Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Figuring out Zaha

I reacted badly recently, when a comment on some architectural blog, about one more curvy carved 200m tall office tower, questioned "what are they teaching architecture students at university these days?"  I lashed out in reply that to the best of my knowledge, most such buildings (and the even more wildly curvaceous museums or opera houses) that actually managed to get built, were by architects in their sixties and older.  Not by recent graduates..  Then I thought I better check how old was Zaha Hadid, the most curvaceous of them all, and conspicuously the only woman in this company of old (mostly) white men.

It might have been an innocent query on Google asking "how old is Zaha Hadid?" (thanks, Wikipaedia. Born 31 October 1950), but the top rated link told me much more that I also needed to know.  I have singled out Hadid's work on this blog for both exasperated chastisement and grudging admiration.  The ambivalence had not bothered me, in as much as I see no problem in seeing both good and bad in an architectural oeuvre growing so quickly and conspicuously.  But it has bothered me that I have neither the benefit of first-hand contact with the architect, nor opportunity to study her buildings in the flesh, and therefore could not satisfactorily connect them.

And so to the point.  This post is simply to commend an article that does precisely that. THE FIRST GREAT FEMALE ARCHITECT is a recent reprint in The Economist Intelligent Life supplement, of an article written in 2008 by Jonathan Meades, author of Museum Without Walls.  It is an erudite, intimate exploration of not only the architect/artist, but of her milieu in London and in British architecture.  Like all literate critique, it is a construction of allusions, many contentious.  But then, so is Zaha Hadid's architecture, and I now feel like I understand better why.

Without further ado, read it here.


Anonymous said...

Zaha Hadid has definitely brought inspirations and a new direction for contemporary architecture but she has been caught up in between extreme criticism and admiration due to her contradictions in her own work as well as the other well known architects.

There has not been an architect identified yet who designs in such a way Zaha does, which gives quality to her methods but also some sort of unacceptance for many people. It is interesting to note that Zaha does not contribute in the construction process of her architecture projects. Unlike most architects, she does not produce any document drawings for construction, but only designs the visible aspects such as the facade. This may be claimed to be a new way of designing but to most of us, it can be seen as her incapability or avoidance to her weaknesses in career.

I was also quite surprised when The First Great Female Architect mentioned Zaha’s sensitivity to the surrounding context. I agree with the fact that you do not have to contextually interpret in a direct manner to respond but I found it difficult to see how Zaha always made her buildings relevant to the surroundings. Taking Guangzhou Opera House in China as an example, even though it is an attractive building with great exterior fa├žade and views from interior, it stands out inevitably from the rest of the city for its unique style, large scale and contrasting cultural aspect. This questioned me how long Zaha would have spent to study the context of this city and culture in the design process and whether if she really understood the background especially with her contrasting cultural background. However, it could be argued that Zaha had deliberately distinguished her design from the rest for it to be the iconic symbol of the city if this was her purpose.

With the development of technology allowing Zaha’s previous and current designs to be actually built from papers of drawings, her work will be seen much more in the future for sure. This may provide more opportunities for people to experience and study her buildings, which will bring connection as you have said. The outcome of this is unpredictable but I believe the broad criticisms will begin to narrow down as her works become acceptable over time in better understanding of her oeuvre and also Zaha Hadid as an architect and her different characteristics.

MaggieL said...

Is Zaha Hadid really the "first great female architect"?
It is undeniable that she is a visionary for contemporary architecture. Her hard work and determination is commendable. It is said that architecture is a "man's game" - Hadid was shunned in every way early in her career, but now critics have slowly been silenced by the erection of her "unbuildable" buildings. She has earned respect and became an inspiration to young women worldwide (including me) - going from the architect "who never got anything built" to someone who continuously builds.

But is she all that "great"?
Some issues concerning her mentality has left me with mixed feelings about her architecture.

Recently, during the construction of a stadium she designed in Qatar was responsible for deaths of hundreds of migrant workers. Her response? "It's not my duty", "I have nothing to do with the workers". This screams ignorance. It's not my place to say if she really has control or responsibility over this. But surely to turn a blind eye to deaths caused by your design is irresponsible. Does she understand that architects have a responsibility to society?
I believe it is is an architects responsibility from start to finish and beyond - design, construction, function and to demolition.

Furthermore, this isn't the first time she's shown ignorance. This issue is a result of bad design. The curvaceous roof of the London Olympics aquatic centre failed to provide uninterrupted views of the 10m diving board from many of the top row seats. Was it really necessary for the roof to be convexed? Isn't it more reasonable for the roof to be concaved? Why did she design it this way? Because it looks cool, new and futuristic? There is no theory behind this. There is no reason for this and that. Isn't architecture about not just fulfilling the brief, but going beyond and actually improving the quality of life?

I find that her designs centralise around spectacle rather than function. Her designs have been labelled as "innovative", but is it even sustainable? Some of her works aren't successful at doing what it was designed to do e.g. the roof of the aquatic centre. I'm not saying curvaceous structures like Hadids are insane - but I believe form follows function.
But her buildings and designs challenge every architectural convention. It is not influenced by nor do they conform the conventions of modern construction or any rules in general. How do you know if a curve is too wide or too narrow? In her architecture, form does not follow function. Forms are not created for a particular function - so why are they created? Because it looks "cool" and offers visual appeal?
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore her architecture. Her projects are so bold, they're becoming abstract art.

Aside from some human flaws - she is definitely an inspiration to women world-wide and it should be a point to celebrate the success of a female in the long running male dominated realm of architecture.

Some interesting reads:
"It's not my duty" - Zaha Hadid
London Olympics Aquatic Centre
"I don't make nice little buildings" - Zaha Hadid

Sherif said...

Commonly known as a pioneer of deconstructive architecture, Zaha Hadid certainly has brought new perspectives on the development of contemporary architecture. Her work particularly features this futuristic aesthetic that many find ‘trendy’ and ‘cool’, that is unique to any another architect our our current generation. In addition to this, Hadid is often received praise with the fact that she is the ‘first great female architect’ (as the article title suggests) in a primarily male dominated practice.

Having said all of that, does she really live up to all the hype? When comparing her early works to her present works, it seems that she has given up on most of her ideas that made her work so elegant and unique. Her earlier work had a more ardent meaning and were constructed around robust design ideals, whereas now her work appears as though it’s a product of playful experimentation of parametric design. The emphasis has shifted its focus on aesthetics rather than on how the architecture functions.

Recently Hadid was commissioned to design the Tokyo Olympic Stadium in which, in Zaha fashion featured an sinuously curved expansive structure that was highly criticized for it’s lack of response to the site, urban planning and it’s sheer scale, that resulted in petition being organized for Hadid’s proposal to be scrapped, which generated a lot of signatures including ones from acclaimed architects Toyo Ito and Fumihiko Maki. Upon analyzing Hadid’s design, one wonders her design decisions on scale, was it necessary to create such an enormous, out of place structure? Why weren’t the site conditions and the urban context taken into consideration? Was this design primarily based on aesthetics? There is no ideology behind these decisions. Architecture isn’t based on just how it looks, it must function proactively in it’s context and focus on enhancing the user’s experience.

Another example that was mentioned here was the issues in Qatar. Once again, Hadid was commissioned to build Al Wakrah Stadium and it was reported that over 500 Indian and 400 Nepali workers have died because of the condition of the construction sites. Hadid received much criticism for her ignorance to the situation after she stated that it was not her ‘duty as an architect to look at it’. While Hadid wasn’t responsible for the tragedy, it was wrong not to consider that some of these workers died while working on Hadid’s design. Her responsibility as a architect goes way beyond design. One has to consider the ethical and safety aspects.

Having said that, we will be seeing much more of Hadid’s work in the future and while I do believe that her architecture will become source of opportunity for experience and studying (as you said) and that she will continue to contribute to a new transition of architecture, I hope to see some of Hadid’s earlier, more formalist and eloquent design ideals make a comeback.

Zaha Hadid: Queen of the Curve

Petition against Tokyo Olympic Stadium

“not my duty as an architect”