Porous by Design

Zaha Hadid is arguably the hottest living architect. After graduating from the American University in Beirut in 1971, the Iraqi-born Hadid moved to London to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA). She was awarded a Diploma Prize in 1977 and became a member of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, teaching at the AA with Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis. Later she led her own studio at the AA until 1987.

Though she was already renowned for her award-winning conceptual work, it wasn't until 1994 that her first built project was realized: the Vitra fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

Following that commission, Hadid's fame exploded. At present she is working on projects that would be coveted by today's most accomplished architects -- a contemporary arts center in Rome, a science center in Wolfsburg, a ferry terminal in Salerno, a public square and cinema complex in Barcelona, a central-plant building for BMW in Leipzig, and a major bridge structure in Abu Dhabi.

In addition, Hadid is a well-known educator, having taught at Harvard, Columbia, and Yale universities, as well as the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Last year her Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was enthusiastically received. It was the first museum built by a woman in America.

To see a Hadid project is a treat, an invitation to new ways of conceiving space and design. Imagine a collage of realities, where buildings and cities remain open to constant interactions with their inner and outer roles. Hadid is a virtuoso at rearranging perceptual space by melding and cutting planes, by exposing voids. You see solid layers bulging and receding, converging and splitting like codes of information into matrixes of human activities and interests.

Then there are Hadid's wormhole painting/studies, by now art pieces in their own right. They represent ways of addressing the site plan, where space is never static, where city becomes territory, where the mapping gets pulled from its geophysical extremes, exploded and distended over a manifold of relationships.

Zaha Hadid has taught us to conquer time with the space of the gaze, to look for other intentions spurred by unexpected visual and existential experiences. She was in town last week as a guest of the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, and delivered a lecture about her work. We talked by the pool at the Delano Hotel.

New Times: The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati has been a great success. How does it feel being the first woman to build a museum in America?

Zaha Hadid: I don't know. I mean, I don't know how it feels to be anything else. I guess it was an exciting experience. It's true that it hasn't been easy for women to succeed. Women struggle more to accomplish things on their own. We have to overcome prejudice. On the other hand, to achieve anything you need a degree of confidence and support.

You've said "shoot the square." Is that a statement reflecting an urban program?

Well, that had to do with a particular project in London, where we wanted to bring light to the underground in order to extend the public domain inside. It was not necessarily a statement against the square as an urban site.

Could it be interpreted as an approach to urban planning beyond tradition? There are those who defend a more traditionalist program. I'm thinking of New Urbanism. What's your take on it?

I try to avoid decrees, so don't have one single idea about urban planning. Spaces don't have to be necessarily traditional in the sense of squares. We can always reinvent the idea of civic space. Some of the New Urbanism ideas are interesting. My problem is when a program becomes dogmatic and develops into something too conservative. New Urbanism has this idea of mixed-use, small streets, and accessibility. It can work well in some places, but it may not work in others. There's no tabula rasa that works all over. The problem is when this program is realized as a gated community.

In Miami we live a contradiction. It's a seemingly open space of tolerance and democracy, but its urban reflection is isolated and segregated.

That's one of the most pressing problems of today, which is why our work is anti-fortification -- about porosity, accessibility, which actually makes for a healthier civic space. Gating has a high social cost and it doesn't address the cause of our cities' problems.

You've examined the urban space of important cities like London, Barcelona, Madrid, Manhattan, and Cologne, among others. In your master plan for Singapore you come up with four points: 1) a sense of identity, 2) unity in difference, 3) integrating heterogeneity, and 4) flexibility without chaos. What do you mean by this?

I guess it boils down to a plan with a friendly urban sky, which is ideally visible from within and without. It's important to create a sense of place within the different environments. Then there is also how you plan the space. I don't think that spatial coherence is properly addressed in the modern megalopolis. What you get a lot of is big concentrations of same-spaces or structures.

You generally change your roof outlines.

It depends where, but we try to achieve a range. Then there is the issue of how much the civic space gets outdated by design or accident. Planning needs to impregnate the public space with variety and excitement, whether by sloping or peeling or terracing -- a sort of choreography of shapes to incite movement and discovery. Geometry is very critical to reinventing the urban space.

How can we make it work in Miami?

Though I visit often, I don't know Miami that well. But I'll tell you, I see so many new towers in Miami (that for the most part are dreadful). This will dominate the skyline for years to come. Miami has a very interesting topography -- all these islands, the beach -- I love cities that are metropolises and also resorts. They offer people the possibility of getting out of their daily chores of life and enjoying themselves for a couple of hours. I've driven through the downtown and I see it needs to be rejuvenated. It could in fact be reinvented. There are interesting possibilities for reinvention in that area next to downtown, where all these museums will be. Or in Brickell, where they could create a different approach to that urban strip. Miami has so many facets.

Your earlier paintings are very beautiful as pieces themselves. People have perceived them as collages. You've called them "contained explosions." I see them as renditions of possible worlds beyond Euclidean geometry (particularly these wormhole renditions). Lately your paintings are monochromatic and you seem to rely more on computer technologies. How important is painting for you?

They were the construction of worlds. They were very important in the development of my work. They had more distortion. They gave you exploded and imagined conceptions of space. Computers, on the other hand, are more real and more opaque. They can render reality from so many angles, but they are very different. At the time, the common techniques in presentation did not use this kind of approach. In that context they were novel and did their job.

Your architecture is audacious -- this idea of the building going outside and the street coming inside and walls trespassing the confines of the box. I think it tests the limit of urban spaces to overcome their own fears. This is promising for social integration. What can we learn from your experience?

It depends on the location. There's no master planning. There are areas that have different densities and I'd apply different ideas and methodologies. The idea is not to homogenize and generalize. Each neighborhood has different qualities. There are lots of residential spaces here. Perhaps we need more civic spaces in well-designed areas. I'm still learning my way around.

Some critics and architects have described your work as cold. What do you have to say to that?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that my work is not about how to reinvent the exterior, but the interior. My work came about during and after a phase of pastiche and surface in contemporary architecture, filled with color, faux marble, and stuff like that. Once you are inside my buildings, you are in for an exciting experience. We're building more now, so I'd say it's very difficult to base your judgment on a single image.

I fell in love with your science center in Wolfsburg, which if anything looks quite expressionistic; this biomorphic porous mass of contoured concrete, filled with holes. One feels absorbed by what's inside.

We have achieved a great degree of complexity. The center is a feat of engineering. Each building we do is different, it has a different approach. The study of the ground was critical. We combined a lot of research to be able to come up with this.

When will we see a Hadid building in Miami?

I wish it were up to me. But there's nothing in the cards right now.

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Alfredo Triff