• Ode to Zaha: An architect who built the ‘unbuildable’

With the passing of Zaha Hadid late last month, ideas and tributes of an enigmatic and tectonic career in architecture by the starchitect have continued to fill the architecture world.
In this article originally published in The Hindu, Zeepti Zechariah speaks of a career on radical departures, exploding twists and emboldened geometries.

Ode to Zaha: An architect who built the ‘unbuildable’

Zaha Hadid embodied the idea that architects not only draw but build too. As a student of architecture, I mimicked Iraqi-born, London-based designer Zaha Hadid’s presentation style by resorting to what I later learned was called ‘whooshing the drawing’ in Zaha Hadid Architects’s parlance. Hadid was a hero for students, a celebrity of cult stature for the design world. Her studio was a place you aspired to be a part of even if you were a vehemently vocal critic. Armed with an over-educated chip on my shoulder and a desire to be subversive, I was determined not to fall for the cult of Hadid. The 2004 Pritzker award-winning architect of unbuildable buildings was turning into a prolific global icon when I joined her studio in 2005. The internship became a job, and before I knew it, I was drawing her iconic lines in my sleep.

Ode to Zaha: An architect who built the ‘unbuildable’

She was elusive to most of us who worked in the Victorian school building which housed her avant-garde architectural studio. Her sporadic announcements suggested she was playful, funny, and incredibly intelligent. She was larger than life and intolerant of sloppiness and yet, when she was in the studio, she sat at her table among the rest of us architects and interns. While we were enamored by her ingenious experiment with modernism, she also had very down-to-earth suggestions. “Keep it simple if you don’t know what you are doing,” she said to the eager interns who were rearranging furniture.

Ode to Zaha: An architect who built the ‘unbuildable’
Years after leaving the studio, I have tried to find my own voice as a designer by even forcing myself to draw straight lines. But I cannot shake off the experience of working with Hadid. How did she imagine the unimaginable? How did she own slanted lines and curved shapes? And now, with her passing, will her legacy of the radical experiment for architecture be undisputed?

A New Architecture
Zaha Hadid has been described as a diva by many, the queen of the curve with a disregard for function, budget, and context. Controversy followed her from the outset of her career — her design for a leisure club on The Peak in Hong Kong never saw the light of the day, even though it won the international design competition way back in 1983. In the ‘Peak’ series, shards of primary coloured panes pierce into dark cliffs in a mesmerising composition that is as much a reinvention of Russian suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich’s work as it re-imagines architectural form. Never to be mistaken for a painter, Hadid’s paintings were to be used as a design tool to bend, explode, layer, twist, and shatter space. She boldly drew and imagined building the ‘unbuildable’ and eventually paved the path for impossible geometries to have a credible place in the often stiff, programme-driven, and at best metaphorical world of contemporary architecture.

Painting by Zaha Hadid. Image courtesy Hatje Canz

As with all radical departures in any field, Hadid’s contribution is a cumulative effect of groups of thinkers, architects, and artists over decades. An extraordinary ‘event’ in the arts, politics or culture defines its precedents, Slavoj Žižek said. Without the arrival of Franz Kafka, the world would not have recognised Edgar Allan Poe, Dostoevsky and William Blake as his predecessors. Hadid’s student works undeniably imitated Malevich’s paintings, her initial literal interpretation of the Malevich Tektonic later evolved into an esoteric architectural language.

Ode to Zaha: An architect who built the ‘unbuildable’

Buildings, unlike paintings, have to address the constraint of gravity. Hadid defied gravity by addressing the ground sometimes as a field, sometimes as a plane that turned vertically into the building. In the Phaneo Centre at Wolfsburg, the skewed mass of the science museum hovers above the ground while people get drawn into the building through the vertical concrete cones which house the café and museum shop. At the first level (one cannot call it a floor), you are back at the entrance of the centre, at the ticket counter. The spaces fold, slope and playfully wrap around the science installations that are equally thought-provoking and fun.

With the advancement of computing technology, Hadid’s drawings were not mere whimsical montages; they were depicted as spaces that could now be built. Drawings that were a tool for design were pushed into becoming manufacturing aids. Architects no longer only drew, they built too.

Innovation for the impossible
Hadid’s radical new forms excited design aficionados, nudged futurists, provoked critics and challenged bureaucrats. It is easy to dismiss her vision as a fetish for form. Filled with us skilled, fresh architects with little awareness of the pragmatic side of architecture, Hadid’s studio pulled off the impossible. Often entire buildings were conceptualised with no idea of what materials were to be used. Sometimes, materials were engineered and invented for the geometries. Resolving issues with curving skins would steal many of our nights and days. In her words, if you want to go home at the end of the day, you should not become an architect. The London Aquatics Centre, now a popular place for Londoners to enjoy a swim, was broken, bent and changed to fit the needs of London post-Olympics. The wave form and the larger architectural vision stayed uncompromised, while the client and the public’s needs were met.

Ode to Zaha: An architect who built the ‘unbuildable’

 

Inadvertently, Hadid’s vision for architecture pushed innovation in the fields of computing for architecture and material engineering. Just as with high fashion, the initial expensive innovations become cheaper and moved to the masses. Computing for architecture is now at the disposal of any architectural student around the world. Hadid was called to reimagine a wide range of objects, experiences, and material including shoes, travelling exhibits, and sets for pop concerts. The quest to build the unbuildable expanded the influence of architecture in the design world and, in what hardly ever happens for an architect, in culture at large.

Ode to Zaha: An architect who built the ‘unbuildable’

When I heard the news of Hadid’s passing, it felt like a giant tree had fallen. We lost a mascot from a dying breed that is singular in the pursuit of architecture for architecture’s sake. My generation of architects across the world, who need to be socially conscious and responsible about the environment, can be politically correct dullards. Chances of a Hadid in today’s world are slimmer than ever.

As an architect and designer building up a practice, I’ve grown to admire Hadid for the courage and conviction in her vision. In the rudimentary Indian design market, the architect’s roles are confused with those of contractors, project managers, and design curators. Now, more than ever, for us architects, Zaha Hadid who fought fiercely for architecture is a beacon. She made sure we understood that the role of an architect is not redundant. The role of an architect is to question and re-imagine the built environment and to eventually make culture.

Deepti Zachariah, an architect, owns and runs Revolution by Design, a design studio in Chennai. She also teaches at IIT-Madras. She worked with Zaha Hadid Architects in London for four years.

 

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