Zaha Hadid gets RIBA medal

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Dame Zaha with her medal and three of her designs: the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku (top), the Aquatics Centre in London (middle) and the Maxxi Museum in Rome. (BBC)

The Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid has received the Gold Medal for Architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects. She spoke to RIBA upon receiving the award and launched a tirade against tradition. Notwithstanding her complaints, London, where she set up her firm in 1979, has so far, thankfully, dodged the bullet of a building in its center designed by Dame Zaha. How long can that last?

Building Design magazine’s Tim Clark, in “Gold Medal winner Hadid marks award with ‘traditionalism’ fears” (register for free), writes that in her remarks on Tuesday night, “Hadid spoke of her worry regarding a move towards traditional design among London’s developments.” She adds:

I have always believed in progress and in creativity’s role in progress. That’s why I remain critical of any traditionalism. I worry about the dominance of neo-rationalism in London’s current transformation.

Compared with Hadid’s work, everything else must be considered “traditional” and hence worrisome. But I’m not sure how she thinks traditional work (that is, work that is actually traditional rather than just more so than hers) threatens her work. Except, of course, that Britons who like beauty in architecture might wake up and work to make sure that their city keeps the RIBA laureate’s buildings out. (Her Olympic Aquatics Centre is 9 km from Charing Cross.) London already has too many buildings and more planned that seem intended to terrorize its citizens and explode its skyline.

Clark’s piece reprints her lecture. Check out the following passage:

This is the meaning of my first compositional strategies: explosion and fragmentation. The Russian avant-garde offered me a reservoir of yet untested compositional innovations, full of complexity and dynamism.

The Suprematist compositions of Malevich and El Lissitzky experimented with the interpenetration of forms rather than maintaining their neat separation. This is much more in tune with our current interest in the mixing of functions and the search for synergies.

I added to this the ideas of distortion and gradient transformation, for the sake of site adaptation and versatility. Further, I explored the use of free form curvature to articulate the dynamism and fluidity of contemporary life.

“Explosion and fragmentation”: Isn’t that what terrorists do? When Hadid is not complaining about a tilt toward tradition in London architecture that only she is able to perceive, she is complaining about being misunderstood. If she believes that a city and its citizens want buildings that either explode or fragment, or that somehow cause explosion and fragmentation in their neighborhoods, then Zaha should be thankful she is misunderstood. As it is, I think the public, if not the design establishment, understands her all to0 perfectly and wants none of it.

Of her work she said: “All this serves urban densification, and urbanity, via invasion by new complex projects, projects that should be well embedded into their sites and serve as connective tissue rather than separate fortresses.”

This is a specimen of what Mencken would call “the obviously not true.”

Of course, contrary to its protestations, architecture today is not about giving either clients or the public what they want. It’s about smacking them upside the head, good and hard, and for their own benefit as assessed by experts who epitomize the old saw, “Only an expert could believe that!” How long are Britons (and the rest of us, for that matter) going to take it lying down?

Hats off to Steve Mouzon and Hank Dittmar for posting the article extracting Hadid’s comments on how scary tradition is.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Zaha Hadid gets RIBA medal

  1. Pingback: Bevan’s ‘modest revival’ of … ? | Architecture Here and There

  2. Your observations are very, very astute, Peter. It’s too bad you had to actually visit the Maxxi to make them! Fortunately, the rest of Rome is its antidote.

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  3. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of visiting one of Dame Hadid’s projects, the MAXXI Museum.
    In her lecture she said: “Buildings and programmes need to break open and embrace each other, even interpenetrate. This requires the spatial complexity and openness.” The MAXXI is definitely penetrating the nineteenth century building along Via Guido Renzi.
    If you look at the MAXXI from Google satellite view , evidently Dame Hadid had been playing with model trains or looking at Roma Termini in Satellite View.
    Also in her lecture, she said: “Urban programmes now need spaces to flow freely.” and : “Most of my projects – public and private – aspire to this life-enhancing increase in connectivity.” The implication is that she designs to make the spaces between buildings maximize the connection by people. How she actually dealt with this at the MAXXI is instructive. Part of the complex is another older building along the east boundary of the site, which contains the MAXXI21 restaurant. The plaza between the two is laid out with parallel stripes of stone and gravel, culminating with an area of ground cover near the cafe. The direct path from the museum entry to the cafe requires you to cross a couple meters of stone, 3 meters of gravel, a meter of stone, a half meter of gravel, then about 5 meters of stone, then dodge the ground cover to find the narrow path to the cafe entry. Were I to be dressed like a typical Italian woman (IE: high heels), I would be obliged to follow the stone paths laid out for me by Dame Hadid, much as the trains must follow the tracks, and end up walking twice as far. The entire reason for cities is to maximize the potential connections between people. Her impulse to channel them is just like the highway engineers laying out a suburb with whole hierarchy of streets, and culminating in the single path (highway) that all must follow. Those designs minimize possible connections, and are fundamentally anti urban.
    Or maybe I’m just reading too much into my reaction to one project. 😉

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