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The most banal of clichés is that an artist’s work is “pushing the boundaries of the possible, redefining space and form”. I read these words the other day, applied to a long list of (mostly) second-rate architects. But one name stood out: Zaha Hadid. If there is one architect in the world today for whom that cliché actually reads like a CV, it is Hadid.
She has been designing hugely dynamic, theatrical, fearlessly experimental buildings for about a quarter of a century. Now the world has finally caught up with her and, in an explosion of global activity, they are being built. Next month her first building in the UK, a small centre for cancer sufferers in Fife, will be opened by Gordon Brown. In London, meanwhile, a striking new show of her work has just opened at the Rove Gallery in an odd side-street in Kentish Town.
Forest of Towers features a 25m sculptural installation in which Hadid’s relentlessly dynamic structures burst free of the ground in swooshing curves and twisting, folding and splitting geometries. If science has now settled on a view of the world as an 11-
dimensional realm of busily vibrating strings, this is its architecture. Restless, energetic, fluid and strange, Hadid’s buildings are the nemesis of the brick box. After years of seeing her work on paper and in models, it is odd to see an architecture so inventive and fresh, so successful in manipulating space: it is like walking on to a film set that you are strangely, subconsciously familiar with.
Hadid’s work is as successful as furniture, art or sculpture as it is as architecture, and it is bought and sold avidly. That is a fascinating achievement because computer rendering has almost killed the art of architectural representation. Hyper-real images now attempt to emulate architectural photography, using the same tricks and tropes. The idea of character, of atmosphere, of intelligence being injected into the architect’s projection has disappeared. Architectural drawing used to have a language of its own, communicating something beyond the object, an idealised, rather than a realised, world. Hadid’s powerful studies and models, even if rendered by sophisticated software, represent a last vestige of that visionary tradition and have developed an internal language of consistency and great beauty that both reflects on and informs the architecture itself. In a snatched conversation between events on the eve of the show’s opening, I ask her whether she sees her work as art.
“The boundaries are very blurred now,” she says. “None of this work was ever conceived as art but at the time a lot of the stuff I was doing was being demeaned as art rather than architecture, as unbuildable . . . the only way we could promote this work was through publications, through illustrations – the magazines were the only place where we could initiate a dialogue about the architecture.”
That is no longer the case. From Cincinnati to Guangzhou (via Marseille and Dubai) there has been a simultaneous sprouting of these new forms – these are now objects that exist in real cities. So radical and odd are they that one could argue that they have been simply placed there without regard to context and culture. But at an extra-ordinary lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects last week, Hadid showed that this is not the case: the proposals and designs she discussed – tangles of webs and nets overlayed on complex urban forms, forests of structure extruded from an abstracted street grid – had full regard to context to knit together disparate urban quarters.
Hadid is light on theory, the intellectual exposition often being left to Patrik Schumacher, her right-hand man, and executed in his fearsome brand of concentrated architect-speak. But Hadid’s rather unpretentious manner, allowing the forms to speak for themselves rather than over-explaining them, belies an approach that is far more sophisticated than the often wilful, always expressionistic forms may indicate.
“The towers in the Rove Gallery show all have strange connections to the ground,” she tells me, “but the ambition was always to create fluid space, to allow the ground-plane to continue around and beneath the buildings, to see how we could create an event space under the architecture. In a way every one of our projects is about how the building meets the ground.”
Nowhere is this more clearly visible than in the phenomenal Phaeno Centre, a science museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. A contender for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize (finally won by Richard Rogers, for his new Madrid airport), the building is the most complete demonstration yet of the way in which Hadid’s architecture melds landscape and building, interior and exterior, and space and structure. It is proof that her science-fiction architecture can help to tie together disparate parts of a city rather than merely exist as an object for its own sake. The ground around it swoops and swerves to meet the concrete structure like some manic skateboarder’s dream.
Although in only a small way, Britain is about to be exposed to Hadid’s
theatrical architecture in the form of a Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy, in
Scotland. Designed as a place for cancer patients to get some relief from the
rigours of healthcare architecture, it is a simple, folded structure, a series of origami surfaces wrapped around a plain space, its inspiration partly drawn from its position atop a steep slope.
“I went to Edinburgh and I was very moved by the Maggie’s Centre there,” Hadid says. “Maggie [wife of the architecture critic Charles Jencks, who died of cancer] had been a friend and I wanted to do this building as an architecture to make people feel good, where they can talk and chill out, to feel human. It’s a very humble building with no architectural gymnastics and I feel privileged to be able to contribute to society with something like this.”
With a building for London’s Architecture Foundation in Southwark, the aquatic centre for the 2012 Olympics and the new Rove Gallery show, Hadid is finally about to make her mark on her adopted home city (she was born in Baghdad) after a long period of being fêted everywhere but there. So with this explosion of work (and bearing in mind her comment during the lecture that, after the long drought, she would have to start learning how to say “no” to some jobs), what comes next?
“I still think that the idea of a masterplan, an urban design in which we can adopt all these ideas about porosity and fluidity would be interesting,” she says, “bits of cities, embankments, adjacencies, the possibilities of making connections . . . The Maggie’s Centre has also opened up the idea of healthcare, of an architecture that can make people feel better.”
This is a crucial time for an architect who has spent years preparing. Her moment comes at precisely the right time, when Hadid is at her peak, when her Clerkenwell office is well staffed with architectural talent, and when the world is both technically able and aesthetically ready to build these structures. A city composed of these expressionistic towers might be a bit much – but a few scattered around the skyline could do much to remind us of architecture’s visceral, visionary potential.
Zaha Hadid’s ‘Forest of Towers’ is at the Rove Gallery, London NW5, until November 14. Tel 7979 408 914