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The Future Is How?

Architects have no choice but to be optimists. A conversation with Zaha Hadid.

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Two days before Zaha Hadid’s Guggenheim retrospective opens, I show up for our meeting expecting a Dragon Lady—a profile in the London Times described her as “notoriously short-fused” (she once “managed to hurl a computer monitor to the floor so violently that it spectacularly exploded”)—and, despite my theatrical background, hoping nothing too spectacular occurs. Instead, I encounter an easygoing, amiable woman swathed in layers of black shawlery, with shoulder-length, blondish-auburn hair framing the faintly drooping features of the chronically jet-lagged.

Despite the frenzy a huge museum installation generates, Hadid seems preternaturally relaxed, with everything under control—or, more likely, she’s been around the block enough to know you can’t control everything. Since her work style has been politely described as “staccato,” I assume this applies to the last-minute details of her retrospective as well.

She has, as they say, her own glamour, accented by a Lauren Hutton–like gap tooth and a notable glint of amusement in her eyes. She’s just been in Miami, a city she likes, though she deplores the demolition of the old Art Deco hotels and finds much of the architecture going up there hideous.

I confess my inability to parse the difference between deconstructivist architecture, tectonics, biomorphism, and other current architecture jargon. “These things aren’t really important,” Hadid assures me.

Her CV would be the envy of any architect: graduate of the Architectural Association School in London; former partner in Rem Koolhaas’s OMA; winner of innumerable competitions and awards, including the 2004 Pritzker—the architectural equivalent of the Nobel. Yet until little more than a decade ago, Hadid, now 55, remained a “paper architect”—garnering professorships and prizes without ever getting to build anything.

This changed in 1993, with the realization of the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, an almost airborne-looking structure of tilted planes and transparent walls, a building that echoed the colors as well as the velocity of the fire engines it contained. Other commissions followed, but not—let’s be honest—as rapidly as a male architect might have expected as a matter of course. These included the Cyclopean tower of the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck, the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, and the BMW Central Building in Leipzig. Models of her finished buildings and proposals, along with furniture, cooking islands, chandeliers, and drawings can be seen at the Guggenheim.

Hadid’s architecture owes some of its formal audacity to her early fascination with Tatlin and Malevich’s Soviet Constructivism. Her approach is a fusion of utopianism and practicality. A strong example is the BMW building: “We decided to plug the office building into the assembly line,” she says. “The conveyor belt that takes the cars from one production facility to another goes through the building. Everyone flows through the front entrance—the workers, CEOs, everybody.”

Some of her buildings suggest agitated liquids frozen into whorls and waves, and their unfamiliar beauty, I think, could usefully replace any number of mediocre structures here. She hasn’t built anything in New York. Neither, as far as I’m concerned, has any worthwhile architect in the past 40 years, though a few, like Jean Nouvel, have projects in progress now.

And so I’m primarily interested in her thinking about New York, and also her idea of the future: Architects tend to look at the built environment as a fixable mess that will never stop growing, a necessary optimism I don’t generally share. “If you could build anything you wanted in this city,” I ask, “what do you think New York needs?”

“There needs to be some kind of master-planning idea—not similar to the kind in the thirties. What’s similar between Britain and America is the lack of good-quality civic buildings. So I’d do something with infrastructure. We tried for the competition for the High Line. But it would also be interesting to do housing. We’re working now on some high-rises [in Dubai and Marseilles]. It would be challenging to do a tower here. I don’t know where.”

I point out her own written criticism of tower structures: static, essentially continuous reproduction of the same forms, stacked vertically. And that in recent years, New York has sprouted awful horizontal grid slabs replacing whole blocks of housing, resembling towers knocked onto their sides.

“Well, the United Nations building is a slab. It’s an interesting typology. The waterfronts could have slabs.”

Hadid has a more sanguine view of things than I do. The slabs in my neighborhood, the East Village, resemble the kind of Soviet-built hotels one finds in Estonia.

“There are two issues with towers,” she adds. Once the public space “was underground, now it’s above. The XYZ Towers on Sixth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, even more recent ones like Citicorp, had some sort of public intervention underground. But you can’t extend the public space [above] because of the grid.” I ask if anyone raised with her the possibility of projects to rebuild New Orleans.


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