'Avoid right angles'

By Lawrence Cosentino

Zaha Hadid reforms space

When Zaha Hadid came to East Lansing for the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum groundbreaking on March 16, 2010, she shared a few of her early enthusiasms. “I remember very well when I was a kid, when I went to see one of my first exhibits, a very big Picasso show in London at the Royal Academy,” she recalled in an interview for an MSU podcast. “It stayed with me to this day.” A Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition made her “curious” as well.

Born in Baghdad, Hadid, 62, fell in love with architecture while visiting ancient Sumer in south Iraq, where mud brick dwellings marked the beginning of man-made architecture. She recalled in a 2006 interview that her father took her in a boat made of reeds to visit southern marshlands where nature and human habitation “somehow flowed together.”

A mix of organic, natural forms and stylized geometry — Sumerian swamps plus Russian constructivism — runs through most of Hadid’s work, right up to the heron-wing metal pleating of her Broad Museum design.

Hadid starts by whacking you with dynamism the same way a cartoon animator does, by making things zoom forward.

“The diagonal was the beginning of all this,” Hadid explained. “The diagonal created the idea of the explosion reforming space. That was an important discovery.”

Hadid’s longtime associate, Patrik Schumacher, uses the word “parametricism” to describe Hadid’s style, which he calls the next “great new style” after modernism.

The last thing Hadid wants to build is a serene cube on stilts, elevated from the ground, a scheme often seen in modernist buildings. Instead, she plugs her buildings into visible and invisible fields of movement and force that extend in all directions, even underground.

“Modernism was founded on the concept of space,” Schumacher explained in Philip Jodidio’s book “Hadid.” “Parametricism differentiates fields.”

Her designs pulsate and flow according to the purpose of the building and the vibe of the surroundings, rather than setting up a space apart from the world.

In Jodidio’s book, Schumacher offered a handy list of Zaha Hadid “do’s” and “don’ts.” “Avoid right angles, corners, clear-cut territories, repetition, etc.,” he directed. “Hybridize, morph, de-territorialize, deform, iterate.”

Hadid’s unique fusion of earthiness and abstraction is meant to stimulate more than stroke. “I don’t design nice buildings,” she told The Guardian in 2006. “I like architecture to have some raw, vital, earthy quality.”

At the Broad Museum groundbreaking at MSU, she spoke in more inclusive language of the allure of architecture.

“People need things beautiful and interesting to look at,” she said. “It’s another kind of release, like going on a holiday, or going on a trip.”

After studying math in Beirut and architecture in London, Hadid partnered with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the 1970s. She taught at universities around the world and pursued her own thorny designs, largely influenced by the colliding wedges and blocks of Russian Constructivism.

When she started her own architectural firm in 1980, things did not go smoothly at first. A breakthrough win in a competition to build an opera house in Cardiff, Wales, proved too far out for the conservative town, and the commission was withdrawn. Other Hadid designs were dropped for a variety of reasons, political and practical.

But in the late ‘90s, Hadid’s center of gravity shifted from the theoretical to the real, as she scored competition wins for the MAXXI modern art museum in Rome, the Mind Zone exhibit in London’s Millennium Dome and a cobra-like ski jump and café in Innsbruck. Hadid’s only other U.S. project built to date, Cincinnati’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art was finished in 2003, further belying the canard that her designs are unbuildable.

Hadid’s biggest career boost came in 2004, when she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel equivalent. “Although her body of work is relatively small, her energy and ideas show even greater promise for the future,” Thomas Pritzker said.

After that, the floodgates opened for Hadid’s firm, which has over 100 designers working on high-profile projects all over the globe. These include a massive, wave-shaped aquatics center for the 2012 London Olympics; the even more massive, wave-shaped Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi and the web-like Guangzhou Opera House in Guangzhou, China. Thanks to broadening public tastes — and sophisticated new computer programs that can process the wildest ideas into load-bearing concrete, steel or masonry — Hadid’s ideas are springing into being all over the world.