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BOOKS: Coming to terms with construction

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COLIN DAVIES Zaha Hadid: The Complete Buildings and Projects Essay by Aaron Betsky. Thames & Hudson, 1998. 176pp. £16.95

In 1982 a young, Iraqi-born, aa-trained architect won a competition to design an exclusive resort club on the Peak in Hong Kong. Her scheme thrilled those architects, students and critics who were becoming bored by High-Tech and Post-Modernism. It was an astonishing display of explosive creativity. A bundle of inhabited beams thrown down on to the hilltop, it seemed to smash every architectural convention to smithereens in one violent blow.

If you could untangle the complexity of the plans and sections, you discovered that they did indeed represent a realisable project and, though many declared it unbuildable, the engineers said otherwise. Beautiful paintings accompanied the project - big, colourful landscapes in which buildings and parts of buildings floated and swooped over the city like alien visitors from a planet that had conquered gravity. Zaha Hadid's glittering international career was launched.

Sadly, the club was never built. In the 16 years since, Hadid has built only two substantial permanent buildings: the little-known iba housing scheme in Berlin, completed in 1993, and the famous Vitra Fire Station of 1994. But the projects have continued to pour out. Sixty-five of them have now been collected in a single volume and for the first time we have an opportunity to assess all of her oeuvre.

Aaron Betsky's introduction struggles valiantly to explain the work, to categorise it formally and thematically, and to tease out lines of development. But it is a struggle. Hadid the painter is constantly inventive, deploying her repertoire of beams and boomerangs, spirals and ribbons, in a world of pure form in which the viewpoint is constantly shifting and nothing stands still. But what about Hadid the architect? Has there been any development in the architectural sense? How much development can there be in a string of unbuilt projects?

Architecture is form and space and light and movement, but it is also construction. When the projects become real, when stillness descends and gravity weighs in, the magic is dispelled. The floating forms become earthbound, like the concrete walls and canopies of Vitra, awkwardly propped and crammed with reinforcement. In some of the later projects the effort to translate painting into building seems strained. Structure is reluctantly added to, rather than integrated in, the design.

Look, for example, at the Victoria and Albert Museum extension with its alien four-square column grid, or the clumsy lattice girders of the Habitable Bridge project, or the rather superficial attempt to deconstruct the New York skyscraper in the 42nd Street Hotel project. Often it seems that Hadid is in denial about construction. It is not yet an essential part of her architecture. She seems to see it as someone else's responsibility and if it compromises her designs then it is their fault, not hers.

But there are signs of a coming to terms, of an acceptance of the inevitable limitations of construction and, more importantly, of its architectural potential. The best projects in this book are the believable ones - the low ribbon landscape of the Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha with its simple repetitive frames, or the crouching carapaces of Philharmonic Hall in Luxembourg. It is interesting that these recent projects are presented mainly through models, computer perspectives and orthogonal drawings rather than self-consciously artistic paintings.

If there is one major complaint about the book as a whole, it is that the paintings tend to dominate at the expense of plans and sections, which are often too small to read. Nevertheless this is a welcome overview of Hadid's work, in a surprisingly straightforward, compact and affordable form, with well-edited project descriptions written by the architect herself.

Colin Davies teaches at the University of North London

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