 million, five-storey cac is very much an urban beast. The site is an 1000m2 lot on a downtown street corner, close to the offices of Hustler magazine. Founded 60 years ago, the centre has been camping out for the last 30 years in part of an office block - and producing excellent, sometimes controversial, exhibitions. Won in competition, with Libeskind and Tschumi on the final shortlist, the cac scheme both challenges the established form of the city and responds to it. This dichotomy is expressed in the two, very different, street facades. On the south, to 6th Street, there are offices as well as the edges of galleries, giving an 'inhabited', busy appearance which is typically urban. To the east, on Walnut Street, the frontage is a sculptural composition, abstract but providing a reflection of the spaces behind. The galleries (1900m2 of them, all intended for temporary exhibitions) are defined by Hadid as 'like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, made up of solids and voids'. Ramps will provide links in what is a highly vertical diagram. The lofty, fully glazed lobby is intended to be an extension of the sidewalk, a public place suitable for performances and installations. From the street, the floor plane of the lobby swoops steadily upwards in what Hadid describes as an 'urban carpet' leading to the circulation ramps. The 'urban carpet' is perceived as a projection from the street grid outside. With its welcoming, beckoning presence, the cac is participatory and democratic above all else.

The scheme is not only striking, it is equally technically ingenious, not least in its management of natural light, which is filtered into the galleries by means of great voids cut vertically through the structure. For Hadid, Cincinnati is 'something of a breakthrough - the typically American enthusiasm of the clients is really encouraging to us'.

Hadid's work demands - and on occasions gets - inspiring clients, like the progressive vice-chancellor of the University of North London. Earlier this year, Hadid won the competition for a £1 million bridge link joining together the diverse parts of unl's inner-city Holloway Road campus. Won over schemes by Will Alsop and Chris Wilkinson, the project is really a new urban layer rather than just a bridge. 'It's a very real proposal, though there is a lot of homework still to be done,' says Graham Modlen. The way in which the link relates to the street is a major issue, since nobody wants an isolated 1960s-style walkway system. Could it become, in effect, an inhabited bridge? (Hadid's ideas for such a structure were the highlight of the 1996 exhibition at the Royal Academy, organised with the encouragement of the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer.)

Of all Hadid's recent successes, it is in the competition for the new Centre of Contemporary Arts in Rome which is most significant. The field was strong, including Koolhaas, Holl, Nouvel, Toyo Ito and Souto de Moura - the last-named being on the final shortlist with Koolhaas and Hadid (working with Patrik Schumacher). The site is far removed from touristic Rome, way up the via Flaminia, the long straight avenue leading north from Porta Pia. Nervi's Olympic Stadium and the Fascist Foro Italico are close by and something of a new cultural quarter is developing. The new

centre is intended to house a respectable permanent collection of twentieth century art, currently scattered around other locations, as well as hosting major visiting shows. It will fill an obvious gap in Rome's museums network.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters