Zaha Hadid: A visionary whose ideas don’t always make sense
To admire the splendour of the prodigiously expensive Aquatic Centre, built for the 2012 London Olympics, you have to forgive its shortcomings……
Zaha Hadid, who critics say sacrifices costs and practicality in projects to achieve her design vision.
To admire the splendour of the prodigiously expensive Aquatic Centre, built for the 2012 London Olympics, you have to forgive its shortcomings. Its roof structure required 10 times as much steel as that of the velodrome, which torpedoed the organisers’ claims for sustainability.
During the Games, the need for thousands of temporary additional seats – which was always a basic part of the brief – was accommodated with extreme awkwardness, which meant that whatever might be good about Zaha Hadid’s design could not be fully appreciated until after the Olympic crowds had left. There were complaints about sightlines that, even though in line with the official specifications, cut off views of the top of the diving board from the upper tiers, in a way that seemed gratuitous. In its current state there is some confusion: what the architecture strongly suggests is the front door, beneath a boldly overhanging portico, is not in fact the front door, and visitors have to seek out a more obscure entrance around the side. The building’s huge glass wall is now covered with an unsightly slather of blue plastic. For which the official explanation – courtesy of the London Legacy Development Corporation – is “to allow greater control of the light”.
In the highly expensive Riverside Museum of Transport in Glasgow, also designed by Hadid, exhibits hang in space in a fashion that, while spectacular, means aficionados can’t get close views of the objects. The very expensive Maxxi art gallery in Rome is exceptionally challenging to anyone who might want to display art there, with sloping walls, and cavernous spaces interrupted by obtrusive ramps. The prodigiously expensive – yes, there is a theme here – Olympic stadium in Tokyo, now cancelled to fierce protests from Hadid and supporters such as Richard Rogers, was attacked by leading Japanese architects for its impact on green space and historic buildings.
In these cases, responsibility for budgetary and technical flaws tends to be a complex and contentious matter, involving several parties. When the Aquatic Centre costs soared, they were attributed to changes of brief and the incorporation of a new bridge into the project. With the Tokyo stadium, Hadid’s office say the clients failed to take into account construction costs inflation. Some of these issues, such as the ways to display cars and planes in Glasgow, or art in Rome, might be said to have a subjective element. But there is no question that Hadid’s approach to designing buildings makes them more difficult and expensive to build, and increases the likelihood of compromises with function. One of her greatest fans, architect Piers Gough, said as much in a BBC Imagine profile of Hadid. A simple curve, he said, costs money to build; complex curves, going in several directions at once and following irregular geometries, cost a lot of money. Hadid’s projects use a lot of such curves, as well as ambitious cantilevers, wide spans, frameless glass and other budget boosters. In her approach to design, the shape comes first, the means of achieving it follow.
I know this from my own experiences of working with Hadid and her office from 2004-08, on the never-realised new home for the Architecture Foundation. The budget galloped over the horizon. It would have required laying off a member of staff from what was a small organisation to pay just for the window-cleaning bills for its extensive and hard-to-reach glazing; at the same time the administrative offices were given no views of the outside. The café would have been impossible to keep warm in winter. Again, the reasons for these problems were complex, and many parties made questionable judgments, but they did also have something to do with the attitude of the architects. All of which might prompt the casual observer to wonder why Hadid’s office continues to attract commissions of immense significance, and why she has been awarded the Royal Gold Medal for architecture.
Surely, goes the reasonable argument, an architect’s job is to provide a building that works, meets its brief, and is on time and on budget. It’s hard to argue otherwise, except that this reasoning would have strangled at birth many of the world’s greatest and most popular buildings: the Palace of Westminster, St Pancras station, the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, most of the work of Antoni Gaudi.
Andrea Palladio’s beautiful church of Il Redentore in Venice was seven times over budget and had lousy acoustics. Gothic cathedrals had the habit of collapsing. Nor is Hadid alone among her peers. Celebrated architects such as Santiago Calatrava, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas all have budget overruns and technical slip-ups to their name, in some cases spectacular, as does Thomas Heatherwick, who is not actually an architect but is increasingly working at an architectural scale. In all cases the justification is some kind of genius, which can sometimes have a value in PR and prestige that outweighs the inconveniences of hiring such architects. In Hadid’s case she has earned her position through the power of her design and force of character.
She first broke onto the architectural scene in the early 1980s, with unrealised projects of extraordinary daring, represented by almost abstract paintings of force and originality. It was a drab, cautious creeping time for architecture, traumatised by the collapse in confidence in the modern movement, by which she was inhibited not at all. She expanded the possibilities of her medium in ways that are still being exploited by architects, including by many who don’t like her work. In person, she has been courageous. She has refused to conform to expectations of a female professional, nor to the buttoned-up carefulness of many architects, in personality, style or self-presentation. She is forthright, funny, passionate, sometimes generous, sometimes furious.
When she cut short an interview on the Today programme last week, in response to a wilfully ill-informed line of questioning from Sarah Montague, it was entirely in character. She has survived huge discouragement, as when her competition-winning designs for Cardiff Bay Opera House were knifed in the back. At that time, in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t clear she would ever have more than a few modest buildings to her name. Yet, for all that, the masterpiece defence – the idea that talent and personality excuse almost anything – is wearing thin. Wouldn’t it be better if architects could design exceptional buildings without causing huge headaches for their clients? There are plenty who do. Hadid’s approach also pushes her projects into a particular category, which is the money-no-object status symbol, for individuals, corporations or states, especially those which don’t have to worry too much about public opinion – dachas for oligarchs, condominiums in Miami and shopping centres in Beijing, the stadium for the World Cup in Qatar, the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan.
This tendency exposes her to another big criticism, that she is complicit in the abuses of those she works for, which was Montague’s line of attack, unfortunately undermined by the false suggestion that 1,200 workers had died building the Qatar stadium itself. Again Hadid could point out that, when it comes to dealing with despots, other architects are at it too, not to mention the International Olympic Committee, multinational businesses, respected cultural institutions, the mayor of London and chancellor of the exchequer. Again the excuse that they’re all at it only goes so far. It doesn’t answer the fundamental question. What if architects such as Hadid were more principled in their choice of clients? What if they got together and formed a common front? Might that not be a force for good?
And, even if it is too much to ask architects to change society, the production of trophies also undermines the architectural values they are supposed to stand for. The theory behind Hadid’s approach is that revolutionary design can revolutionise and liberate the way people live in cities; that they can encourage new, dynamic interactions between citizens, and people and culture. But the buildings now coming out of Hadid’s office are conservative types – stadiums, palaces of culture – dressed with modernistic styling. They are monuments, for all their rhetoric of dynamism frozen. The freedom of their form does not translate to freedom for their users, who rather tend to find their options limited by their demanding spaces.
At some point in the last decade Hadid and her office could have used their new-found fame and status in one of two ways. They could have addressed their weak spot, which is the high degree of difficulty that it requires to realise their works, in such ways that they really might transform the everyday experiences of living in cities. Or they could have set about creating ever more elaborate and disconnected icons. Which, unfortunately, is what they chose to do.
THE HADID FILE
Born Zaha Mohammad Hadid 31 October 1950 in Baghdad. Her father was the leader of the Iraqi Progressive Democratic party. Degree in mathematics at the American University in Beirut, then studied at the Architectural Association School, London.
Best of times Last week, when she was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects 2016 royal gold medal for architecture, making her the first woman to be awarded the prize in her own right.
Worst of times For years she suffered from being known for designs that were not being built. Chief disappointment was probably the failure to realise the Cardiff Bay opera house.
What she says “No one will ever come to me and say: “I don’t like you,” or “We are scared of you because of x, y and z.” I have asked people so many times what it is about me and they won’t say. But I think it’s because they are scared they can’t control me.”
What others say She is “a planet in her own inimitable orbit”. Rem Koolhaas, architect and mentor to Hadid.