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The Future Is How?

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Top left and bottom: The exterior and interior of the BMW building. "A lot of light gets in," says Hadid. "It's not like working in a dark place." Right: The Vitra Fire Station (now a museum). Hadid, a firm believer in the power of computer-aided design, likes to mix curves and slices of sharply pointed geometric shapes.  

Nobody, she responds, as if this had surprised even more than disappointed her. “That would be fantastic.” The three tactics so far, she says, have been “to do it in a very vernacular way, or as a new urbanist or in a very commercial way. I think there are other ways you can organize the city.”

“There’s no public-housing theory of investment” in the United States,” she adds. “Germany, Spain, Switzerland—Holland, [they do] a lot. The funkiest housing in Holland is for low-income, and I think that’s very nice.” In New York, the funkiest housing skews toward another tax bracket. I mention my personal bête noire: an architect’s glass erection that’s gone up not far from my apartment. It has no organic relationship to the neighborhood.

“In New York you’d expect a much better quality of building,” Hadid admits. “But part of it is dynamic investment, and the development is totally corporate and has to do with square footage. Which is fair enough. But what happened in Spain, for example—because the state put so much money into doing buildings for everything, from the Olympics to Bilbao—not everything’s fantastic, but the standard has risen. And that’s what needs to happen here. I think it’s good if areas get upgraded and gentrified, as long as the people who always lived there can stay. But they get pushed out to some place.”

Again, I feel she cares; again, I feel the reality of life on the ground is not any pressing preoccupation of architects, however visionary or socially conscious.

“Here,” I tell her, “people were pushed to Brooklyn, then that got colonized by big money, then it was Jersey City. I feel if buildings could be better integrated into sites . . . It makes no sense to me that rich people can’t live next to poor people.”

“In London that used to occur,” she notes, “but now everything has become expensive. Even when they offer the housing to be bought by people living in public housing, they’re being pushed out.”

“Does anyone consider the people who actually live in a place instead of who’s going to live there in ten years?” I ask. “NYU,” I say with rote indignation, “tore down Edgar Allan Poe’s house.”

“Shocking.”

But how does one resolve all this?

“That means a bigger picture,” she says. “When somebody comes to somebody and says, ‘Do this project,’ if there’s been a study of that area, they know what kind of envelope they should have. But there doesn’t seem to be much study at all here. On one hand, it’s kind of refreshing in New York that every plan is autonomous and just goes up; on the other hand, you have a lot of ad hoc stuff that isn’t perfect.”

“People have tremendously emotional feelings about cities like Paris because it never changes,” I say. “I know Paris probably needs as many things as anywhere else, but a city like that, a completely beautiful place for centuries, why do anything there?”

“I think it’s a problem if we don’t change,” she says. “It’s beautiful, but it has no energy. Like Venice—it’s beautiful when you have the film festival or the Biennale, and it’s beautiful in winter. But it can’t grow. Paris is very even. But otherwise it’s quite dull.”

As I can’t agree, I drop it. I would rather live in a dull, beautiful place than a place where things “happen.” My own utopian ideas involve population control and scaling down the human presence on the planet. Architects think in terms of endless capitalist expansion, endless growth, endless everything; yet I feel certain we are coming to the end of endlessness. Still, Zaha Hadid is probably the only architect I’ve met who seems conscious of this, without necessarily acknowledging it. She has to build, so she needs to be positive. I have to write and have the luxury of skepticism.

We discuss the recent fracases over air rights and plot mergers, particularly in the West Village. “One could say it’s terrible,” she says. “But in Hong Kong they used to do illegal extensions, and sometimes they were nice. But I understand the problem, if you have something and it disappears. I used to come to New York a lot; my brother had a flat in midtown with the most fantastic view. And he thought he had the air rights to the next-door building. Then they decided to make a tower, and it wasn’t illegal, and suddenly it was like a blank wall in front of our faces. It’s a tragedy, but it was part of life in New York, I guess.”

I feel that we are on the same page, but reading a slightly different language.

“Planning large-scale projects, to what extent do you act as your own futurologist, in terms of possible scarcity of oil and water?” I ask. “Do you factor those things in?”

“We are always interested in site analysis. It was a big topic ten years ago, but most people don’t look at it anymore. But I always factor in all these potential changes. I think that the training of architects allows you to see what will happen ten years ahead of time, or twenty. It’s not guessing, it’s not intuitive, it’s based on research—and we may be wrong. And then, sometimes, when you visit these projects twenty years later, you think, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is really irritating.’ ”


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