Zaha Hadid's Flying Ferocity

Hadid's early design for the fire station for the Vitra furniture complex in Germany. Sharp edges on its overhanging canopy suggest the urgency of its purpose.
Hadid's early design for the fire station for the Vitra furniture complex in Germany. Sharp edges on its overhanging canopy suggest the urgency of its purpose. (Christian Richters/Zaha Hadid Architects)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

NEW YORK -- When Zaha Hadid's new building for the Cincinnati Center for Contemporary Art opened in 2003, it was clear her long years in the wilderness, as an architect primarily famous for not getting her buildings built, were over.

Hadid, a drafter of rigorously utopian visions, whose drawings often look like a cross between something by Kandinsky and a cartoon still from "The Jetsons," was finally seeing her theorizing made real. It was the first major museum in this country designed by a woman. A year later she would be the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize.

And now, in the exhibition spaces framed by the gently sloping walkway of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York, there is a major retrospective of Hadid's work. She's arrived, and the view of architecture she has defined on paper, over the past decades, is about to become a part of our built world, and not just in provincial cities such as Cincinnati and the industrial burgs of Germany where her early work found homes.

The first impression is how very unlike the rest of her vision the Cincinnati museum is. Hemmed in by other buildings, sitting on a claustrophobic urban footprint, it is essentially a box with protruding rectilinear slabs, a bit like a poorly loaded hay truck. From the outside it has a cool, even fusty dignity, and little of the electric sense of speed and motion that defines so much of Hadid's work. For that, one has to go to the paintings, drawings and models for the center, where the museum isn't so much a building as it is a focal point for Hadid's larger urban fantasy. Only in one of her famous "aerial perspective" paintings -- which aren't just a view from above, but a view from above, at night, at 200 miles an hour -- does the building feel completely of a piece with the well-articulated modernist world of Hadid's mind.

And there's the central problem, so huge and so vulgar that one hesitates to mention it. But the gulf between what Hadid sees, and enables others to see in her beautifully crafted but highly distorted drawings and paintings, and the realized architecture that results from these two-dimensional fantasias, is vast.

The buildings, the few that have been built, seem to exist in a slower, duller universe. Someone has turned the lights on, and the music off, and suddenly the world no longer twinkles, and Hadid's buildings no longer feel quite so much like spaceships rocketing to galaxies unknown.

But you hate to think this thought while looking at her work. Like the music of Anton Webern, a vast amount of whimsy and violence has been distilled in Hadid's imagined architecture. She deals in shards and ribbons and spaces built up like sedimental layers making new topographic maps. You have the sense that Mies van der Rohe's glass and steel boxes have been blasted apart, leaving a wreckage of small fragments that, nonetheless, recall their origins in something orderly and rational.

Interior spaces are hard to tell from exterior ones in Hadid's designs for the Peak, a never-built complex in Hong Kong.
Interior spaces are hard to tell from exterior ones in Hadid's designs for the Peak, a never-built complex in Hong Kong.( - Zaha Hadid Architects)
Plans for a complex of buildings on a hill in Hong Kong (The Peak, never built) are as dizzying and edgy as watching someone throwing cleavers -- sharp, angular slabs of steel strike the earth with great force, embedding into the ground and slicing into one another. It's difficult to tell interior spaces from exterior ones, and even the most traditionally rendered views are drawn from extreme vantage points above or below the buildings they represent. The city of Hong Kong has itself been transformed, into a river of hard-edged fragments flowing to the ocean.

This last transformation, of the entire Hong Kong landscape, shows the disturbing intensity and ambition of Hadid's understanding of architecture. Buildings are meant to catalyze cities into a higher state of consciousness. What were once amorphous entities with biological contours are distended and refashioned until they form the city of the future, a place of impossible spaces, transparent buildings, huge highways filled with the superhuman bustle of space-age business. It's encouraging to see that some architects still think big, yet there is a lot of science-fiction hokum underneath it all.

So many of the basic fallacies of bad science fiction are due primarily to the question of speed. It doesn't really matter whether a spaceship is constructed like a fat round loaf of Italian peasant bread or a sleek shiny French croissant: It's going to slice through the airless void just as fast one way or another. Yet for some reason, in bad science fiction, they all have pointed prows and wings and stabilizers. And space travelers flit about the universe in these unnecessarily aerodynamic craft rather the way one might bop around Europe, on luxury trains that connect the whole thing in a matter of hours or days. Next stop, Pluto. Zaha Hadid's architecture has been rigged up in the same world of contradictions. Buildings, anchored to the earth, look like they're meant to fly. And cities, which of late we've grown to love for their "walkability," are recast with a very old-fashioned sense of hustle and high-speed fluidity. Even her designs for a car are essentially Buck Rogers material.

Fantasies of speed and architecture are hard to disentangle. Monumental architecture and planned urban landscapes can be experienced as a whole only if you move through them with enough speed to experience their parts as a single whole -- rather than a series of large and separate objects, punctuated by dispiriting walks through inhumanely large spaces. Cities like Brasilia, or plazas like the huge New York state government complex built in the 1970s in Albany, require speed to be digestible -- the sort of architecture that makes you wish you could see it from a helicopter. Architecture also invites the mind to speed up time on larger scales. As the most permanent of arts, it makes us wish we could look through the time-lapse lens of history to see a structure's life on the fourth dimension: What did Chartres look like when it was new, and what will Gehry's Bilbao look like when it's old?

Hadid embeds visual suggestions of speed in almost everything she designs. She has said that dragging images across the glass of a photocopier as it scanned them was a fundamental breakthrough in her work. One wonders if slow-shutter-speed images of traffic at night also played a part in the sinuous parallel plans of her designs for a national center for contemporary art in Rome (an ongoing project). Even her current work on skyscrapers, which pose a particular challenge for this very horizontal-thinking artist, suggests that they have been pulled from or shot out of the ground, as if someone had taken a Zaha Hadid building and yanked it, by its hair, from the earth.

Hadid's early design for the fire station for the Vitra furniture complex in Germany. Sharp edges on its overhanging canopy suggest the urgency of its purpose.
Hadid's early design for the fire station for the Vitra furniture complex in Germany. Sharp edges on its overhanging canopy suggest the urgency of its purpose.( - Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects)
These markers of motion and speed give her strongest work a sinuous beauty. Her early fire station for the Vitra furniture complex in Germany suggests the urgency of its purpose with deliriously sharp edges on its overhanging canopy. For all the violence suggested in other buildings, the long, low exhibition space she designed for an environmental research facility in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is so lovingly nestled into the surrounding greenery it seems to be asleep. A ski jump she built in Innsbruck, Austria, has a playful, creature-from-another planet look, an absurd space for an absurd sport.

But what of her plans for Zhivopisnaya Tower, a residential complex planned for Moscow? Digital renderings suggest a massive, faceless structure with an industrial blankness, its only distinguishing feature a sloping, roller-coastery appendage meant to tie to the flatness of the land. It's easy to imagine that in the distant future Zhivopisnaya Tower might well be mistakenly lumped with the Moscow architecture of 50 years ago, that it will feel like just another colossal imposition on the earth, rather than something that liberated anyone to live better. Architecture, if it's worth bothering with, will always involve some human engineering. If great buildings don't invite us to change in some way, why build them? It's a matter of how much basic empathy the architect brings to the dangerous project of retrofitting the human animal. Here's Hadid talking about a client for whom she designed furniture (she's also designed flatware and lighting fixtures): "The client was very interesting," she said. "He's very young and courageous, but he has mixed feelings about his courage." In the end, she said, he was "too scared to use it."

That language closely mirrors the language of Freudian therapy: An important energy, courage, is conflicted or repressed and the patient neurotically refuses to sit on his own sofa. The language of liberation permeates the rhetoric of Hadid, and there is a terrifying libidinal energy in her imploded, exploded and shattered spaces. What someone who seeks therapy dreams of -- an eruption of new energy and a blasting away of old, destructive habits -- is something generally to be dreaded when applied to cities, or civilization as a whole. The new energy unleashed is almost always more destructive than creative, and the old habits that are blasted away are blasted away too indiscriminately to preserve what's best.

By the time you've followed Hadid's work from her student days to her latest projects, studied her paintings and her designs for cars and tableware and space-age kitchens, you end up hoping that architectural fantasy will remain a form of personal therapy for Hadid. And that her grandest visions will never become real. It's comforting to know that her mind is in constant rebellion against the force of gravity, the habits of humanity and basic laws of engineering. So long as that rebellion remains in her studio, on paper, or molded in cardboard, it has an old-fashioned intellectual and artistic bravura to it. And so long as it takes shape, in the real world, in temperate visions such as the museum in Cincinnati, it's a benign force. But unleashed on the scale that she clearly craves, it would be a dreadful liberation indeed.

Zaha Hadid, a 30-year retrospective, is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through Oct. 25.

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