Zaha slept here

MSU’s unlikely fling with Zaha Hadid

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FRIDAY, April 1 — Most obituaries for architect Zaha Hadid didn’t even mention MSU’s Broad Art Museum. It was one of her smaller works, compared to mammoth structures like the web-like Guangzhou Opera House in China, the tsunami-shaped London Aquatics Centre built for the 2012 Olympics or the huge, whiplashing Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi.

But it was a big deal in East Lansing.

Zaha Hadid

The architect’s death Thursday at the age of 65 makes her glamorous fling with Sparty seem even more like a weird dream.

At the Broad Art Museum’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2009, Hadid thanked Eli and Edythe Broad, the museum’s major donors, for the “really amazing” gift that enabled her to work again in the United States, “a land where dreams come true.”

“When I was 5 or 6 years old, I thought you could reach the moon by climbing a ladder,” she said. “These dreams, especially in education, are very important. Even if you only get 95 percent of your goals, it’s still amazing.”

To date, the Broad is one of only two Hadid designs built in the United States. The other is the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, a more conservative building than the Broad. A hive of sleek apartments along New York’s High Line, designed by Hadid, will be finished by early 2017, perhaps the last of Hadid’s visions to become reality in the United States.

Hadid had a reputation for broad strokes, but her perfectionism is what impressed MSU design administrator Dan Bollman, who negotiated with Hadid’s team throughout the three years of the Broad Art Museum’s construction and met with her twice.

“She’s an amazing artist,” Bollman said. “When you first meet her, it’s clear she thinks on a different level. You wouldn’t first get the impression she is into so much detail, because she talks about grand concepts. And yet, once she gets to the designs, it’s all about detail.”

The Midwest would seem to be an odd place to plant Hadid’s ultra-dynamic structures, but her designs always had a special allure for cities with something to prove.

Even Rome, the site of Hadid’s 2009 National Museum of XXI Century Arts, or MAXXI, used the Zaha cachet to brush up its image. MAXXI was widely seen as a signal that the Eternal City was ready to shake off its reputation as a city of relics and look to the future.

When Hadid’s crouching, metal-pleated Broad Art Museum design was picked out from the designs of five of the world’s top architects in 2009, MSU and East Lansing were ready to prove a thing or two as well.

The staid, Midwestern land-grant university was ready to flex its growing international reach in a new arena: art and architecture. Linda Stanford, a key MSU player in the museum’s planning phase, compared the Broad to other MSU ventures with international renown, such as the cyclotron and the College of Music.

When MSU held the Broad Museum design competition in 2009, Hadid was busy with a much larger project — a BMW factory in Leipzig, Germany. It was left to Patrick Schumacher, Hadid’s collaborator of 20 years and a brilliant architect in his own right, to pitch the design to the blue-ribbon jury. After all five firms made their pitches, there wasn’t much debate in the jury room.

The professional architects and museum directors on the jury loved the design. Unofficial alpha juror and founder of the feast, Eli Broad, a housing tycoon and Detroit bungalow builder from way back, took an instant shine to Hadid’s one-and-a-half-story layout.

MSU luminary Dolores Wharton weighed in, calling Hadid’s low-riding design “the BMW scheme.”

“Elegant, dynamic, cool — that’s the one we want to drive,” Wharton said.

MSU was catching the Hadid brand at its apogee of coolness. Newspapers from coast to coast reported Hadid’s win. Even The New York Times and The New Yorker ran squibs on MSU’s “Zaha moment.”

At times, it wasn’t clear who was wooing whom.

“We are very fortunate that she was even willing even to compete for our project,” MSU President Lou Anna Simon said.

Stanford, a sober scholar not given to gushing, even liked the “Z” in Hadid’s name.

“Not to be trite, but it’s angular, like her work,” she said.

For her part, Hadid liked the Broad Museum site, a tree-filled rectangle on Grand River Avenue near the university’s eastern entrance.

“It’s a fabulous site, especially in the context of a college campus,” she said.

It was a dramatic contrast from the vertical Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati, where Hadid rolled the visitor up the building, as if on a magic carpet.

At MSU, she went in the other direction, laying out an oblique parallelogram that slinks low in the trees.

The most conspicuous aspect of Hadid’s design is its surface. “The idea came as kind of a series of colliding spaces, not like a jigsaw, but almost like a patchwork,” Hadid said. “Conflicting lines and folding is something which we have looked at for a while, but it has never been tried in a particular building, and this is a suitable project.”

As the building took shape along Grand River Avenue, the community got a few close looks at one of the century’s most significant architects.

When Hadid came to East Lansing for the museum’s 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.

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Born in Baghdad, Hadid 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 meets Russian constructivism — ran through most of Hadid’s work, right up to the heron-wing metal pleating of her Broad Museum design.

Hadid whacked you 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.”

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

Edythe Broad and then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm ogle Zaha Hadid's ring at the Broad Art Museum groundbreaking March 16, 2010.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

The last thing Hadid wanted to build was a serene cube on stilts, elevated from the ground, a scheme often seen in modernist buildings. Instead, she plugged 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 pulsated and flowed 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 was 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 Art 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.”

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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, the Mind Zone exhibit in London’s Millennium Dome and a cobra-like ski jump and café in Innsbruck.

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.

The words are poignant in view of Hadid’s death, but she lived to realize much of that promise and belie the canard that her designs were unbuildable.

After the Pritzker Prize win, the floodgates opened for Hadid’s firm, which has over 100 designers working on high-profile projects all over the globe.

Zaha Hadid (left) and Eli Broad
Courtesy of MSU

In East Lansing, Hadid’s winning design for the Broad wove a weightless web of lines, vectors, fields, and planes. The builders had a bruising time re-weaving the web in heavy concrete, steel and glass.

The Broad site sat idle for nearly two years as engineers struggled to drag Hadid’s visionary design, kicking and screaming, into the real world. In one round of negotiations, contractor Kevin Waldman and his team worked out reinforcement and molding techniques that would hold a 50-foot-high wall at a 75-degree angle — not as steep as Hadid wanted it, but steep enough to make everybody happy.

Waldman said he never doubted that the building would break ground.

“There were times where I thought we were far apart, but I knew that MSU and Zaha Hadid were both committed,” Waldman said. “It was too great an opportunity for both sides to let it fail.”

Hadid’s office took an especially keen interest in the architectural concrete, or the concrete that’s exposed as a wall or floor rather than hidden structural support. Hadid was tracking the color, surface, texture, even the placement of the tie-holes where the forms attach.

Darryl Massa, vice president of the Broad’s lead contractor, Granger, had a love-hate relationship with Hadid.

“I don’t think anybody knew what we were getting into,” Massa said. “Zaha Hadid is so creative, they weren’t sure what they wanted. If the designer says, ‘We’ll know it when we see it,’ the contractor wants to pull chunks of hair out of his head and walk away.”

They went to Rome to look at the concrete at MAXXI and tried hundreds of concrete blends.

“She wasn’t willing to accept that concrete is a natural product and there’s going to be slight variations in color and finish,” Massa said. “She was trying to create this perfect finish.”

There was endless give and take between Hadid’s office and the troops on the ground, even when the work shifted to interior finishes. Project architect Kevin Marshall set off a new round of negotiations when he balked at using stainless steel for the sleek heating grates inside the galleries.

“It wasn’t serviceable,” Marshall said. “We had to convince Zaha Hadid’s office to switch to aluminum.”

Hadid demanded samples, a mock-up, and an explanation before accepting the solution.

Plugging in to the environment is a crucial element of Hadid’s vision, from the giant wave of the London Aquatics Centre to the stream-and-boulders layout of the Guangzhou Opera House. Hadid fought hard to keep that vision for the Broad.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Marshall said. “They held their guns and got most of what they wanted.”

Stanford said MSU’s encounter with Hadid was “transformative.”

“You don’t go into a Zaha Hadid building and come out the same way,” she said.

It’s not hard to pick the day when MSU was well and truly Zaha-ed. For months, an absurdly tall support beam, like a crutch in a Salvador Dali painting, supported the vast cliff of structural steel and plywood on the Broad Museum’s west side. When an inner truss of steel was securely in place, the beam was kicked away. The overhang kept on floating, having divorced gravity and married Zaha Hadid.

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