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1993 June: 'Zaha's provocative pyrotechnics' by John Winter

Zaha Hadid’s long awaited first major building is a characteristically confrontational project that transforms a prosaic brief for a fire station into a breathtaking explosion of space and geometry, writes John Winter


Early in 1988 the AA held an exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s furniture. Writing about it in AA Files, Deborah Dietsch pointed out the need for ‘a manufacturer willing to risk the cost of developing her bold visions.’ Furniture maker Vitra responded, but they have ended up with a building, not a chair.

Vitra is situated in that corner of Germany which is adjacent to both France and Switzerland; they make furniture for many famous designers and their address at 1, Charles-Eames-Strasse, tells where their fame and fortune lies. In 1980 most of Vitra’s factory was destroyed by fire, and in the following years, was largely rebuilt to the design of Nicholas Grimshaw.

Then, under the spirited guidance of Rolf Fehlbaum, Vitra decided to cast the net wider, and seek out the services of architects who ‘are developing the modern idea.’ To a furniture maker, explains Fehlbaum, it comes naturally to ‘work with designers who hold differing viewpoints.’ Among Europe’s industrialists Fehlbaum has come to be the foremost patron of architecture and the Vitra site at Weil am Rhein is like a dazzling campus, with work by Eva Jiricna, Nicholas Grimshaw, Frank Gehry and now Zaha Hadid.

Dr Fehlbaum describes the fire station as Vitra’s first urban building, meaning that it does not sit on an American style city block like their previous buildings, but has to turn the corner as the main road on the site curves round sharply at this point. This could have been left as a conventional right-angle bend, but the fact that the roads and railway just outside the site are at a different angle can be interpreted as offering the ideal Decon proposition.

Zaha Hadid has seized this conflict of angles with both hands. She has made many sketches of the geometry of the surrounding infrastructure and developed this as a basis for the design. Cynics might note that the resulting sketches have much in common with the Hong Kong Peak Club or the Osaka Folly, for if Zaha Hadid is known for one image, it is that of a pile of boards that have tumbled into a semi-random and rather beautiful heap. Much of this may be a private language necessary to her design process, for what is clear is that the pile of parallelograms which remained earthbound at Osaka have now risen up at Vitra to form a stunning building.

The first building by a serious architect is always a major event, and perhaps it is appropriate that this one is realised in that part of the world where, from Rudolf Steiner to Gunter Behnisch, the rule of the right angle has often been set aside. In this case Hadid’s startling imagery of exploding parallelograms has been faithfully carried through to the finished building. The parallelograms are in control and the functions occur in the spaces between them.

The building appears to work well enough and to be well built but this is not an architecture that is dominated by programme or love of construction. Instead, it owes much to the formal idea. The form is heroic and this is a heroic building, like the pre-war buildings of Le Corbusier or the post-war work of Mies - or, if you prefer, like Stonehenge or Gloucester choir. The architects of all these buildings shared a private skill of knowing precisely what to do and the ability to get it done without compromise.

The fire station was seen as having to turn the route and blot out the surrounding buildings. To achieve the latter, the building was made very long so that it became an enclosing fence; to achieve the former, lines are made in the surrounding landscape and the planes of the building are angled in such a way as to lead you round the corner. These planes are of in situ concrete with the bolt holes exposed in the Kahnian manner. Half a dozen planes form the plan, and their height generates the depth for spanning large openings - 32 m over the garage doors and 29 m in a curved beam above the back window of the ground floor.

Space flows infinitely and there are no enclosed rooms, but freestanding, wavy, stainless steel lockers which partition off the changing areas for male and female firefighters. These areas are punctuated by scattered, Ronchamp-style windows. Roof slabs were poured in boarded formwork with no bolt holes, and the floor slab is split open to admit the staircase, a split emphasized by an adjacent crack which forms an artificial light source and defines the limit of the room above.

Slabs thicken to enclose services and lights and to receive an internal lining of insulation and plaster where required. The building is only heated intermittently, so insulation is internal to achieve a fast response. Many spaces are not heated, and these, together with internal walls, are left as exposed concrete. Where there is plaster it is mostly white, with a gold end wall and some walls painted in dark, earthy hues.

After Zaha Hadid left the AA she began tutoring. For a time she collaborated in the OMA office, but has not undergone the usual apprenticeship of young architects who spend years detailing under the supervision of a more experienced architect. So she has never been exposed to conventional ways of doing things, and the fire station is put together like no other building.

If God is in the details then this would seem to be an atheist’s building. Many details are eliminated, there are no skirtings, no door frames, no floor finishes, no light fittings. In line with the main generative concept, doors are simply planes that slide past their surroundings. Lighting takes the form of fluorescent strips in continuous slots embedded in the ceilings or floor, usually placed to throw light on to a wall, transforming it into a glowing plane.

There are many neat solutions to problems which emphasise the theme of continuity, such as the handrailing to the staircase, which has four rails at different levels extending straight through from top to bottom, thus obviating the usual jerk in the handrail at the midflight quarter landing. Of course there is, in reality, the usual amount of detailing, but it is hidden by clever sleight of hand for example on the roof terrace, the cover flashing to the asphalt skirting disappears below the roof pebbles, so that the concrete parapet appears to extend down as a plane. It will be interesting to see how this building survives In use, but it has a certain inherent ruggedness and a caring client which should see it through.

The exploding plan is accompanied by a section equally at odds with the rectilinear norm. Walls slope and so do door jambs. The longest sill rises gently giving the illusion of a sloping floor. Roof terrace and parapets converge together towards the mythical big bang of the explosion. Splays give false perspective. Combine all this drama with the already dramatic scenario of a fire station for a building complex recently destroyed by fire and it may all be too much. In which case Vitra has the antidote, for June sees the completion of Tadao Ando’s calm building for contemplation.

Architect Zaha Hadid Architects
Engineer Ove Arup & Partners
Partner-in-charge Peter Rice
Contractor GPF & Assoziierte

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