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Love it or hate it, Zaha pushes the boundaries

Zaha Hadid’s televised Stirling Prize win promotes the commodification of architecture, says Christine Murray

Even the most cynical architect was moved by Zaha Hadid’s off-camera acceptance speech. In her refreshingly frank and ebullient address, she talked about how much receiving the Stirling Prize meant to her, after so many years of being passed over by the British award.

‘People often ask me, why do I stay in London?’ she said. ‘It does mean a lot to me, to receive the prize in the country in which I have chosen to live.’

The Stirling Prize judges say it was the wow-factor and sheer originality of MAXXI that led to their unanimous ‘secret ballot’ decision. Unlike some naysayers, the judges insist the prize was for the building itself, and not offered as an olive branch to Hadid.

What does it say about the profession, that Hadid’s MAXXI has been chosen to represent the best of British architecture in front of hundreds of thousands of television viewers?

Love it or hate it, Hadid’s work has pushed the boundaries of engineering, given buildings a cool-factor among the young set and made architects a respected and credible addition to the design industry. Hadid has been one of the key players in the commodification of architecture. Her buildings are luxury goods that people want to buy, created by Zaha, the brand.

Is that a bad thing? I had an interesting discussion with Mark Brearley of Design for London about the relationship between architecture and design. Brearley feels architects, in their bid to avoid marginalisation, are too keen to distance themselves from design industry, and align themselves too readily with the construction industry.

Not every practice should present itself as part of the design industry, he says, although some should, while others should market themselves as project managers, experts in sustainability, education specialists or masterplanners. In other words, the profession should diversify. Practices should specialise to survive, with a brand strategy that clearly describes what they do best.

MAXXI wasn’t my choice. As I wrote last week, I felt the precision of David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum told a quieter, once-in-a-lifetime story about the diligence of architects and their ability to be both modern and sensitive to historical context.

But it turns out the Neues Museum wasn’t in the final running. The judges have revealed that dRMM’s Clapham Manor Primary School was the strongest contender for the prize after MAXXI – a revelation that no doubt shocked the bookmakers, who placed nearly even odds on Neues and MAXXI.

That dRMM came so close is of consolation to architects working in the education sector. As writer Alain de Botton said to me on the night, he was hoping for a school to win ‘for political reasons’.

It wasn’t to be this year, but as Hadid said to dRMM and DSDHA in her speech, ‘your time will come’.

Readers' comments (2)

  • John Kellett

    Commodification of architecture?
    I think Mark Brearley may be missing the accepted definition of architecture: 'firmness', 'commodity' and 'delight'; with all 3 being equal. To specialise in 'delight' produces buildings as sculpture, to specialise in 'firmness' produces just buildings.
    To my mind a building is only a work of architecture if it is buildable, meets the brief and looks good.
    I remain to be convinced that Zaha Haidid's work meets each Vitruvian principle in equal measure. It's very sculptural but does it function any the better for it?

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  • I think it's unfair to accuse Zaha's win of promoting the commodification of architecture (in the orginal Frampton-esque meaning of the term). She won because of the scale of the ambition of this particular work (as compared to the Neus) and (whatever the judges say) because she had been nominated 3 times before. Zaha has been remarkably consistent over decades. Certain architects who can only dream of receiving the commissions that she does always accuse her of somehow being in league with the dark forces of the world. Is she any different to Michelangelo working for the Medici? No. The fact is that architects have been 'used' for hundreds of years. Lets see if those architects who always seem to talk and write more than they build can remain as consistent should they ever receive commissions of a similar size.

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