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Thread: Lost in Space - A Soho exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s work

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    Default Lost in Space - A Soho exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s work

    Lost in Space
    A Soho exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s work reveals an architect who is shaking up the way we experience architecture.

    By Joseph Giovannini

    People who think Arabic culture stopped developing after Baghdad fell the first time, in the thirteenth century, should visit the show Zaha Hadid at Artists Space in Soho, where the Baghdad-born, London-based architect exhibits the towering contribution she has made to architecture with her unique algebra of complex and curving space. Denizens of the grid, New Yorkers—and New York institutions like MoMA—treat the right angle as the only buildable option. But in drawing after drawing and model after model, Hadid consigns Western traditions of Euclidean geometry to the Dark Ages as she abandons the box and pursues nonlinear designs based on algorithms of change: picture graphs charting acceleration toward a three-dimensional infinity. As though wielding a divining rod, this mathematician turned architect senses the warp and torque of pressures on a site and invents delirious roller-coaster buildings that deliver the eye and body to topographies of thrill. Policemen could cite her buildings for speeding.

    Hadid’s Soho show is the latest stop in what seems to be an international Zaha-palooza, starting with the recent opening of a voluptuously rich retrospective in Vienna; followed by her winning the coveted Mies Prize in Barcelona for the best European building of the year, in recognition of her Park-and-Ride Station in Strasbourg; and then, last month, the triumphant opening of the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati—an eight-story antigravitational bundle of hovering horizontal galleries.

    The dense mixed-media show at Artists Space, curated by Lauri Firstenberg, presents clear evidence that Hadid has been very busy since the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at MoMA in 1988, when she displayed projects whose complexity anticipated by years the computer-driven designs of the following decade. Even then her work challenged the classical ideal that a well-tempered whole must bind the parts in a structured hierarchy—as in a Greek temple or even the efficient high-rises of Manhattan. In her post-classical projects, she liberated buildings from the ordering lines of gravity: Walls were no longer stiffly extruded up from a base like a stack of pancakes. Everything drifted into the Zaha ether. She applied perspectival drawing techniques from paper to three-dimensional forms, mixing the virtual and real, and the spectral geometries that came as a result generated enigmatic spaces beyond our ready ken. The parts of a building were no longer fixed but reeling and relational, pieced together in the mind during filmlike promenades. For Hadid, architecture is conceptual art; lazy eyes need not apply.

    With a series of midsize projects, Hadid built up credibility and recently won commissions for huge structures, including a billowing BMW automobile plant in Germany and a library, archive, and sports center in Montpellier, France. Remarkably, there is no attenuation of emotional or visual intensity; Hadid’s complex spatial equations translate even to large-scale buildings. The abstractions stretch with the vision.

    At Artists Space, Hadid unveils her newest project, the Price Tower Arts Center, to be built in the shadow of the Price Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiring nineteen-story masterpiece in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. She is one of the few architects anywhere who can survive proximity to Wright. The hypnotically sinuous structure grows tangentially from Wright’s angular building with a curve that rises and boomerangs back toward the entry. A ramped promenade flows continuously up into the two-story museum. Outside walls turn up in compound curves forming an undulating shell slashed with deep windows. Viewed from the tower, the roof forms a fifth façade, with skylights distorted by the force field like a rocket re-entering earth’s gravitational pull. The texture of Wright’s façades, themselves tensed in opposed patterns, is updated by Hadid’s oblique tartan.

    Though Hadid’s enigmatic drawings may seem cryptic, the built structures have proved to be spatial delights that unfold as visitors follow their curiosity through evolving interiors. With their fearful asymmetries, her designs exercise a talismanic pull through the physics of wonder she has invented: She mystifies form. Artists Space, and the principal sponsor of the show, Donna Karan, deserve sustained applause for bringing Hadid’s work to New York, especially when the city’s major design departments have conspicuously preferred safely dead masters to those breathing fire.



    Zaha Hadid's Urban Mothership

    ARCHITECTURAL and urban history were made here recently with the opening of Zaha Hadid's first American building, the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art. It is an amazing building, a work of international stature that confidently meets the high expectations aroused by this prodigiously gifted architect for nearly two decades. Might as well blurt it out: the Rosenthal Center is the most important American building to be completed since the end of the cold war.

    Coincidentally, a comprehensive retrospective of Hadid's work opened last month at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. Easily the most visually sumptuous architecture show to be seen anywhere in years, the exhibition puts the spotlight on a cluster of Hadid's recently completed buildings and other projects now moving toward construction. These include a train station in Strasbourg, France; a monumental ski jump, with lodge, in Innsbruck, Austria; a BMW plant in Leipzig, Germany; and a contemporary art museum in Rome.

    The Iraqi-born Hadid, at 52, is crossing a threshold, in other words. Up to now, she has been known mainly for her lushly seductive paintings and drawings of unrealized projects, like the Peak Club in Hong Kong (1982) and the Cardiff Opera House (1994). Encountering a finished Hadid building — in the round, at full scale, within a pulsing downtown setting — is like meeting a new architect for the first time.

    Hadid's renderings and models have already trained two generations to look at the city through different eyes. The Rosenthal Center performs a similar function for the body. It can be experienced as an exercise in heightening the mind-body connection, in fact. The design does not stint on visual spectacle. Inside and out, it presents vantage points of sufficient variety to keep photographers snapping happily for many years to come.

    But the building's power is fully disclosed only to those who engage it with their feet as well as their eyes. Hadid's renderings have long conveyed the impression of movement. The building gives this impression concrete form. Not even Saarinen's TWA terminal draws richer spatial textures out of architecture's circulatory systems. Wandering through the building is like exploring the varied and unpredictable terrain of present time. Staring right into the present is immensely more shocking than gazing at some corny crystal ball.

    The Contemporary Arts Center (originally the Modern Art Society), founded in 1939, sponsors a program of changing exhibitions but lacks a permanent collection. It made national headlines in 1990, when it was prosecuted for including sexually charged images in a retrospective of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The cause célèbre helped widen the museum's base of support.

    Its new building is located directly across the street from the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts, a weak example of contextual design by Cesar Pelli. Pelli's dull arrangement of orange brick boxes at least helps set off Hadid's more penetrating approach to framing urban relationships.

    The Rosenthal Center is a vertical museum, contained within a stack of concrete and metal cubic and rectangular enclosures that articulate the gallery spaces inside. The stack is as tall as an average 10-story building. Variations in ceiling height, the use of mezzanine levels and an irregularly shaped atrium reduce the actual number of floors. I gave up trying to count them. Instead, I gave myself over to the finely tempered rhythm of spatial compression and expansion that draws a visitor through the building.

    The exterior strikes my eye as an architectural application of the push-pull technique associated with Hans Hoffman's abstract paintings. The cubic enclosures recede and project, creating a sculptural surface of animation and depth. The forms are mostly made of raw concrete, punctuated by a large trapezoid finished with blackened aluminum and by windows of clear and blue-tinted glass. These shapes are not purely orthogonal but are slightly angled and tapered as they slip by one another across the facades.

    The building occupies a rectangular corner site and rises from an imposing, two-story lobby framed with glass. Entered from the broad side, the lobby extends the sidewalk surface indoors, forming a wide, concrete ribbon that stretches the full width of the site. At the far end, the surface curls up vertically to suggest a seamless and gravity-free continuity between floor and wall.

    Too bad the slope doesn't start on the sidewalk. It would be bliss for skateboarders. Still, the device introduces visitors to a building that Hadid has conceived as a vertical city street. For mass transit, take the elevator. Otherwise, proceed by foot, up a free-standing, switchback staircase enclosed in black steel. Again, this is a sculptural presence, not just in the aggressive angularity of the stairs but in their counterpoint with the lobby's expansive volume and its nearly monochrome surfaces of gray, white and buff.

    Up the stairs, you gain the dream sensation of breaking through a solid membrane into an alternative world: the steps lead you up into a soaring atrium space suffused from above with natural light. The atrium's compressed verticality plays against the lobby's broad horizontal volume. It's a Baroque effect, as if a secret portal had opened up in the ceiling of a Piranesian prison, letting the sun shine in and confined imaginations float out.

    The building's prevailing mood is Baroque, in its play of geometric variations and, especially, in its artful arrangement of processional spaces. Like Balanchine condensing an evening's worth of choreography into a 20-minute ballet, Hadid compresses Blenheim Palace into spaces that occupy a fraction of the area Vanborough had to work with.

    Or call it Baroque as reconceived by Duchamp in his early Cubist phase. Staircase descending nude concrete. Like Duchamp, Hadid presents a rhythm of multiple perspectives, roughly synchronized with the movements of bodies propelled by curious minds. Hadid's large painted renderings have accustomed us to this approach, but it's spectacular to see it fully realized. Walter Benjamin maintained that architecture is fully experienced peripherally, through slightly unfocused perceptions. That is the concept operating here.

    Hadid has described the museum as a "catalog of spaces." The galleries are not neutral white boxes. Their walls are slightly angled. Rooms of assorted sizes, pitched on different levels, are joined by ramps. But the proportions throughout are graceful. And the galleries are designed to be reconfigured by temporary partitions for different shows.

    The fourth-story level contains the building's heart. A kind of sky lobby, surrounding the staircase atrium, functions like an aerial piazza: a resting place for visitors moving through galleries, ramps, stairs. It sounds more complicated than it is. The balance between form and open space is impeccable. Call it a contemporary version of Tiepolo, with voluptuous voids in place of clouds.

    Hadid's preoccupation with movement has a precedent in the Futurist designs of Sant'Elia and the streamlined contours of Erich Mendelsohn. Her most notable departure from these precedents is the subtle complexity of the building's relationship to the city around it. The cubical facade thrusts the street grid skyward. The lobby floor does the same for the ground plane.

    Upstairs, windows and a small outdoor terrace frame views as fragmented as the city itself. We survey a metropolis that has concluded one phase of urban development and is witnessing the dawn of another, a place where people live not of necessity but because they want to be part of a future that invites surprise.

    Markus Dochantschi of New York was the project architect for the building. KZF Design of Cincinnati is the architect of record.

    MORE than 2,000 people showed up for the opening of Hadid's retrospective in Vienna. ("Zaha Hadid: Architecture" remains on view through Aug. 17.) At the door, attendants gave out T-shirts emblazoned with a Hadid quote: "Would they call me a diva if I were a guy?" I would. Or I would call her a star, which is scarcely an improvement. Fame is a gender-blind, equal-opportunity stigma in architecture these days.

    Those who don't follow the field closely are sometimes surprised by the degree of rancor that the mention of stardom stirs up. The reasons for this resentment are not obscure. One is that architecture still defines itself as a licensed profession, not an art. As in law or medicine, architecture clings to the notion that its practitioners are equals. They attend the same schools, pass the same tests, pay the same dues to the same professional organizations.

    When architects like Hadid become stars — when their work becomes an event worthy of press coverage — it is often assumed that they must be good at working the media. Better, perhaps, than they are at designing buildings. Actually, the press is interested in stars chiefly in a Jungian sense: stars are individuals capable of attracting and holding the projections of others. They communicate, often in ways that neither they nor their audiences fully comprehend, much less control.

    It would take too much euphemism and psychological speculation to analyze Hadid's communicative apparatus in depth. But those who want insight into the phenomenon of stardom have no business disregarding the subconscious fantasy structures that enable some architects to send messages and audiences to receive them. Indeed, in a field that now admits limitless aesthetic approaches, psychology has largely displaced style as the source of architectural form. Audiences for movies, fiction and even sports have taken this kind of shift in stride.

    Those who can't make it to the Vienna show this summer are advised to get hold of its catalog. The book doesn't provide the same depth of insight that visitors get from moving through the show's labyrinthine spaces. But it offers enough visual evidence to speculate on the architecture of Hadid's fantasies.

    By turns curved and spiked, voluptuous and menacing, Hadid's formal vocabulary recalls that of Arshile Gorky. The tension in the work derives from the precarious balance Hadid maintains between these emotional poles. This helps explain the ambivalence her work has aroused. Admirers like myself are passionate about it. Potential clients, however, have evidently been fearful: the ratio between raw talent and built work is wildly out of whack.

    A student of D. W. Winnicott, the British child psychologist, might say that Gorky's vocabulary signifies a young personality's attempt to reckon with the difference between a mother's "good" (nurturing) and "bad" (withholding) breasts. I venture to say the same about Hadid's vocabulary. Its appeal is exquisitely primal. That is what makes it so urban.

    In Beaux-Arts days, architecture was called "the mother art." Today, we might call it "the good enough mother art," after Winnicott's term for supportive maternal care. For many of Hadid's generation, for whom uprootedness is the social norm, the city has become a surrogate in later life for the good enough mother, architecture the medium through which we ourselves enact the nurturing role.

    This emotional dynamic goes far toward explaining the expansion in the audience for contemporary architecture over the last decade. Baroque processional architecture was shaped by court protocol. Ambassadors could proceed just so far into a suite of rooms before the prince's attendants would come forward to greet them. In contemporary architecture, the protocol derives from subconscious interactions between individuals in shared social space. This is the thread that connects work by architects as aesthetically various as Thom Mayne, Frank Gehry, Steven Holl and Rem Koolhaas.

    LET me refine (but not deflate) that opening burst of hyperbole. The Rosenthal Center defines the architectural context of the post-cold-war era. Like Hadid herself, the building links traditional cosmopolitan values with the phenomenon of globalization. Hadid's experiences as a woman and a native of the Middle East have sharpened her insights into that phenomenon. She grasps that contemporary urbanism, like current architectural practice, unfolds within a global framework. The Rosenthal Center embodies her historical awareness.

    Like any artist, Hadid is reluctant to have the semantics of her supple forms pinned down. Depending on her mood, she will or won't acknowledge Arabic calligraphy as a formal source. Her family, she points out, is well off, educated and modern. (Now based in London, she hasn't visited Iraq in 30 years.) When Hadid speaks of her university training in mathematics, she does not press the point that her field of study is of Islamic origin.

    Yet she will describe her student years in Beirut, Lebanon, as the happiest of her life. This was toward the end of the period depicted by Fouad Ajami in his 1998 book, "The Dream Palace of the Arabs," when Islamic intellectuals were building cultural bridges to the modern West. Urban life was and remains a common cause between the two worlds. As Americans have recently been reminded, cities, cosmopolitanism, civilization itself and, in that sense, we ourselves descend from Middle Eastern origins. Half the world hails from Club Med. The central marketplace where people could set aside tribal differences and coexist in peace — that's the idea Baghdad was invented for.

    In the West, mobility typically holds connotations of advanced technology and social displacement. In the Middle East, it is associated with nomadism and other ancient tribal traditions. Hadid can draw on both sources as easily as she can converse in different tongues. She recasts the ancient story of cities in service to her time.

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