Friday, January 15, 2010

Designer of the Month: Zaha Hadid

Week 2: schooling and artwork

As I mentioned last week, the Baghdad-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid graduated from the Architectural Association School in London (the AA) before going to on become the internationally-known, Pritzker Prize-winning architect that she is today. This week, I want to talk about Hadid's years at school and the beginning of her architectural practice, and how they shaped her aesthetic, as well as her artwork, which has similarly played an important role in her architectural designs.

Zaha Hadid, The World (89 Degrees), 1983. Courtesy of Ego Design.

As the Design Museum of London explains about the importance of the Architectural Association School in shaping Zaha Hadid's architectural style:
The AA of the 1970s was the perfect place for ambitious, independently minded would-be architects to flourish. Under Alvin Boyarski as director, it became the most fertile place for the architectural imagination, home to a precocious generation of students and teachers who are now household names, such as Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Will Alsop and Bernard Tschumi. It was a period when pre-1968 optimistic modernism was being abandoned amid economic uncertainty and cultural conservatism. In architecture too, democratic modernism was perceived to have failed and there was a swing towards historicist post-modernism and conservation. The AA’s theorists did the opposite. They rejected kitsch post-modernism to become still more modernist. Like snakes shedding their skins, they discarded the failed utopian projects of “first” modernism to think up a new modernism with a more sophisticated idea of history and human identity, an architecture embodying modernity’s chaos and disjuncture in its very shape.[1]
In her third year at the AA, Hadid was inspired by architect Rem Koolhaas, a recent addition to the faculty.[2] After attending several of Koolhaas's lectures, Hadid asked to switch into the unit that both he and Elia Zenghelis were running, and it was during this time that Hadid seems to have found her inspiration.[3] She recalls:
Most of the work was spent studying project of Koolhaas's and Tschumi's, among other architects, for building that had no hope of being built. Perhaps because there was so little hope, the whole atmosphere was super-charged and incredibly intense - five-hour lectures, all-night drawing sessions, wild, crazy ideas. These people took risks, and that showed me the value of taking risks - of putting yourself on the line.[4]
This idea of risk taking and experimentation would become a huge part of what Hadid did as an architect. In addition, Hadid was inspired by her study of the Russian Supremitist movement, and Kazimir Malevich's designs for abstract buildings in particular - Hadid came to see it as her project to complete Malevich's work by designing an abstact building, a process that she would strive to refine over the next decade.[5] As Hadid explaines about the freedom that she found through abstraction, "I wanted to capture a line, and the way a line changes and distorts when you try to follow it through a building, as it passes through the regions of light and shaddow. You know when you look through a building from a window on the outside, and the line you are following is distorted by the space? That was what I was trying to see with my painting and my whooshings" ("whoosings" are Hadid's method of softening the ends of lines by painting over them with a water-soaked brush).[6]
Zaha Hadid, The Peak, 1983. Painting for the competition-winning proposal for a sports center in Hong Kong. Courtesy of the Zaha Hadid exhibition blog.
Between 1977, when she finished school, and 1994, when her first design was acutally built (Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany) Hadid was considered a "paper architect" - creating profusely, garnering professorships and prizes, but never getting to build anything.[7] While her designs were not yet being built, this was an interesting time for Hadid. After school, Koolhaas offered Hadid a job as a partner in his and Elia Zenghelis’s new firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, although she stayed only briefly, moving on to teaching at the AA while working on developing her own unique stype of neo-modernist architecture.[8] And what this aesthetic involved, more than anything else, was abstraction. For years, when submitting designs for a buidling, Hadid would present abstract drawings and paintings to convey her ideas, because she truly believed that abstraction was the best way to capture and bring together multiple perspectives in two dimensions.[9] So in some ways, it's no wonder that it took so long for Hadid's designs to actually be built - not only were clients uncertain of this unorthodox design method, but many people didn't believe that her designs were even buildable. It's probably not a coincidence that around 1990, when computer-aided design technology was created, allowing Hadid to not only draw in a 3-D format but to also show the buildability of her designs, that Hadid became more than just a paper architect.[10]
Zaha Hadid Architects, Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Courtesy of the Zaha Hadid exhibition blog.
It was a slow process, but Hadid gradually began winning clents who were willing to spend money to realise her peculiar aesthetic.[11] As the Design Museum of London explains, "It was a stuttering start. Her first big success, The Peak, a spa planned for Hong Kong, was never built...Hadid’s first built project, The Fire Station at the production complex of the Vitra office furniture group at Weil-am-Rhein on the German-Swiss border was a formal success but not a functional one. The fire service moved out and the building was converted into a chair museum."[12] As we're going to see next week, however, Hadid's vision has, in fact, been realized, and we'll look at some of Hadid's successes: the Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, in Cincinnati (2003) and the BMW Plant Central Building, in Leipzig (2005).

[1] Design Museum online, "Zaha Hadid: Architect (1950-)," (accessed January 13, 2010).
[2] John Seabrook, "The Abstractionist: Zaha Hadid's unfettered invention," The New Yorker December 21 & 28, 2009, 118.
[3] Ibid., 118.
[4] Ibid., 118.
[5] Ibid., 118.
[6] Ibid., 118.
[7] Gary Indiana, "A Conversation With Architect Zaha Hadid," New York Magazine, (accessed January 13, 2010).
[8] Design Museum online, "Zaha Hadid: Architect (1950-)," (accessed January 13, 2010).
[9] John Seabrook, "The Abstractionist: Zaha Hadid's unfettered invention," The New Yorker December 21 & 28, 2009, 114-5.
[10] Ibdi., 116.
[11] Design Museum online, "Zaha Hadid: Architect (1950-)," (accessed January 14, 2010).
[12] Ibid.

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