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.

-MJC

Architecture > High Museum

After graduating from undergrad, I decided to break free of Boston and the northeast region for the summer and resettle myself somewhere completely new for a change. Megan and I ended up in Atlanta due to the influence of our good friend Bobby, a native Georgian and frequent booster of all things ATL. Convinced that we could at the very least meet new types of people and understand life in this country from a different perspective, we decamped in the heart of Atlanta’s thriving Midtown neighborhood for nearly three months, subletting a spacious old apartment on Juniper St. from some Georgia Tech students who had relocated to California for the summer.

Our location in Midtown and proximity to the Highlands and Little Five Points placed us strategically among the most vibrant of Atlanta’s residents. The neighborhood’s identity as a leading arts district for the southwestern U.S. is summarily expressed by the Woodruff Arts Center,  a collection of museums and theaters that run along Peachtree St. NE and constitute the inner city’s most architecturally significant area. Anchoring this cultural district is the High Museum of Art, a complex of several buildings whose centerpiece is the 135,000 square foot, Richard Meier-designed museum which opened in 1983. In August when my ATL days were numbered, I made the short journey up Peachtree by bike to check out the city’s leading cultural institution and admire Richard Meier’s pristinely white  artifices under a blistering summer sky.

original axonometric

Richard Meier is an avowedly rationalist architect whose design aesthetic springs directly from the stripped down functionality popularized by modernist forebears such as LeCorbusier and Mies. Known particularly for his purely white geometries and familiarity with the art museum typology, in the past three decades Meier has garnered commissions for civic and cultural buildings throughout the world, with the Getty Villa in Los Angeles arguably being the most well known among them.

The High Museum predates the Getty by a few years, and began its life as the Atlanta Art Association in 1905. In 1926 the High family, who had been major donors to the Art Association, donated their home on Peachtree St. to house the group’s growing art collection, which eventually moved into a separately constructed museum building in 1955. By the late 1970s, as Atlanta was growing in population, economic vitality, and cultural significance, the High Museum saw it necessary to expand their facilities to adequately reflect the city’s growing importance as the unofficial capital of the southeastern United States. With $20 million to cover the cost of the new building, the High Museum’s fundraising efforts were matched by a $7.9 million grant from who else but the president of the Coca-Cola company, Robert Woodruff.

site plan

I imagine that the trickiest part of designing a museum is figuring out how the building’s tectonic form will communicate with the two and three dimensional artworks inside of them. While traditional museum design has encouraged visitors to enjoy the spectacle of the architecture as much the art, in some recent projects like Sanaa‘s New Museum on the Bowery, architects have taken deliberate steps to simplify their compositions and try to focus visitor’s attention away from the buildings themselves and back onto the exhibitions housed within. In the case of the New Museum, the designers were working in a highly dense urban context with long-established artistic bona fides. Such was not the case for the High in Atlanta.

Meier understood the High Museum’s importance as a cultural focal point for Atlanta, developing his design as “a series of architectonic responses to context in the broadest sense, understood to include not only functional, programmatic, and typological concerns, but also the physical, social, and historical context of the city”.  Recognizing the site’s unique location in a pedestrian-oriented section of a notoriously sprawling metropolis, Meier began with a simple parti of four quadrants or cubes. One of these cubes is carved out to distinguish itself from the other three and form the monumentally glazed quarter-circle atrium, with four levels of ascending ramps acting as the circulatory crux of the whole composition. This grand atrium is oriented towards Peachtree St. and connected to its sidewalk by a long ramp that diagonally bisects a verdant front lawn.

Although most visitors ascend this triumphant ramp and begin their exploration of the High in the grand atrium, I actually entered through a courtyard off to the right side, through the more recent Renzo Piano additions. The most remarkable aspect of Piano’s portions of the museum are the qualities of light created by his spherically coffered ceiling planes, found in the new lobby as well as the top floor of the additional galleries. These ping-pong ball negatives glow softly with indirect daylight and cast the galleries in an even and natural light, ideal for art viewing and preservation. Piano’s circular coffers at the High are a less explicit but more elegant solution to light diffusion than is found in his recently opened addition to the Art Institute of Chicago, where rows of tilted white blades rest simply atop a trussed glass ceiling to block strong southern rays from entering the gallery spaces.

While natural light plays an indirect role in Piano’s new galleries and lobby spaces, it is front and center in Meier’s spectacular quarter-circle atrium. Stepping into the ground floor of this space and viewing the stacked ramps immediately evokes the continuously spiraling ramp of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Meier deliberately sought to reinterpret the virtues of the Guggenheim while avoiding its excesses, namely the fact that circulation and gallery functions are not separated in Wright’s design and that those continuously curving walls, while beautiful, are famously difficult for hanging paintings.

Separating gallery and circulation functions, Meier’s atrium is almost completely free of artwork, serving instead as a reverent gathering space directly lit from above. The natural light that pours through this glass ceiling falls over a radial arrangement of structural beams and smaller mullions, casting the atrium’s white walls in an intricate play of light and shadow that changes with the sun’s position throughout the day. The walls that define gallery edges are clearly supported by a regular post and lintel system, but project into the atrium at irregular angles and distances, affording those on the ramps a constantly shifting perspective into the exhibition spaces and artwork.

When the museum first opened in 1983, its design was a huge step towards putting Atlanta on the American cultural map, and was praised by architecture press as “undeniably a jewel and Meier’s finest work to date”. Considering that Richard Meier won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, just a year later, this glowing assessment appears to be accurate. Although it has since expanded and Meier has gone on to better known and grander museum commissions, the High Museum continues to be a major draw for admirers of art and architecture alike, with a monumentally modern building and grand atrium forming the definitive base for Atlanta’s growing artistic caché.

-MJC

American Graffiti

One of the more divisive debates among both artists and bureaucrats is whether graffiti, from simple marker tags to vibrant spray painted murals, should be considered artistic expression or vandalism. Though I suspect that many of my generation would automatically be of the former opinion, I believe that people’s perception of graffiti as art or crime is greatly dependent upon the aesthetic impact and specific location. Personally I think if it looks good and is located on an otherwise blank and boring wall, what’s the harm?

Stealing hearts in Venice, Italy

Where it might be considered offensive to tag a historically significant or iconic piece of architecture like the Boston Public Library, the plethora of anonymous building stock that exists within our cities and suburbs provides a huge amount of communal canvasses for graffiti artists to utilize. Although the defacement of private or public property without consent is unlawful, I think that the more talented graffiti artists truly enhance the visual appeal of an otherwise anonymous part of the urban landscape with their aerosol sprayed creations. In NYC, The Long Island City Graffiti Building (aka Five Pointz) is a great example of how parts of the degraded industrial landscape can be beautifully repurposed as a safe haven for established and aspiring graffiti artists.

Although it has traditionally been associated with criminal activity and gang culture, there is a growing recognition of graffiti as a legitimate form of artistic expression that, due to its often public contexts, is more accessible to the masses than in a stodgy art gallery. No longer just the province of degenerates and art school outcasts, graffiti has moved gradually into the mainstream as controversial figures like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have emerged as celebrated artists in their own right.  Both of these contemporaries owe some of their success to the iconic Jean-Michel Basquiat, who since his swift rise and tragic demise in the 1980s has unfortunately become a commodified poster boy for cool downtown street art. Nevertheless, he occupies a special place in art history for bringing street culture into the fine art world, and for incorporating words and messages into his figurative expressionism.

I was inspired to write this post by a series of murals I discovered on the backside of a seemingly non-descript building here in Atlanta, located on Boulevard NE in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood:

And just for good measure, here is a mural that I always see from the train on the Newburyport/Rockport line, heading North from Boston:

Clearly, graffiti art is more striking as a collective endeavor. When it’s allowed to spread to the point of taking over an entire wall surface, the artistic impact of this collaborative vandalism is unmistakable.

Update: if you want to learn about Atlanta’s burgeoning street art scene and the upcoming Living Walls, the City Speaks conference, read this great article by my good friend Jessica Blankenship.

-MJC