Wednesday, 13 March 2013

It's probably architecture

The latest large scale work by Zaha Hadid to feature heavily on archi-pop sites such as Architizer, Dezeen and ArchDaily is the Changsha Meixihu International Culture and Art Centre.

Architizer's headline Zaha’s Changsha “Megaplex” Is More Zaha Than We Can Handle hints at the possibility that this project, more than any other, might represent a tipping point.  But the actual tone of the article is sober and supportive, confining itself to a narrative that does no more than describe the formal development of the major components of this large complex.

In some respects, the published images indicate an architecture like many other proposals, by many other architects.  These works are clearly the products of visualisation software, and of the plastic sculptural freedom such software affords anyone who can lay out a rudimentary circulation diagram.  The illustrations are 'scaled' to human experience, by the same simple expedient as has always characterised architectural drawings: inserting the human figure in poses vaguely identified with the building program.  Any concern about the realism of the images as representing buildable prototypes is in the first instance answered by the now common knowledge, that the illustration software captures underlying geometric data which can be fed with little further mediation to fabrication software, in turn capable of controlling machines that automatically deliver suitable components at building scale.  There is no doubt that such buildings can be, and are being built.

So, do they represent the current parametric zeitgeist, a logical evolution of architecture outgrowing the artisan niche to which it was formerly adapted, or are there some other theoretical and practical implications that should be getting a better run in discussions on these sites?  Again, the first reaction might be that more profound theoretical examination is to be expected in the scholarly settings of books and academic journals.  Fair enough on the face of it, but a bit of a cop-out.

Even casual examination of the renderings suggests that their authors are simply not engaged in any rigorous anticipation of the built reality.  It isn't that hard to comment on the absence of material clues in these otherwise photorealistic renderings; the absence, rather than the dissolution of clues to what is inside and what is outside, the missing distinctions between surfaces formerly characterised as ground, wall, or sheltering roof.  More generally, this lack of coding of the layers of design intent leaves unanswered other profound questions relating to the life of the building, including how it actually achieves comfort and amenity, and whether it relies on sustainable supplies of energy to fulfill its most rudimentary functional tasks. The architects appear to be leaving that all to be somebody else's problem.

It is not a stretch to suggest that buildings like the Changsha Meixihu International Culture and Art Centre are the result of a relatively recent realisation – that really, almost anything is possible.  But is it good for us to leave that proposition hanging, without self-imposed constraints and qualifications?  Surely the theoretical discourse takes on an ethical dimension, in which even populist on-line magazines can engage?  Something to do with whether imposing on others the consequences of such wanton profligacy should be the dominant paradigm of public architecture?

Of course, there is much more to interrogating the theoretical underpinnings of an architectural proposal, than asking whether it is right or wrong to stretch budgets.  For me as a teacher, the implication of 'anything is possible' has very particular, everyday consequences – and many might be surprised that they are almost all negative.  Imagine trying to maintain a shared critical framework with a student, in which to communicate that not all is right with his or her developing studio design.  If students are seduced by Zaha in her 'anything is possible' mode, they have little incentive to accept such a critique.  While the concepts of 'right' or 'wrong' are contestable, to have no such concepts makes learning very difficult.


Steve King said...

I wrote the above post as something of a knee jerk reaction to years of frustration with blob architecture. To be fair, I have to acknowledge that in the case of Hadid, there are not only examples of her work that are self-evidently more grounded in more subtle programs, but also published in more useful ways. One project that comes to mind is the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, premiated by the European Museum Academy in 2012.

It's worth reading the post in arthitectural at

Unlike most such on-line architectural news items, the article complements its editorial comments with an admirably understandable, illustrated explanation of how a steel structure is rationally derived to realise the complex form and interior space.

H. Park said...

As a current architecture student myself, I am often caught in the dilemma of aesthetic pursuit versus functional integrity. In the past decade especially, we have seen many 'starchitects' introduce new innovations to the modern built environment such as Zaha Hadid's Changsha Meixihu International Culture and Art Centre, as mentioned above. With the benefit of hindsight in (western) architectural history, form-based styles and function-based styles have been inter-changeably introduced, replaced and re-introduced with varying aspects of contemporary influences distinguishing each new style from the last. Like Zaha Hadid's Culture and Art Centre, such visually extravagant and structurally complex projects can be argued to be a reflection of 21st century design and technological capabilities.

However, as these 'starchitect' buildings become more profound models of what new architecture should strive for, as set by glossy magazine covers and popular architecture blogs such as 'Architizer' and 'Archdaily', (like the argument set forth in the author's older post at ) it does become more difficult to keep up constraints of sustainability, probable performance with respect to social and environmental factors and teach their importance to starting architects. In their related post to the Changsha Meixihu Art Centre, 'Archdaily' even published comments of questionable objectivity, arguing for the Art Centre's "strong urban experience" and its "dynamic composition further establish[ing] a powerful relationship with its surroundings, which confers monumentality to the ensemble" (see ).

As a student trying to currently learn from the fundamentals of architectural design, I also agree and have first-hand experienced the confusion that occurs when our fancy renders of abstract forms are rejected by our tutors. Such goes to show that as a student, it is important to learn from precedents whose form is defined by a logic of function and need to find a balance in our own design approaches before venturing out into the battlefield of reality where 'starchitecture' is clearly prevailing. The greatest misfortune in this recent direction towards abstract/avant-garde architecture lies in the fact that students can now mostly, only look to the past for public architecture whose function is not rendered secondary to mostly captivating shapes and forms (it is important to note that we can however, learn greatly from these projects regarding modern construction and structural design).

Anonymous said...

Being one of those students who have been inspired by Zaha Hadid, I too believe that ‘anything is possible’. Without Zaha Hadid’s inspirational and futuristic visions, as well as contributions of other ‘starachitects’, architecture would not be where it is today.
I agree, the rendered images posted in the ‘Archi –pop’ magazines are products of various visualisation software. However, through my research, I have learned that Zaha Hadid hand sketches all her concepts, without the aid of any graphic software. The results of this artistic process - a three-dimensional collection of building elements – appear to represent beautiful abstract paintings. Zaha uses this unique technique of painting as a means of exploration and conceptualization simply going beyond graphically attractive hand sketches. This attracts clients with imagination, trust and most importantly courage. Although similar results could be produced by computer graphic professionals, Zaha’s creativity and vision is something personal and unachievable.
I believe in the saying ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’, and the very definition of creativity in the name of ‘architecture’ is seen from different perspectives.
However, sustainability is an important issue, but it seems like it would be fairly difficult to integrate it into such an extravagant design. In the case of Zaha, her aesthetic creativity has brought her to where she stands today. The new Changsha Megaplex, by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), shows her boldness and the building’s dominance not just in its context, but as an icon in architecture itself.
Neither do the images show functionality or materials and texture as has been described by the author, nor do the renderings seem to be engaging with the built reality. It is simply a form, to illustrate possibilities for the general public to visualise, and to intrigue.
Zaha’s interest lies in the rigorous interface between architecture, landscape and geology as has been seen in the past, just how her practice integrates natural topography and human-made systems, leading to experimentation using cutting edge technology. Saying that, with the ‘anything is possible’ mindset, Zaha who is already an icon could possibly integrate a more sustainable approach to her design making herself even better, it could definitely take Architecture and to whole new level influencing many people around the world.