Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Post-Suprematist visions: the early works of Zaha Hadid

Catherine Slessor discusses the first realisations of Zaha Hadid’s work in three dimensions in Japan

Originally published in AR November 1991, this piece was republished online in February 2011

Hadid’s design approach has strong resonances with the contemporary Japanese cultural climate in which any kind of exuberance can be sanctioned, so long as it can be seen to belong within an overall set of rules.

The relationship between Japan and certain enfants terribles of the Architectural Association has proved a peculiarly fertile one. Nigel Coates, perhaps the most wildly celebrated of these architectural fleurs du mal, had his meteoric career kick-started by a couple of bar jobs in Tokyo.

It is a happy and slightly ironic coincidence, therefore, that directly opposite the site of Noah’s Ark, Coates’ latest maverick excursion into Sapporo clubland, should be co-AA conspirator Zaha Hadid’s first built project, a refurbished interior for Moonsoon, a modish bar-cum-restaurant. In view of Hadid’s magisterial reputation as a paper architect par excellence, this seems a predictable enough beginning. However, two projects for commercial buildings in the Roppongi and Tomigaya districts of Tokyo, which effectively predate Moonsoon, will prove a more substantial test of how Hadid’s radical, post-Suprematist vision translates into physical and spatial reality.

In many ways, Japan is the ideal starting point for Hadid. The disarming (and relentlessly fashionable) nature of her work appears to thrive on the chaotic, dislocated spirit of Japanese megalopoli, whose inhabitants have developed a voracious craving for instant creation and consumption. As Mario Botta noted recently ‘… she joins the trend of spectacular hypertechnological architecture which represents the common denominator of the latest events in this Asian archipelago.’ Together with fellow mavericks Coates and Starck, Hadid can be regarded as conforming to the quintessentially Japanese philosophy of controlled excess, by which any kind of visual or behavioural abnormality is sanctioned, as long as it is seen to be part of a larger context.

This context is usually governed by an elaborate system of ritualistic rules, with pleasure derived exclusively from respecting, following and becoming absorbed in these rules. One obvious example is the 16 hour-a-day salaryman’s energetic nocturnal drinking habits. Such excessive behaviour is tolerated and even encouraged, because it is recognised as simply one aspect of the wider culture of work and company loyalty. Similarly, much is made (by Westerners) of the apparent lack of aesthetic control practised in Japanese building, which then tends to be held responsible for the frequently nightmarish condition of the urban environment.

But this freedom to cut loose stylistically is countered by an exacting and singularly immutable framework of building regulations and structural requirements. When idiosyncratic outsiders such as Hadid are precipitated into this fixed model, a fascinating tension is generated, akin to the heightened, slightly fearful anticipation that surrounds a potentially dangerous experiment. However, on the strength of a single restaurant interior it is too soon to predict whether this particular experiment will fulfil its tantalising early promise.


Though modest in scale compared with the aborted scheme for the Hong Kong Peak, this is Hadid’s largest realised work to date. For Western architects to break into Japan, it is essential to enlist a strong supporting cast of apostles and sponsors. In this case the Japanese client who commissioned Hadid was Michihiro Kuzuwa of JASMAC, the developer behind Aldo Rossi’s 11 Palazzo hotel on the southern island of Kyushu.

In direct geographical contrast, Moonsoon is at the opposite end of the archipelago, in the largest city on the island of Hokkaido. Hadid was allotted two floors of the Kita Club, a riverside nightclub in the Sapporo entertainment district of Susukino.

The scheme is conceived as a compressed, dynamic interior unfolding within the existing static exterior shell. The floors are trapezoidal in plan, so readily lending themselves to Hadid’s abstractive urges, and each floor takes on a distinct, elemental identity. In an inversion of the traditional heaven/hell polarity, the lower, first floor dining space is Ice and the upper level bar Fire.

A primeval tension is instantly unleashed by this juxtaposition - the glacial properties of the ice are emphasised by the presence of fire and vice versa. The ice is also a metaphorical allusion to the sharp winter climate of Hokkaido and Sapporo’s famous seasonal ice sculptures. Although the tongues of flame and glacial splinters originally appear as abstract totems in Hadid’s early painted studies, the built project is remarkably similar in terms of form and spirit, suffused with gravity-transcending shapes that suggest movement and infinite space.

The first floor restaurant is a monochromatic world through which clear glass tables drift like stray shards of iceberg. A staircase formed from extruded slabs of unpolished optical glass leads down to a triangular dining area defined on two sides by a grid of rectangular crushed glass panels.

On the third side a series of irregularly cut panes screens off the kitchen. The central focus of the restaurant is a long, low slung table, of the type commonly found in Japanese drinking establishments. This rigid, rather lifeless slab is flanked by chairs that look as though they have been moulded from snow. Hadid actively exploits the surface textures and natural irregularities of her chosen materials - stainless steel is brushed and burnished and the slabs of optical glass retain the undulating hallmarks of the extrusion process. In the generally reductionist scheme of things, these subtleties acquire an enhanced visual potency.

If the two floors do represent heaven and hell, then the sculptural fibre-glass device - dubbed the Orange Peel - that joins together the opposing cosmic planes, is an ersatz axis mundi. It emerges embryonically as a tightly wound coil above the dining area and penetrates upwards, tornado-like, to the hellfire floor, where it demarcates a sunken bar pit and finally unravels expansively into the domed ceiling.

As it rises, it symbolically changes colour, metamorphosing from the glacial greys of the restaurant, to hyperactive carmine and yellow. The second floor is the complete antithesis of the first. The transparent canvas of the lower floor is transmogrified into an opaque backdrop of black terrazzo. The rigidity of the seating arrangements gives way to fluid, biomorphic sofas clustered like plasma around the bar pit. The sofas are equipped with sensuously contoured ‘tongues of flame’ back-rests in vibrant pinks and purples. Drinks are rested on compact, galvanised steel cocktail tables which, like the back-rests, are portable and can be plugged in at any point to create a constantly changing, almost organic interior landscape.


The image of the Japanese capital as a set from the futuristic science fiction film ‘Blade Runner’ is one of the more persistent Tokyo metaphors, but like all clichés it distils some element of the truth. The city is simply so congested and land so densely exploited that most sites released for development defy any conventional contextual analysis. Hadid is currently working on two projects in Tokyo.

The first, Azabu-Jyuban, is located on an extremely narrow site (4m x 16m) wedged between a canyon of existing buildings in the commercial district of Roppongi. The new building is conceived as a compression of its various functions into taut, independent packages of space released by a series of dramatic enclosing elements. A 40 m high metal wall slices upwards into the cluttered urban landscape while a concrete boundary wall pierced by jewel-like apertures wraps around the elevator core to the rear of the site in the manner of a book binding.

On the street elevation these walls are separated vertically by transparent glass screens - a blue glazed skin and clear curtain wall are suspended away from the floor slab plane, gently tilting out and upwards to form the parapet walls of the terrace above. A disembodied fibre-glass canopy hovels over the entrance and, as the storeys rise, each floor slab expands horizontally towards the street, giving the impression that the building is swelling under the cumulative force of the compressed space inside.

This tension is symbolically released by a muscular roof canopy that athletically cantilevers out over the city. Inside, a vertical stairway runs up the entire height of the building, periodically breaking out to form generous balconies and mid-floor landings. These can be used as scaled-down stage sets for the display of goods. Although the brief was based around a commercial/retail function, Hadid takes the constricted nature of the site as her starting point and conjures up an expressive essay in space manipulation.


The second Tokyo project, Tomigaya, is located in a densely populated residential neighbourhood. At 12 m x 15 m, the site is more promisingly proportioned than the urban sliver of Azabu-Jyuban, but in common with the latter, this scheme also seeks to redefine the relationship between a building and its cramped surroundings. A delicate glass pavilion is elevated above the distractions of the Tokyo cityscape to create a small urban void, intended as an oasis of stillness and contemplation amid the heaving morass of human activity below.

The raised, one-storey structure (flexibly intended for office, studio or retail use), has a supple roof line and full-height windows on three sides. In a tacit homage to Tokyo’s sci-fi soul, it appears to hover above the open ground like an inquisitive spaceship. Below ground is a series of vault-like spaces, designed to house office and retail activities.

The curved ground floor peels up and pulls away from the perimeter of the site along two of its edges to reveal an entrance stair and lightwell to the space below. The stair descends to a mid-level platform and an external courtyard set within the lower ground floor space, which provides views up to the belly of the spaceship pavilion above. Although Tomigaya easily slots in to the dense, super-urban jungle of Tokyo, at the same time it gives back a small and precious gift of space to the city and its inhabitants.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.