Thursday, October 03, 2002

Architect builds on contemporary life

Thoroughly modernist Zaha Hadid aims to enlighten, delight public with new contemporary arts center

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When Zaha Hadid appears at the entrance to a small salon at the Cincinnatian Hotel, she is bigger than life, a commanding vision in black.

        Her dark wavy hair falls to her shoulders, thick, light auburn streaks adding dimension. A minimalist Zoran jacket tops her flowing, gossamer dress. She wears short black boots, a ring of golden rods embellished with a diamond, and carries a gold lame purse shaped like a woman's derriere.

[photo] Zaha Hadid, architect of the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art
(Enquirer photo)
| ZOOM |
        Architect of the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Ms. Hadid was in town last week for a walk-through of the building under construction at the corner of Sixth and Walnut streets, downtown.

        The 85,000-square-foot museum, a provocative melding of concrete, steel and glass, features undulating levels and ramps to accommodate the varied shapes, scales and media of contemporary art. The galleries, which appear to float over the main lobby, connect and interlock like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle allowing for unobstructed viewing from all sides.

        When it opens in May, it will be the first American museum designed by a woman. Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times describes her as a “Pure virtuoso of design, she has no living rival.”

        Ms. Hadid is a devout modernist, a particular kind of genius whose designs move from the exterior to interior, including even the furniture. She is intuitive, loves a challenge, and likes to push her designs beyond the expected. She operates partially in the future and partially in the now where trends, ideas and consciousness are formed.

        She says construction on the CAC is proceeding “OK” and hopes to return later this month. During this visit, she shares her ideas on architecture, teaching and contemporary life.

        Question: What have you found challenging in the construction of the new CAC?

Answer: A challenge is to keep the integrity of the building and to keep the cost, not down necessarily, but on budget. It is the same with every project. Because the budget for the contemporary arts center was quite tight ($20 million construction costs), we had to think of other materials and other ways of doing things.

        Q: Is there a lot riding on this building?

    Born: Baghdad, 1950
    Marital status: single, no children
    Education: University of Beirut, bachelor degree in mathematics, Architectural Association, London 1983
    Teaching experience: With Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis at AA, later at her own studio. Has held visiting professorships at Harvard and Columbia universities and a series of master classes and lectures at various colleges around the world.
    In 1994 she held the Kenzo Tange chair at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. Currently professor of architecture at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna.
    First job: Partner, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, London
    Self-employed: Began her own practice in 1979
    First commission: An apartment in Eaton Place, London, which won the Architectural Design Gold Medal in 1982.
        A: I think there are a lot of expectations, for sure — here and in Europe. The building is unique in that it is a vertical institution.

        Q: How will the building impact Cincinnati?

A: I think what's great is that it's a public project. Obviously it's a major contemporary art institution. I think it engages the public in what is going on in art or the art scene. Some of the artwork is social or political or challenges prevailing ideas.

        There is an education aspect to it — that's on the top floor. The public lobby where everyone enters is downtown and central to the city so people who are just walking around can go in and have a coffee downstairs or hang around the lobby or go upstairs to quickly see a show. It is very accessible. It's not a compact building and there is a degree of transparency on the ground and above. So it's not only how we use it, but also how we pass through it.

        Q: What about the interior?

        A: The terracing of the interior is quite unique — the idea of the landscape coming in. You can end up, or come down or you can just meander through the space like you would in a landscape. Every time you confront the space you have a different experience.

        Q: Do you draw a line between the paintings you do and your designs?

        A: Yes. When I was doing architecture, I really thought that the way we present a building or a document is not appropriate for it to become something else. I really tried to draw differently. And that was in addition to the three-dimensional research I did.

        Q: Your designs embrace the future and make allowances for future trends. How do you stay current?

        A: By really looking at all the other mediums. You have to be very aware and ahead — architects should be ahead of what's going on because it takes so long, not the building but developing the idea.

        Q: What really excites you about a project?

A: First it must be challenging, but also the puzzle of finding how you can put together two disparate things. It's like doing some sort of recipe or chemical reaction. It's always exciting finding another idea to bring into the fold and then stepping back to look at the whole situation.

        Q: First and foremost you are a modernist. What is it about modernism that appeals to you?

        A: That it deals with contemporary life. And also that it's not about doing the facade of a building and what's behind it doesn't relate to it. One major aspect of modern life or modern architecture is the acknowledgement of civic space or public life — even if we are talking about housing.

        Q: What about public space, how is that a consideration?

        A: Our daily routines are very different than they were in the 19th century in Europe or the 18th century in America. The position of public space has changed over the years from one central space as it is in Italy to the variety we have today.

        Therefore architects have to reflect on the way we handle space and how that space can invigorate us or challenge us or excite us or make us comfortable.

        Because really architecture is about well being and about shelter. You have to feel good in a space even if it is a small space. It doesn't really matter. Luxury is the quality of space and it is an important component of modern existence.

        Q: It's been said you think in geometry and that your designs have been influenced by Arabic calligraphy. Is this true?

        A: No, I don't think in geometry. And there isn't a singular source of influence. There are many sources. Calligraphy has to do with landscape. It depends on the moment. I was also influenced by a Russian movement called Suprematism (a movement started in 1915 using similar pure abstract forms in limitless space) and Constructivism and there is definitely a connection between

        Suprematism, abstraction and calligraphy. I think I was also influenced by the modern movement and what the political and social agenda was.

        Q: Does that mean architecture is political rather than social?

        A: I still really believe that ultimately — it might take a long time — architecture changes our lives. That doesn't mean it should represent a political movement. It really is the social impact. We have to invest in public housing, and education is very important. The way you design these buildings has an impact on the people who use them. I think eventually it (the buildings) makes the environment we work in, live in and study in, better.

        Q: How does education fit in?

        A: Education has so many layers whether it is listening to great music or going to see great art. Culture is a major component of education. Any of these things can enlighten people's lives. I think architecture can help do that.

        Q: You are a committed teacher. Do you have a philosophy on education?

        A: Teaching is very interesting. I think all you can really do is open the door, to let students know that if you open the door more you can discover and learn more things. It is also about getting these people to have the confidence to take that on. Most of the time people are so skeptical about new ideas or challenges that they are kept back. It is more important to push students (or anybody) to the point where they can discover more.

        Q: Growing up in Iraq and then moving on to 1970s London, was it a formidable struggle?

        A: Actually it was easier than it is now. There are more women architects there than in Europe. It was more acceptable to be a professional, to be an architect. There was less dogma about you as a woman architect. You know the whole perception of the Arab world is often wrong. In particular, I think because the education was quite liberal in Beirut and women — they have been liberated since the '50s — were really trained and educated. None of us at the time ever considered not being professional.

        Q: Was it difficult after graduation?

        A: There is actually less taboo in Beirut. Women can keep their jobs and carry on with their traveling or whatever because it is a bit of a community. You can leave your kids with your mother or your stepmother or with your father or your mother-in-law. This idea of one nuclear family unit doesn't exist there. Even if you have help, they are part of the family. So I think it was a lot easier to actually practice or teach than in London.

        Q: You studied mathematics at the University of Beirut. When did you decide to become an architect?

        A: I always wanted to become an architect. From the time I was 11 years old. I didn't know what an architect was. I asked my friends, "What is it called, a person who does projects on buildings?' They told me it was an architect and of course I was stuck on that. I enjoyed math as well, so I did that but I knew I really wanted to become an architect.

        Q: After graduation, you entered the Architectural Association in London. How was that?

        A: It is really a fantastic institution. At that time we were on the cusp of doing only the social aspect of architecture. We were not entering in to any formal language or historical stuff. The school really tried to push the boundaries to discover a new modern language. You were free; there were no exams. It made a difference to those of us trained there. We look at things differently.

        Q: Two weeks ago the ski jump you designed in Innsbruck, Austria, was unveiled. How was the response?

        A: There was a big event with all these guys who look 15 — but they are obviously much older. They are very young and very light, otherwise they could not leap like a feather. With most ski jumps these guys would go out to a tower and leap off but now with this design you have a public space on top — a cafe and restaurant and a viewing terrace. It engages the urban life of the city with the ski jump. It is quite nice.



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