Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Zaha Hadid Architects - Purveyors of Architectural Melancholy

I was recently back up in Glasgow for a couple of days, and in that time I noticed that the new Transport Museum is getting closer to completion. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, it promises to be a rather expensive piece-of-shit of a building, and is generally a bit of a shame.

I’ve already discussed ZHA a number of times here, often in regards to unwittingly interesting things that they’ve done, such as the accidental brutalism of LF1 and the Wolfsburg museum (which I shall only even consider visiting once it has become seriously rotten) and I suppose that this counts as a continuation of the series. The more I think about it though, the more I consider just how truly ridiculous an architectural practice they are, the more I’m beginning to think that she, Patrick and all the rest of them are geniuses after all, just not at all in the way that they would like to think that they are. ZHA are conceptual architects, not because their ideas are particularly intelligent (bet you can't wait to have PS tell us what it’s all about), but because their over-attachment to a certain architectural ideology leads to results that are so ludicrous that they tell you far more about the world in which they appear than a more serious, successful piece of architecture could. Like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, the success of their blatant shit-ness speaks volumes about the state of their field, its ideologies and economies.

"They used to build stuff here..."

So; down by the River Clyde, on a site once occupied by docks, shipyards and all the usual riverside industry, there has been quite a lot of ‘regeneration’ recently. In this ‘award winning’ district (whose grasping, blubbering website is worth a look of despair), where once stood the incredible Meadowside Granaries (some of the biggest brick buildings ever built in Europe), there are now just some ghastly generic yuppiedromes, isolated from the rest of the city by the expressway, with no shops, through routes, nothing. Just across the mouth of the Kelvin from all this is the site for the new transport museum, on a site that once accommodated a couple of ugly black distribution sheds.

Brandwagon Jumping

The competition for the building was won in 2004, after Charles Gordon, the leader of Glasgow City Council, in a typically small-minded and vulgar attempt to jump on the brandwagon made clear that they wanted it to be built by an international starchitect. So despite the legitimate and prescient public complaints of Alan Murray (“I doubt if the international architects […] will consider a £40m museum project in Glasgow as the most important in their offices”), they bypassed the considered, clever, if somewhat dull project of Gareth Hoskins, one of the leading Scottish ‘Polite Modernists’, a man who evidently knows his GKC from his KFC. It’s a shame, because Hoskins’ project had more sensitivity to the continuity of cultural context of the Clyde, was leagues more sophisticated than Zaha’s proposal, and would probably have been cheaper as well. But oh well, if you’re that committed to the ideologies of regeneration, of which Meades’ deconstruction is still unsurpassed, then any old shiny piece-of-shit will do.

So what was the idea behind the project? At first glance, which is generally all that a sight-bite needs, the building is a ‘squiggly shed’. But there must be something more to it than that, so it’s worth going and having a look at the blurb on the ZHA website, which is unfortunately a masterpiece of broken English, vagueness and non-sequitur. For example;

The level of each visitor’s understanding varies but the building and its content remain static giving a fluidity of purpose. We believe the museum’s greater ambition is to expand its cultural context, hence our placement of the museum’s content where initially there was an exploitation of the site to magnify its position on the Clyde and with the city of Glasgow. Once again presenting the museum in a unique position.

With the site situated where the Kelvin flows into the Clyde, so the building can flow from the city to the river and in doing so it can symbolise A dynamic relationship where the museum would be the voice of both.

So basically, it seems that the building is kind of like a river, because it’s situated to the side of a couple of rivers. Great. That’s the best minds in the business operating there, seriously. The building is a shed with a series of pitched roofs, much like any old shed, in fact not unlike the sheds that were on the site beforehand, except it has been twisted. That’s all. Most of the other selling points for the project are no-brainers like having the building open to both the entrance and the river. I admit that I’m not sure what the ideal approach would be, I suppose something a little more sophisticated and somewhat more relevant, but nobody asked me so it doesn’t matter. All that the client seems to have wanted was a name, and a shape.

Weak Bravado

Recently there was an article in BD about the building, whose folded roof structure was recently completed. The article is mainly about the roof, but it speaks volumes about the relationship between contemporary architects, especially icon-stylists, and the engineers who make it happen. The key quote from the article is the following:

He says the competition-winning concept they had to work with was a system of ridges and valleys, which had to be translated into a structure.

Read that again.

So this is what has happened to the Modernists’ quest for a synthesis of the Engineer and the Architect in the last 80 years. Absolute disassociation. The architect wins the competition with a shape, which the brains then have to spend time figuring out how to solve. This isn’t exactly a full circle (the negation of the negation blah blah), but this is a very strange cultural position to be in, a truly postmodernist one. Now of course the Modernists’ quest for synthesis was vulgar and naïve, and of course this quasi-dialectical teleological view of the world and its cultural expressions had to be surpassed (ha!), but is this really where we’ve ended up, nearly forty years after Pruitt-Igoe and Complexity and Contradiction? The best architects in the world as decorators, as stylists? And what’s more - all that structure, all that difficulty, all of the real work of the building will be completely clad, both inside and out, expressed only as shape.

But there’s something else here as well. The BD article talks about the ‘vast internal space’ of the building, and everyone seems bloody pleased that they’ve managed to create a column free space for the inside. But how big is that space? In the spiel on Zaha’s website they say that it ranges from 30m to 50m wide, and is 200m long. So how proud should an architect and engineer be of a 50m wide, 200m long column free space? I suppose it depends on the time you’re designing it, really. For example, if I had designed a space, sometime around 1867 that had a column free span of 73m and a length of 210m, I’d be pretty proud of myself, and I’m sure that Willian Henry Barlow and Rowland Mason Ordish were pretty proud of their work at St. Pancras. But to do that now is nothing at all special, and those involved seem to be much more pleased that they’ve managed to fix all the problems that they made for themselves, than at the actual impressiveness of the spanning-feat.

Failure, Futility, Cheapness, Genius

Which brings me onto the reasons why I think that the building is actually a work of inadvertent genius. How better could a piece of architecture signify the impossible situation of basing a theory of architectural worth on its expression of engineering, that functionalist shibboleth? For a brief, but achingly significant period in the middle of the nineteenth century, architecture and engineering really did meet, in the sense that there was a reciprocal demand for expanding the limits of each field. New technologies led to new building types, which forced engineers to come up with new structural systems. The iron and glass palaces really were as close to that perfect moment as construction could get, but by the end of the 19th century, the capabilities of the engineers had exceeded what they could be needed for. Look at the Paris exhibition of 1889; the Eiffel Tower and the Galerie des Machines were both engineering feats that totally over-fulfilled the demands that could be made of them by society; there was no need for any building that vast, and there never really would be. In a way, this outstripping of technology is akin to ‘the fall’ of functionalism; humans are incapable of living up to this ideal synthesis of technology and design, and it can therefore only ever be a case of expressing something that cannot actually be, of ‘elegant’ (or of course, cost-effective) solutions to our inadequate problems. This fracture in the conceptual foundations of modernist architecture haunts it still.

In this case, the baroquely difficult solution to the five-second long design process is a perfect example of the dead end; of the arbitrariness and bankruptcy of cultural architecture, a seductive design moment, achingly contingent (should that squiggle be 500mm to the left or not?) followed by an interminable slog of realisation, keeping everybody busy. The fact that the buildings that occupied the site previously were sheds of about the same size, albeit of a less wow-factor shape is hilarious, making this an exercise in architectural futility.

And this futility just deepens… the building is an example of ‘Google Earth Urbanism’. That is to say; all this complexity can only really be seen from directly above. Without a spare helicopter, all you are really left with is the façade, which is marginally more interesting than your typical shed, and the blank slug-like form of the ‘swooshing’ S-shape, which meets the ground with all the elegance of a squished gastropod. And the interior, well, it’s actually really difficult to find any images of the interior, it would seem that they’re not particularly proud of it. There is this video, which shows a couple of swoops through what looks to be a thoroughly boring space, populated by the usual ghost people of our glorious eternal present, looking even more underwhelmed than usual, and there are a couple of related images. It’s not that impressive, is it? It certainly doesn’t flow in any meaningful way, and the kinks destroy any chance of appreciating the length of the space. It screams of cheapness.

And the cheapness just deepens… the original images of the building showed it to be constructed from ZHA’s favourite material; ‘generic shiny’. Now, owing to the shortage of ‘Generic Shiny’, and the difficulty of sourcing it ethically, they’ve had to settle for standing seam zinc, which you may recognise from Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin and other buildings. Now, that material isn’t exactly one that remains shiny for any length of time, so in true Zaha style, the building will soon be looking very, very sorry for itself.

But then maybe that’s the point; perhaps there is no more appropriate expression of contemporary culture than a morose looking squiggly shed on the side of a once-great river. Perhaps Zaha Hadid Architects are pulling off a brilliant piece of architectural satire, melancholically mocking the aspirational world of the post-industrial cultural-landmark, bringing forth a gloriously futile, dirty and sad piece of unfulfilling architecture. But then maybe it’s just rubbish.


progressive reactionary said...

a fine critique, with the added benefit of being a real joy to read.


le rakun said...

you sum every hatred working in this industry nicely. a relief. tQ,

Dave Thompson said...
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Bruce said...


am said...

i read you from bilbao, where what's likely to become the historical paradigm of the symptom you describe (of course gehry's smashed cabbage)opened a cycle that will be closed, ironically, with the whole urban tabula-rasa in what was the industrial canal, designed by none other than ZH!
reading your beautiful text with this prospect in mind gave me the shivers. thanks!

nxlb said...

excellent post.
this project has ALL the cool strategies from this decade AND the last. wow.

'Folds' because facades are well boring and like totally oppressive.

'Smoothness' because er... of the boring 80's philosophy that does have some pretty cool words in it? Like rhizome. Maybe that word should be hybridised with another word to make it way cooler.

'Respectful Contextualness' via BOTH becoming part of the urban landscape by looking a little bit like a natural landscape (genius idea)
AND cartoon versions of any old buildings with a pitched roofs. So sensitive yet hilarious at the same time.

And my personal favorite 'Massive Roof Architecture', because architecture is so so boring that it is necessary to make a shape that no magazine editor has seen before (apart from in the 1920s but thats all political and shit anyway) and the only way to get away with it is to make the shape into a massive roof. great stuff, the engineers love a big roof anyway.

Can it now be declared that 'Folds', 'Smoothness', 'Respectful Contextualness', 'Massive Roof Architecture' are unacceptable as primary generators of architecture? Plz?

kris said...

i live 30 seconds from this site and i have watched the construction everyday as i cycle to work. its like a drought, when the river level decreases and all the detritus is revealed.

cau said...


Jennifer said...

This is great, but I was wondering about a couple of bits.

Firstly, you describe the sorry state of current architects as being nothing more than decorators, or stylists. Isn't that a perennial paranoia though? And an interesting one in what it reveals? It normally says more about architectures desire to be taken seriously in some kind of non-poncey, colour choosing, glorified interior designer sort of way. So, I wonder whether that bit of your post is perhaps too pat in some ways. Like, really, how does Zaha Hadid's technique and status differ from previous generations of architects historically? How much more is she 'merely'a decorator?

And, secondly, weren't the Victorian train sheds emblematic of just such a disconnectedness between architecture and engineering? Isn't that the standard critical line on something like St Pancras where the exhilarating engineering is hidden behind the stuffy architecture?

Murphy said...

jennifer -

The point I'm making there about 'stylists' has to do with the relationship between the architect and engineer. Of course, the paranoia you speak of has always existed, but you must admit that, barring a few 'ducks' here and there (example; the Statue of Liberty, engineered by Eiffel, natch!), this peculiar condition of handing an award-winning shape to an engineer for the figuring out is somewhat new.

also, you're right about the train sheds being hidden, but this was as much to do with Victorian notions of urbanism and context as it was about shame - an iron-and-glass building in the park / at the exhibition would be 'allowed' to be nakedly exposed. This is, of course, fairly moot, as the 'standard critical line' is precisely the one that I'm trying to identify the fractures within...

owen hatherley said...

Charles, are you wearing your wife's clothes again?

Think Murphy has said what I was about to say here, but it's the sheer expanse of the gulf between shape-maker and engineer in Zaha's work that is so interesting here, and how it conflicts wildly with the modernist ideology to which they pay at least lip service. Stylists who present themselves in one form or another as stylists is one thing, stylists who present themselves as parametricist technocrats is quite another. There is, in Parametricism, as Murphy has said in conversation, a sort of Hegelian will-to-form which constantly tries to deny that what they do is a merely stylistic choice, but rather some sort of expression of the technological-historical weltgeist. This makes it ripe for mocking and poking at, but at least it says (well, not quite straightforwardly) what other architects are thinking - that their work isn't just arbitrary stylism and dressing-up but *serious stuff*.

Charles Holland said...
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PsyArch said...

Sweet genius. Thankyou [owen for linking to this].

Jack Self said...

really great post - following a subject close to my heart (the critical analysis of Millennium People's same bete noir).

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Murphy said...

'Diane', that sounds like what AMO might call their next monograph. You're a clever robot, you are...