Role Model > Zaha Hadid

As the bravest and boldest designer to shatter architecture’s glass ceiling since Julia Morgan, Zaha Hadid has been called a diva more than a few times. This kneejerk sexism is an unfortunate result of architecture’s waning but persistent domination by men in practice. While my own architecture class and faculty was pretty evenly split along the gender line, many firms at the highest levels of practice are still lingering in a boys-only era. In the century since Julia Morgan first broke barriers into the profession, few female architects have solely achieved a level of success and renown in their field such as Zaha Hadid can claim. The first female Pritzker Prize recipient in 2004, Ms. Hadid stands out among a generation of architectural designers who reject pointless classicism and rigidity for orthography-eschewing plasticity, reconciling form in a world where the perpetual constant is change.

Hadid has risen steadily up the ladder of elite architectural education and practice. She was born in Baghdad and studied math at the American University of Beirut before attending the Architectural Association in London, where she was taught by the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Leon Krier. After school she went on to work for Koolhaas at OMA London, and had her first major burst onto the scene with a series of paintings for the Peak Leisure Club competition (1983) in Hong Kong. The vibrant, sharply textured composition of objects in her works defy quick recognition in lieu of nuanced comprehension, and helped provide an early visual justification for the emerging deconstructivist movement of the time.

The crux of Hadid’s anti-orthagonal philosophy is that the line – the geometric construct between two points, upon which all of architecture relies – is inescapable from its orbital roots within the body of the individual. Advancing the idea that modern space is borne entirely of optical perception, Hadid views the universe as a series of vortexes rather than a static grid, comprised of “fields of distributed tension where things are poised to erupt”. By emphasizing the spherical and tangential over the rigidly symmetrical, Hadid’s built works seek to place the eye back into the body of the individual and radically trace their velocities within and throughout a collection of static spaces.

Vitra Fire House, Weil am Rhein Germany

The Vitra Fire Station (1994) in Weil am Rhein Germany is one of Ms. Hadid’s first permanent projects. This tiny lightning bolt of a building contains a modest program of garage and basic support spaces for the firefighters, housed neatly within a series of subtly canted and offset concrete walls. These shallow vertical obliques are anchored by a a sharply angled overhang springing out above the garage door, which dominates the approach composition and choreographs the movement of fire trucks into and out of the station. The daring design for this firehouse proved to be so popular that within just a few years of completion, the building was converted into the Vitra Design Museum and now houses a comprehensive collection of chairs and other industrial design pieces.

Another small but potent project of Hadid’s is the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck Austria (2002), whose main function as a  ramp is supplemented by sports support facilities as well as a cafe and viewing terrace. I imagine that Ms. Hadid relished the chance to design a facility for a sport whose inherent velocity and defiance of gravity suits her own fixation with movement and speed. As she has said, “I almost believed there was such a thing as zero gravity”, a concept that all ski jumpers can probably relate to. In this vein, the peak of the ski jump spirals around 180 degrees and cants upward into a sleek steel box containing the public program and support requirements, propped atop a slender stair and elevator core. The asymmetrical profile and height of this skybox cuts a distinctive profile in the alpine sky while giving occupants panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Bergisel Ski Jump, Inssbruck Austria

By the early aughts, Hadid’s bravado and well-established reputation among the architectural elite began to result in a growing roster of realized buildings, characterized by increasing scale and prestige. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (2004) is Hadid’s first permanent work within the United States, and was hailed by Time Magazine upon its completion as one of the most important American works of architecture to be built in decades. Although the CAC’s oblique arrangement of monolithic concrete masses and glassy interstitial volumes was a huge leap forward for Cincinnati’s architectural pedigree, the design is comparatively tame when viewed alongside Hadid’s subsequent projects from overseas.

Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg Germany

The Phaeno Science Center and BMW Central Building, both located in Germany, give an idea of Hadid’s potential when working with a grander program and budget. The Phaeno Center is comprised of a generously scaled, horizontally slung exhibition space perched above ground level on a series of vortically cast structural piers. The main exhibition volume is enclosed by a subtly faceted concrete perimeter wall, punctuated by an erratic pattern of rounded windows that evoke futuristic starship imagery. Another daringly angled building is the BMW Central Plant, whose design is deliberately evocative of the sleekness and speed of the machines manufactured and housed therein. With a cascading, overlapping sequence of metallic and concrete bands that define paths of circulation for people and product alike, the sharp composition of this factory provides a suitably avant-garde setting for the luxury carmaker’s production and delivery activities.

MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art, Rome

Bolstered by these well-admired and publicized projects, Ms. Hadid has entered the new decade on an increasingly upward trajectory. Capitalizing on her success in architecture, she has branched into other design fields and brought her cutting edge aesthetic to a variety of product lines, ranging from furniture to interior fixtures to personal accessories. While raising her profile and reputation among denizens of the haute fashion world, Hadid’s architectural portfolio has simultaneously been amplified by the realization of two huge projects, the MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art (2009) outside Rome and Ghangzhou Opera House (2011) in China. The former is a nearly 100,000 sq. ft. museum conceived as a “field of buildings” rather than a monolithic art vault, with “major streams” for gallery spaces and “minor streams” for their interwoven connections. Exploiting an L-shaped site, Hadid’s composition of flowing circulatory paths and undulating structural joists creates an energetic gathering space for users moving within and between exhibition spaces.

Still undergoing its finishing touches as of this writing, the Ghangzhou Opera House is a 70,000 sq. ft. project containing a main auditorium, black box theater, rehearsal support spaces, and a large public park. The interior of the main opera hall is lined by a system of rippling parabolic panels that conceal the connections between adjacent balcony trays, while a similarly swoopy foyer encloses the ancillary black box theater. As with her other projects, Hadid’s emphasis on movement and the act of traveling between different programmatic zones drives the design, with spiral ramps and undulating escalators providing links between different levels and a large plaza and park. Connected to the opera house by paths running alongside a large reflecting pool, this park gives the building an indelible social purpose in a previously impressive yet generic business district on the outskirts of town.

As we head into a new decade, Zaha Hadid’s portfolio and stature among the circles of influential, globe-trotting architects is only poised to grow. Next year, her London Aquatics Centre will be completed and take center stage in that city’s hosting of the Summer Olympics, followed by a number of institutional, educational, and civic projects in many different corners of the globe. It is truly exciting to witness Ms. Hadid’s ascendancy into a highly male-driven field like architecture, and I count myself as one of the many young designers who are awaiting this diva’s next stateside project with open minds and sketchbooks.


Role Model > Gwen Stefani

When she first found success in the mid 90s as the extremely photogenic lead of the ska band No Doubt, Gwen Stefani epitomized the Gen-Y southern California girl. More than just a gorgeous face for the album and magazine covers, over the course of four No Doubt albums she repeatedly proved herself as a rock/R&B singer with the vocal range, free styling ability, and outlandish stage presence to propel that group to huge success. I remember listening to Tragic Kingdom while growing up, and especially watching the legendary “Don’t Speak” video when MTV and VH1 played it seemingly every hour on the hour in the year of its release, 1996.

After the huge radio and TV success of Tragic Kingdom propelled No Doubt to the top of the pop/rock game by the close of the century, the band followed up with the less admired but lovably funky Return of Saturn in 2000. The video for its leading single “Ex-girlfriend” debuted Gwen’s new pink hair color, a look that was far more successful on Gwen then it was on her Top 40 stablemate, the too-literal Pink. Thanks to my dear friend Bobby (who is the ultimate source for all things Gwen) I later learned that the song’s lyrics “you say you’re gonna burn before you mellow / I’ll be the one to burn you” are a direct shot at her and boyfriend Gavin Rossdale’s tumultuous relationship.

Within two years of releasing Return of Saturn, No Doubt followed up with the wildly popular Rock Steady. The production of this dance pop/reggae fusion album was assisted by the Neptunes, finding inspiration from global dancehall musical styles and giving the it a worldwide appeal. Around the same time, Gwen began to capitalize on the established success of her band in order to break off and guest star on tracks with artists like Moby and Eve, the latter of which lead to the amazing “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”:

With the success of these guest spots, it was clear that Gwen was about to graduate from No Doubt into her own solo career. In 2004, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. was released, again featuring production assistance from some of the biggest names in R&B (Neptunes, Andre 3000, Dallas Austin) but also finding inspiration from new wave acts like New Order and Depeche Mode. Spawning six singles and inspiring a new generation of devotees, L.A.M.B. also marked the start of Gwen’s career as fashion designer and her newfound obsessions with eastern culture, epitomized by the Harajuku Girls. I will forever associate the song “What You Waiting For?” with my freshman year at Northeastern, with its incessant beat and parabolic vocals inspiring countless impromptu dance parties in the dorms.

The Sweet Escape followed at the end of 2006, with the leading single “Wind it Up” sampling The Sound of Music and further proving Gwen’s willingness to take risks with her music. The album’s titular track, with its Akon guest spot and earwig “wee-oooh” backup, was the definitive song of summer 2007. Besides these summery singles, my other favorite from TSE is the recently rediscovered cold weather jam, “Early Winter”:

In the years since her last album, Gwen has been busy raising a family with Gavin and re-joining No Doubt – which she never officially left – for a nationwide tour in 2009. Proving that you can go solo and return to the roots that made you a star, Gwen and the rest of No Doubt have reportedly been in production on their sixth studio album since May. This post is just a glimpse of Gwen’s musical trajectory thus far, and I excitedly await the results of her return to No Doubt and any future solo projects.


Media > V Magazine

Take a look at your typical magazine stand and you’ll see a barrage of overtly photoshopped and awkwardly posed celebrities, trying to assert their importance under familiar mastheads like People, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and so on. The sorry state of print journalism in the internet era is an inevitable result of the rampant unoriginality in concept, writing and graphic layout that afflicts many storied publications. I struggle to find any discernible difference between the usual tabloid suspects like Us Weekly and Life & Style, but also between the more aspirational brands such as Gentleman’s Quarterly and Details.

Blatant similarities between these titles can be partially attributed to shared publishers and overlapping audiences, but considering the richness of variety among internet media outlets, the excuses for hackneyed content among popular magazines are rapidly vanishing. As old media titans struggle to stay relevant among younger demographics accustomed to free online content 24/7/365, it seems that we’re reaching an unmistakable tipping point in the balance of power between vaunted print institutions and their nimbler online foes.

Enter V Magazine. Launched in 1999 as a pedestrian offshoot of the uber-exclusive (and expensive) Visionaire, this large-format glossy is an unapologetic ode to the most beautiful and stylish among us, with a graphic design and photographic ethos to match. As many traditional magazines have been forced to surrender their product to an online format, struggling to find a profit in the process, V deliberately keeps its website outdated and lacking while saving the best content for the print edition. Although this business model is not unique to V, no other fashion magazine offers such a visceral print experience to compensate for their online version.

Delivered to subscribers in protective plastic (so you know it’s important!), V is not just a photographic feast of sexy people, but also a forum for informed commentary on matters of art, fashion, music, film and media in general. Every article and photo spread exudes superior quality and attention to detail, elevating the magazine from toss away fashion rag to artfully crafted quarterly that will attract readers to your bookshelf or coffee table for years to come. Although it has a host of overseas complements (Numero, i-D, Dazed & Confused, Arena Homme), New York-based V manages to hold its own ground and project a distinctly American lilt while featuring models and designers from all over the world.