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The way forward: in the words of Zaha Hadid

Zaha sketchbook index a jpg

Zaha Hadid’s introduction to the Gold Medal lecture is a poignant reminder of the roots of her powerful ideas and how much she had yet to bring

Zaha Hadid has died suddenly aged 65, just months after becoming the first woman to be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in her own right. Christine Murray, Editor-in-chief of The Architectural Review says: ‘This is the tragic loss of a master who redefined architecture and its possibilities. We mourn all that Zaha had yet to bring.’

This was Zaha’s introduction to her Gold Medal Lecture 2016; a reminder of how far her ideas had developed, and how much they still had to offer.

I am very happy and honoured to receive this prize, for work that has not been mainstream and remains widely misunderstood. Therefore, I would like to use  this occasion to talk about how my career developed and about what my work aims to achieve.

My career can best be made sense of in terms of addressing an important historical process: the process of the intensification and re-urbanisation of social life in the city. I would also like to share my thoughts about what I consider to be the best way forward for the discipline and the built environment, and how my work can be understood in relation to this overarching question.

I believe we live in an era of renewed urban concentration with new 21st-century challenges and opportunities that make this urban renaissance very different from older urbanisation processes – and especially very different from the process of 20th-century suburbanisation. The key difference is the new interaction density  and complexity of urban life. Buildings and programmes need to break open and embrace each other, even interpenetrate. This requires spatial complexity and openness. This is the meaning of my first compositional strategies: explosion and fragmentation.

‘The Russian avant-garde offered me a reservoir of yet-untested compositional innovations that were full of complexity and dynamism’

The Russian avant-garde offered me a reservoir of yet-untested compositional innovations that were full of complexity and dynamism. The Suprematist compositions of both Malevich and El Lissitzky experimented with the interpenetration of forms rather than maintaining their neat separation. This  is much more in tune with our current interest in the mixing of functions and  the search for synergies. I added to this the ideas of distortion and gradient transformation, for the sake of site adaptation and versatility. Further, I  explored the use of free-form curvature to articulate the dynamism and fluidity  of contemporary life. I realised that curvature helps to maintain visual legibility  in the face of the increasingly complex programmes required by our clients and facilitates navigation through complex projects.

All this serves urban densification, and urbanity, via invasion by new complex projects, projects that should be well embedded into their sites and serve as connective tissue rather than separate fortresses. Due to these intentions and strategies, my work turned out to be very different from most other work. It became conspicuous, memorable and, soon, readily identifiable as bearing my signature. But architecture is not a medium of personal expression for me: to interpret it as striving for individual expression is to misunderstand it. This misunderstanding is often linked to the dismissal of my work as self-indulgent or wilful.

‘I have always believed in progress and in creativity’s role in progress. That’s why I remain critical of any traditionalism’

However, for me, there was never any doubt that architecture must contribute to society’s progress and, ultimately, to our individual and collective wellbeing. It performs and facilitates everyday life. This is very different from art’s role of contemplation, expression or provocation.

I have always believed in progress and in creativity’s role in progress. That’s why I remain critical of any traditionalism. I worry about the dominance of Neo-Rationalism in London’s current transformation. Why should 21st-century London be modelled on Schinkel’s Berlin? Sites are now often irregular, with many different adjacencies that need to be taken into account in a complex play of contextual alignment and affiliation. Urban programmes now need spaces to flow freely.

The landscape analogy became very important to me as a strategy to increase ground permeability and surface continuity while avoiding the empty vastness of Modernist clear grounds. It suggested that ground relief is used as a soft ordering device that is more fluid and open than the dissection of space by walls. It delivers continuous variation instead of the harsh cuts of zoning.

The public domain was always a key interest to me. I was intrigued by the Modernist defortification of sites and the lifting of buildings to let the public space flow, but this time with an intense programmatic activation.

My interest in long-span structures and cantilevers follows from this idea of anti-fortification. Structural sophistication and boldness is also required to carve out interconnected communicative voids where space extends in layers above, below and all around.

Most of my projects  – public and private – aspire to this life-enhancing increase in connectivity.

Lead image: Sketchbook of Hadid’s design for the Irish prime minister’s residence (competition entry), Dublin (Phoenix Park), 1979-80