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Essay

The Architecture of Zaha Hadid
By Joseph Giovannini
Architect and Critic

Very few buildings can stand up to the Alps without retreating into modesty, but Zaha Hadid’s dynamic and lyrical Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck, Austria, completed in 2002, confronts the surrounding mountains with an equivalent architectural majesty. At the top of a hill, the structure occupies the sky, a free-standing silhouette. Within the bowl of a valley ringed by hills and vertiginous mountains, the turning form of the clubhouse seems to gather and funnel the aerial energy of the mountainscape to the long, bowed ramp that lofts jumpers toward the city below. Hadid designed the sweeping structure from top to bottom as one fluid gesture that both summarizes the surrounding landscape in a sweep of movement, and sends skiers down a jump conceived in an act of fluid geometric empathy akin to flight.As in Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, where God nearly touches Adam’s hand to spark life, Hadid has provided the index finger that makes a visual connection between the sky and the ground. Here the spark of life is completed in the jump. The sensuous forms visualize and poeticize the leap, spiraling the mountainscape, sky and ground into a fluid continuum.

Air is Hadid’s element: she floats buildings that reside aloft. At a time, in the early 1980s, when architects were concerned about manifesting the path of gravity through buildings, Hadid invented a new anti-gravitational visual physics. She suspended weight in the same way dramatists suspend disbelief. In 1983, she won a much-published international competition for a sports club on the Peak above Hong Kong with a crystalline structure that seemed to explode from the mountainside, creating in the fragmentary fall-out a structure that evaded any sense of a unitary whole. Eruption rather than gravity was the defining force directing the path of a building that thrived in the air. Floor planes were no longer extruded up from a single foundation, stacked atop one another, but beamed out in different directions, shifting as they rose in a complex section. A highway curved through the building in the space between the splayed, airborne volumes.

Historically, the proposal broke new ground in the field, and did so radically. As original to architecture as the twelve-tone scale once was to music, the design represented architecture of a wholly different and very unexpected order. Whatever the metaphor—explosion, implosion, fragmentation—the design favored open forms rather than closed, hermetic volumes; it offered breathing porosity rather than sealed fortification. The design quickly proved a foundational thesis for architecture, an unexpected precedent for shifting Modernism’s paradigm from simplicity to complexity. The theory behind the building moved away from modernism’s ideas of mass production, received typologies and the normative, to a more complex order of a kind that privileged the unique and the fragmentary. The scheme signaled a shift in sensibilities not only from truisms of the past but also from set tenets of industrial modernism, toward an indeterminate complexity sited on shifting ground somewhere between order and chaos.

In the 1980s, many people mistakenly believed that the Peak was influenced by the use of the computer. But the influence was historical, and in the context of the Pritzker Prize, awarded this year in St. Petersburg, coincidental. The imperial Russian capital was the seat of the Russian Avant-Garde artists who inspired Hadid very early in her career.

Vladimir Malevich, who pursued a mystic fourth dimension in his paintings and architectural schemes, had studied here, and he and his pupil El Lissitzky embarked on a remarkable journey into spatial mystery in the 1910s and ’20s. Their promising experiments were aborted by a Soviet state that adopted Soviet Realism in art as official policy, and a bombastic version of classicism in architecture.The flame of discovery went out for decades.

In the 1970s, however, Hadid, a student at the Architectural Association in London, took Malevich’s abstract compositions and, giving them scale and function, turned them into architectural projects that gave life again to the vision. Courageously she set off on a course to realize ideas, such as fragmentation and layering, never built by the Suprematists themselves. Inspired by Malevich’s ethereal paintings, she took up the brush as a design tool, and for her, painted tableaux became a locus of spatial invention. With this methodology, applied in the elusive pursuit of almost intangible form, she escaped the prejudice latent in such design tools as the T-square and parallel rule, traditionally used by architects. Hadid came off the drawing boards, much as Frank Gehry did when, influenced by artists, he left behind the usual drawings to conceive his buildings sculpturally, often with his hands. Hadid abandoned the regularity of the T-square and parallel rule in buildings emancipated from the right angle.

Adopting isometric and perspectival drawing techniques used by the Suprematists to achieve strangely irrational spaces that did not add up to Renaissance wholes, she entered an exploratory realm where she developed forms distorted and warped in the throes of Einsteinian space. Hadid transformed traditional drawing conventions, sometimes grafting several techniques and viewpoints together in the same multi-dimensional tableau. She often layered drawings done on sheets of transparent acrylic, creating visual narratives showing several spatial strata simultaneously. Applying Suprematist painting approaches to reconceive architecture, she developed an aesthetic that seemed to challenge the inertia of material reality, with dynamic forms subject to visual acceleration and a sense of take-off. Just as the entasis of a classical column connotes the feeling of weight carried by the shaft, Hadid’s forms were ideated: she shaped forms to cultivate a perception of speed communicated by the eye to the body. Concept translated to experience: the shapes conveyed a sense of physical thrill as the body empathized with form ...

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