Zaha Hadid’s Architecture of the Future

Zaha Hadid’s unexpected death on the 31st March 2016 was met with shock and grief from inside the architectural community and without. For all of us engaged in the task of tracking and understanding culture, she will be remembered for her tenacious expression of the radical and boldly new, for revealing and intensifying the energies of our world.

The Peak, Hong Kong, 1982-83: An aerial view of the leisure club
The Peak, Hong Kong, 1982-83: An aerial view of the leisure club

Zaha Hadid‘s breakthrough 1983 design for a leisure club, The Peak, anticipated themes she evolved throughout her career. Hadid takes the elements of a leisure club – a swimming pool, apartments, exercise platforms, snack bar, library, and penthouse suites – and explodes them, scattering their infrastructure across the mountain face. The Peak’s “excavated subterranean spaces, distinctive horizontal layers and floating voids” [1] shatter into a splintered, fragmentary complex; swerving platforms, tubes, and cantilevers intersect, weave, and collide revealing a series of beautiful, breathing, stratified spaces.

The Peak, Hong Kong, 1982-83: Portrait painting of city, mountain and leisure club
The Peak, Hong Kong, 1982-83: Portrait painting of city, mountain and leisure club

In Hadid’s large-scale paintings of The Peak and Hong Kong, we don’t see the street-side city suffused with languages and flavours, lights, and commerce. As the harbour lifts and tilts, our eye scrambles from the skyscrapers of the city upward. We cling to a mutating landscape with buildings and shadows peeling up, colliding and crystallising with the mountain. Hadid’s Hong Kong is a radically distilled geometry recalling the disorientating effect of an Escher or the dynamism of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No.2. From the beginning of her career Hadid proved a daring Modernist.

In the BMW Plant Central Building the enlivening optimism of car production is writ large into the high-strength steel beams that cradle the production line. Similarly the yearning, enigmatic Bergisel Ski Jump proudly announces itself above the Tyrol in Austria, combining leisure and the technically supreme, modern winter snow sports. The MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome Hadid shirks the sly, self-referential deconstructivism of her generation in favour of convulsive waves of direct, confrontational concrete. In these renderings, Hadid aggressively confronts us with the dynamic and heroic charge of industry and creativity, of electricity, steel, and machines.

Phaeno Science Centre, Wolfsburg, Germany, 2000-5: the underbelly of the building
Phaeno Science Centre, Wolfsburg, Germany, 2000-5: the underbelly of the building

Despite the modern and domineering strength of her work, she retained the idea first exposed in The Peak: that man’s industry and destiny is heroically cleaved from the natural ruptures of the landscape. The Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg Germany exhibits this sensitivity to the natural landscape with ominous, extra-terrestrial intensity, fusing indoor and outdoor space on a grand scale. The floors are upturned cones, accessible via a public bridge that weaves through the building’s interior melting and interpenetrating inside and outside. The result is a confounding gluey, enigmatic concrete membrane. With its sporadic rectangular windows you can’t help feeling the building possesses its own kind of instinctive intelligence.

In more recent work such as the Kartal-Pendik Masterplan or the Mobile Art Pavilion for Chanel, Hadid intensified the biological metaphor. This work is intensely connected, porous, organic, and suggestive of a deep ecological communion.

Changsha Meixihu International Centre, Changsha, 2020: the proposed sprawling development
Changsha Meixihu International Centre, Changsha, 2020: the proposed sprawling development

She described her Guangzhou Opera House as “like pebbles in a stream smoothed by erosion,” [2] and wrote of her desire to “organise and express dynamic processes within a spatial and tectonic construct.” [3] The highly ambitious planned Changsha Meixihu International Centre best expresses this vegetal style. Its gloopy extensions spread uncontrollably and organically. It’s the kind of architecture we would imagine building on Mars.

As the 21st century races on, her work has begun to find the topographies that it deserves: in the tabula rasas of Middle Eastern cities. With less capital in the West to invest since the 2008 financial crash, the majority of Hadid’s work has been built or planned in emerging, hyper-connected cities in the Gulf States and China. Gone are the stark, fragmented litters of concrete platforms seared into dark, surly relief. On these tabula rasas, without the drag of history or custom, Hadid’s mature, late-typology perches on the horizon of an unreal, golden dawn: excessive, unfurling, bulbous, unencumbered organic structures that defy conventional geometry. The Galaxy Soho and Heydar Aliyev Centre unfurl in laconic hedonism.

As with all great prophets, she courted controversy. Asked on Radio 4 about the conditions of migrant workers working on her Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, she angrily cut the interview short. Similarly, Hadid announced her (now shelved) New National Stadium in Tokyo as an “integral element of Tokyo’s urban fabric, directly engaging with the surrounding cityscape,” [4] yet its opponents pointed to its fissure with the local environment and history.

Criticism of her work (that it refuses to engage with local environmental and political context) is played out by Hadid’s new style. Without the tightly coiled energy and explosive density of her earlier work, the Al Wakrah and Changsha Meixihu are optimistic, gigantic Utopian forms. They are not so much frustrated with today’s conventions, as totally dismissive of them, divine blossoms of a future not-yet-arrived

Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre, UAE, 2022: proposed focus of the Saadiyat Cultural District
Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre, UAE, 2022: proposed focus of the Saadiyat Cultural District

In her late-typology, Hadid retains the tectonic or vegetal style at the core of her philosophy. The tension between her urgent, free-floating forms and her deep ecology is most tightly coiled in the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre. The UAE supposedly lacks anything ‘real;’ instead it’s a volatile mirage of total leisure fed by our insatiable appetite for oil, retail, and property speculation. In substantial terms less than 30 years old and with only an insignificant tribal history to speak of, it has at long-last bought that jealously guarded currency of Western Europe: Culture. The Saadiyat Cultural District, which will host branches of The Louvre, The Guggenheim and Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre, has emerged from nothing.
Hadid designed the Performing Arts Centre consciously deploying “growth stimulation processes […] to develop a set of basic geometries.” [5] Its twisting, sticky membrane based on branches, stems, fruits and leaves of trees seems to ask: has a divinity reached down onto the Arabian Peninsula, and with thumb and forefinger twisted the land into this shape? Hadid has announced a naturalism and origin to the UAE.

When the centre opens in 2020 it will announce the arrival of tomorrow’s energy. It will be a careering structure hurtling from the shore into the sea, from today into tomorrow. From whichever side of the argument you stand, her genius is vital, energetic, and squarely trained on the future.

– Kourosh Newman-Zand and Clem McCulloch