Patrick Schumacher: Zaha’s incredible moves

Patrik Schumacher, a director of Zaha Hadid Architects, reflects on the startling curves and audacious moves that made Zaha Hadid’s work so compelling and daringly new to the profession


When I first encountered Zaha's work as a young student in Stuttgart University in the mid-Eighties it was a revelation. Her sketches, drawings and paintings delivered not only the shock of the new, but at the same time displayed a virtuoso intricacy, sophistication and perfection that made them utterly compelling. There was nothing like this. The bounds of architectural possibilities had shifted.

Architectural design gained a whole new dimension and level of excitement for me. Up to then I had been doubtful whether architecture was the right choice for me. No more. Zaha indicated how architectural design could be an unexpectedly challenging and exciting adventure.

Zaha had indeed delivered an unprecedented expansion of the discipline's repertoire, offering new degrees of freedom to the designer, and as students we were quick to appropriate and run with the new audacious moves made available.

In very general terms these moves delivered spatial compositions with a new level of versatility, complexity and dynamism. What we did not yet grasp at the time - and I doubt that Zaha herself or anybody else fully understood this then - is the performative empowerment that these new options and degrees of freedom delivered to us as problem solvers.

Zaha had expanded architecture's universe of possibilities, that is, the designers' search space in which solutions are looked for and might be found; unprecedented solutions. From the perspective of an expanded solution space, the constraints of the former restricted spaces look like arbitrary dogmas.

What were Zaha's major expansionary moves? Of course there is the abandonment of the right angle in exchange for hundreds of new angles that could be utilised. However, this was a general (rather than her unique) feature of what soon was christened 'deconstructivism'. I would like to focus on three wholly original and empowering 'discoveries' that Zaha gifted to our discipline.

However, these moves must have seemed utterly surreal or absurd at first. I guess that's why nobody else had ever hit upon them. First of all there is the move of translating the dynamic curvilinearity of rapid calligraphic sketching literally into an architectural drawing that was then read as an intended geometry to be built, rather than treating the curvature of a rapid sketch as a rough accidental indication of an ideal geometric form that was meant to be rationalised into straight lines and arcs. Zaha's curves display continuously changing curvature and thus offer more versatility.

Further, as a function of the changing centrifugal force of the rapid hand's/pen's acceleration and deceleration, the curves and curvilinear compositions display lawful and coherent trajectories that we can recognise as coherent and legible figures, each with its own poise, dynamism or degree of fluidity. A new language of architecture, with a much increased problem-solving versatility and with a much richer, more expressive and more communicative repertoire of organisation and articulation, was born. The surreal move was redeemed and instrumentalised by taking these sketched curves, hardlining them with the use of an expansive range of 'French curves' or 'ship curves', and by doing this taking them seriously as the elements with which to solve the plan.

There was a second, equally surreal move, with equally surprising performative fertility. Zaha built up pictorial spaces within which multiple perspective constructions were fused into a seamless dynamic texture. One way to understand these images is as attempts to emulate the experience of moving through an architectural composition revealing a succession of rather different points of view.

Another, more radical way of reading these canvasses is to abstract from the implied views and to read the swarms of distorted forms as a peculiar architectural world in its own right, with its own characteristic forms, compositional laws and spatial effects.

One of the striking features of these large canvasses is their strong sense of coherence despite the richness and diversity of forms contained within them. There is never the order of monotonous repetition, but the field continuously changes its grain of articulation. Gradient transitions mediate large quiet areas with very dense and intense zones. Usually these compositions are polycentral and multidirectional. All these features are the result of the use of multiple, interpenetrating perspective projections.

Often the dynamic intensity of the overall field is increased by using curved instead of straight projection lines. The projective geometry brings an arbitrarily large and diverse set of elements under its cohering law of diminution and distortion. The resultant graphic space very much anticipates the later (and still very much current) concepts of field and swarm. The effect achieved is very much like the effects currently pursued with curve-linear mesh-deformations and digitally simulated 'gravitational fields' that grip, align, orientate and thus cohere a set of elements or particles within the digital model. The third move was the introduction of gradients into the repertoire of architecture.

All three came together in the potent landscape analogy which Zaha had posited as a guiding inspiration. Instead of dissecting and ordering space by walls, the landscape analogy suggests a continuously flowing space where zones bleed into each other, where transitions are soft and where a smooth topographic ground relief rather than hard edges all structure spatial relations.

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