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Volume 53, Number 6November/December 2002

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Written by Louis Werner
Photographs courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects, London

Zaha Hadid has a problem, but it is one that other architects might envy. Having won fame—some might say notoriety—as a "paper architect" whose designs left critics awestruck but were widely considered unbuildable, she is about to do some serious ribbon-cutting. Set to open soon are her arts centers in both Cincinnati, Ohio and Rome; her ski-jump tower in Innsbruck; her highway bridge in Abu Dhabi; her ferry terminal in Salerno; her tram station in Strasbourg and her science museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. So instead of facing the critics one project at a time, her work is about to be judged almost all at once.

Herbert Muschamp, who reviews architecture for The New York Times, recently wrote that with these projects "Hadid has made the transition from visionary to builder, but the achievement still seems precarious. We're curious to know if she has attained the world of building with her vision still intact."

To understand Zaha Hadid, one must first recognize that the narrow definition of "architect"—one who designs buildings—does not encompass her range. She works fluidly within intersecting worlds of art, architecture, ideas and design rather in the way of Renaissance masters. Whether it is paint on canvas, steel and concrete, glazed ceramics or a sterling silver teapot, her work can be found on art gallery walls and restaurant table settings. It even surrounds pump and ladder trucks, in the form of a fire station with a distinctive flying-wedge portico in Weil am Rhein, Germany. That building, completed in 1993, was for years Hadid's only built work.

As a further analogy to the Renaissance, when frequently the same artist designed the buildings as well as painted and carved the art within them, Hadid has now taken to designing art museums in addition to her previous creation of interior spaces for the exhibition of art, most recently at the London Millennium Dome. Her temporary-display interiors have also included jewelry showcases in private salesrooms, stage decor for a world tour of the rock band Pet Shop Boys and a music-video kiosk. The list clearly puts her outside easy categorization.

Born in Iraq in 1950, Hadid graduated from American University in Beirut with a degree in mathematics. She moved to London in the early 1970's, where she studied under Rem Koolhaas at the hothouse center for British avant-garde modernism, the Architectural Association's School of Architecture. In 1978, only a year out of graduate school, she was selected to participate in a design exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum.

Hadid's descriptions of her work can be both intimidatingly blunt—"I do not want to build a vase for someone else's flowers"—and as maddeningly abstract as some of her drawings—"the internal geometric complexity is a condensation of the orientations of the surrounding contexts." She largely shuns interviews, preferring to stay focused on an intense production schedule, and chooses to let her work do the speaking. For architectural critics, this makes it doubly difficult to take her measure, because so little of her work has been built. Her reputation, until recently, rested almost entirely on buildings that could be considered only in the forms of computer animations, plans, models or conceptual art.

In the 1980's, Hadid rocketed to the top of the architectural avant-garde largely on the strength of designs influenced by the early 20th-century Russian movements Constructivism and Suprematism, both of which tried to assimilate ideals of abstraction, geometry and function. Painters, designers and architects all took part in a vigorous dialogue about how to organize space in a way that opened the door to nothing less than a social and esthetic utopia.

Suprematism's foremost advocate, Kasimir Malevich, wrote in a 1928 manifesto, "The Non-Objective World," that "we can only perceive space when we break free from the earth, when the point of support disappears." In her design for the Peak Club in Hong Kong, Hadid called for the building to appear to fall off the edge of a cliff in a series of cascading floors. Like much of her work, the design tried to fragment and reconfigure conventional architectural geometry.

The influence of another Russian theorist, El Lissitzky, appears in Hadid's thinking about art spaces. In 1923 Lissitzky designed an exhibition room called "Projects for the Affirmation of the New"; it was aimed at making art fit more comfortably within architectural modernism. "The great international picture-reviews resemble a zoo," he wrote dismissively of past museum designs, "where the visitors are roared at by a thousand different beasts at the same time. In my room, the objects should not all suddenly attack the viewer."

Hadid too has designed interiors meant for exhibiting art, foremost among them a reshaping of the Guggenheim Museum's great vortical lobby as a showcase for the very same Russian artists who so influenced her, in a 1992 exhibition called "The Great Utopia." It was an unexpected feat for an architect known for broken, compound angles and acute interstices to rework a smoothly circular space. Her use of temporary panels and backdrops helped each work of art define its own meaning in a way Frank Lloyd Wright's unbroken wall surface could never have done.

Little overlap is apparent between Hadid's early esthetic and her homeland's traditions of organic, continuous geometric motifs woven through architecture and applied to utilitarian objects. Nonetheless, her desire for an overall design into which objects fit practically and pleasingly is consonant with her Arab roots. This approach translated well in Japan, where she designed the interior of the popular Monsoon Restaurant as well as its furniture and table settings.

As a matter of record, Hadid's former reputation as a "paper architect"—a pejorative in the field—was not entirely earned. In 1994, she won a rigorously juried competition for the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales that fell victim to cultural politics. Her asymmetrical concert hall, surrounded by glass-faced rehearsal rooms (a concept she called a "glass necklace"), stunned the London art critics as much as it enraged the local tabloids, one of which said the land would be better used for a football field than an opera house.

A visit to Hadid's studio, a vaulted former basketball court in London's working-class Clerkenwell section, is both a multimedia and a multinational experience. Lebanese, Cypriots, Mexicans and Koreans work beside Belgians, Austrians and lifelong Londoners. Computer programmers, pen-and-ink draftsmen and model-makers pass their work and ideas back and forth across narrow tables. Hadid sits among them for close face-to-face encounters with her staff. Her paintings—which she calls "testing fields"—line the walls. A tall stack of sketchbooks takes up much of her desktop.

At a project's initial stage, Hadid works on the concept abstractly, using black ink on lined white notebook paper. Then she reverses herself with white ink on black paper, coloring in planar surfaces in acrylic to accentuate the space's solids and voids. To a layperson's eye, these sketches resemble a science fiction nightscape more than a building in the making. To Hadid, they are "a means of investigation," a way of "understanding space through painting."

From paper, she moves to the three-dimensionality of computer animations and solid models. Model-maker Florian Migsch says that "carving her ideas" into shapes is a great challenge, and his boss clearly does not accept mediocrity. His workspace is strewn with the detritus of his first tries.

So from paper, Fome-Cor and bytes, Hadid is now turning more than ever to concrete, steel and glass. For Cincinnati's Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2003, she appears to have taken a step away from her Constructivist predilections. Vertically, the building consists of seven floors and three mezzanines, each perforated with asymmetrical voids that permit the flow of light, air and sound among them. The back wall curls forward, toward the interior, at ground level to become the first floor, and it continues out, unbroken, past the façade wall to the sidewalk. Hadid uses the metaphor of "an urban carpet" to describe it. Similarly, the upper stories are each "cushions, or places to sit." This conjuring of comfort is one that might easily apply to a Middle Eastern living room, and in contrast to the hard-edged coolness often evoked by Modernism, it makes a setting for contemporary art seem less intimidating. The world of cyberspace also comes to mind, as the overlapping of partially open floors, through which others are always visible, could also stand as a metaphor for the layering of a website. Muschamp loved it. He called it "a breakthrough design, transforming contemporary conceptions of space as radically as the innovations of Alberti and Brunelleschi changed space in the Renaissance."

Hadid's newest major commission is the National Center for Contemporary Arts in Rome, whose construction is due to begin in 2003. She exhibited her plans and renderings for it as part of a retrospective held last summer at the Center's current site. In these plans, she breaks completely with the sharp, angular surfaces of her previous work, using instead a ground-hugging, curvy, fluid concept that nonetheless retains the complex, intersecting, kinetic character of earlier commissions. Clearly a fan of all this, Muschamp wrote that "the National Center looks more woven than designed.... Instead of dividing spaces into identical cells, the design weaves them into a subtle background rhythm of convex and concave."

This kind of control of free-flowing space for art has a precedent in Hadid's work: In Weil am Rhein, Germany, for a 1999 exhibition building called Land Form One, she created a low-rise glass front that emerges from the earth along a slightly inclined concrete ramp. Its respect for topography is absolute, almost to the point of being invisible from the air. Across town, in stark contrast, stands the widely publicized and dynamically angular Vitra fire station.

Beyond the occasional metaphor, Hadid makes few apparent concessions to her Arab roots. A bridge she designed in Abu Dhabi is simply a sleek wonder of international functionalism. Her design submission for an Islamic Art Museum in Doha, Qatar, did perhaps echo the curves and colors of sand dunes, but it carried none of the expected architectural references of Middle Eastern domes, arches or courtyards. Her selection as a jury member in 1998 and a steering committee member in 2001 for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture did not imply that her own esthetic responded, as the award's mission statement reads, to the "cultural and spiritual expectations" of Muslims; rather simply it honored her as one qualified to discern that in others.

Though Hadid does admit to the influence of Arabic calligraphy in her more recent projects, notably Rome, she is, in the last analysis, sui generis, part of that small upper echelon of world-class architects whose buildings can turn their host cities into geographical celebrities, as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao, Spain. "Anything Hadid builds," wrote Wall Street Journal architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, "is bound to raise a city's cultural visibility."

"Her forms open western minds to the geometric languages inscribed over many layers of history," wrote Muschamp. "Even if we don't take the trouble to decipher their content, the visual babel is a wonder of the modern world."

Louis Werner is a filmmaker and writer living in New York, and a frequent contributor to Saudi Aramco World as well as Americas and Archaeology.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the November/December 2002 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 2002 images.