MY JOURNALISTIC COLLEAGUE and friend Martin Filler and my architectural colleague and friend Zaha Hadid are engaged in an ongoing legal clash as a result of an article, “The Insolence of Architecture,” published in the June 5 issue of The New York Review of Books. In his lengthy review of Rowan Moore’s Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, Filler wrote that an estimated 1,000 people had died on Hadid’s building site for the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, designed for the 2022 World Cup. Citing remarks Hadid made in public last February, Filler accused her of callous indifference to their deaths. Hadid sued. The complaint, Hadid v. NYRev Inc et al, filed in New York State Supreme Court and accessible online, charged that the article was false and defamatory: the stadium wasn’t even under construction when Hadid spoke: no one died at a nonexistent construction site. According to the complaint, Filler lifted excerpts out of context. The battle thundered through the architecture world.
A reply by Filler was published on the NYRB website — “I regret the error,” he conceded — and the error was struck from the online piece. But beyond acknowledging the mistake, he never actually apologized, and correcting the error in the text did not rise to the level of retraction demanded in the complaint, to be published in the NYRB “with at least as much prominence as the Article itself.” In Filler’s essay, the issue of her purported indifference became a portal into a broader discussion of her character, which Filler made into an issue: he in fact discussed his view of her character more than he did her architecture. Though he corrected the erroneous basis of his characterization, he conspicuously did not retract the characterization itself, which stands as originally written. The architect is still pursuing her claim against Filler and the NYRB as of this writing.
This review refocuses on Moore’s book, and discusses Hadid’s architecture, on its own merits, in the context of Moore’s arguments.
THE CRITERIA by which architecture critics judge buildings are usually left unstated, slipping beneath the radar of even attentive readers: you must string together a series of articles to construct the underlying belief system. With Why We Build, Rowan Moore — architecture critic for London’s The Observer — has crafted a model of transparency: principle by principle, project by project, he builds up his critical apparatus additively, on a case-study basis, to explain not only why people build but also how to judge the results. You end up understanding his perspective; you end up agreeing.
Intellectually ambitious but jargon-free, Moore’s book is highly readable and even enjoyable: paced, rich, detailed, sweeping, droll, insightful, unexpected. Like a playwright or novelist, or maybe just because he’s English, Moore casts buildings almost as characters, and rolls out his narrative like a play on today’s global architectural stage, each building and its architect walking on and off, acting a part, constructing ideas, in a complicated skein of relationships that approximates an architectural version of Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine. Buildings and architects migrate with ease through themed chapters — “Power and Freedom,” “The Erotic in Architecture,” “Form Follows Finance” — reappearing later, so that the reader develops a relationship to each, even a familiarity.
Trained at Cambridge as an architect, and former head of London’s Architecture Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group for architecture and urbanism, Moore knows about the complexities of putting up a building — too well, in fact, to completely dismiss any one project or architect: even the failures merit analysis.
He starts with three casualties of cultural circumstance: one a city (Dubai), the second a skyscraper, and the third a house.
Led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the gung-ho financiers and boosters of Dubai are positioning the emirate as a global financial center and a transit hub between continents. The capital’s astounding, nearly instantaneous skyline resulted from promotional business decisions made in the face of declining oil revenues and high civic aspirations: the instabilities elsewhere in much of the Arab world have opened up opportunities in the Gulf States for regional leadership. Real estate now is the emirate’s primary commodity, and architecture is being used as a marketing tool, driving each building to be more iconic, exotic, and sellable than the rest in the increasingly competitive skyline.
Dubai is home to what is currently the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, and also to Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island splaying out in the Persian Gulf in the shape of a palm frond: the kitschy and literal figure is so big that it can be seen from space.
Moore notes in pungent detail how the city fathers rushed to build their Singapore on the Gulf before even working out the sewage system, and how the combination of septic infrastructure and antiseptic structures, built for size and spectacle, reduces the visitor to the role of disengaged Lilliputian spectator, “a passive gawper.” The self-contained, self-involved buildings in Dubai, which appear to be “frozen computer games above [our] heads,” are formally complete in themselves, allowing little incident and accident, closed “to whatever is around them.” Moore faults Dubai as a city for failing to add up to a whole that engages hearts and minds. It’s all buildings and little city plan — “the ground plane of highways, barriers, and malls offers little purchase for imagining,” he writes, thus introducing one criterion of critical judgment: the ability of a city to engage the imagination. Cold to the touch — overdesigned, overprescribed, overmanaged — the slick buildings seem designed for passing by or passing through. Without granular detail, no there is there. The buildings of this Teflon city are “air-conditioned, controlled, secure, generic, clean, soothing,” and, in Moore’s memorable word, “frictionless.” He says, “Architectural forms on the outside collude with controlled and laundered atmospheres on the inside.”
Of course, Moore could be talking about virtually any major new city center in the West, and now even in the East and Middle East, all fast merging into an urban world monoculture. Consider Houston or Beijing, or even Midtown Manhattan, once teeming with brownstones, stoops, and salty language, or of course the Gold Coast in LA, now galloping toward the sanitized, generic South Park.
But Dubai alone suffices to make Moore’s point: no need to drag in Donald Trump, who is now globalized and an obvious target. The 163-story Burj Khalifa, a needle in the sky, has no earthly reason in this sprawling desert emirate to be so tall, other than to declare its status as a semaphore of status. Though it has a terrifying elegance, the tower is as much a raw advertisement for Dubai as it is the tallest building in the world, at home mostly on a postcard or website, a billboard of itself.
In a wide-ranging book that spans continents, Moore then sweeps the reader to Atlanta, Georgia, to Dean Gardens, a 32,000-square-foot home built for a software entrepreneur that, in its earnestness for greatness, leaves no style unturned —
the Moroccan Rooms, the Egyptian Suite, the Oriental Suite, the Hawaiian Art Gallery, the Game Room got up as a 1950s diner, the Malachite Bathroom, the Silver Suite, the raspberry-coloured kitchen, the Old English Bedroom […] a compendium of lootings across history and geography. […] It was oysters in ketchup, double-fudge-caviar-and-Tabasco ice cream.
Amused but not amused, Moore manages to forgive the excess as he empathizes with the interior designer, the 21-year-old son of the owner. “With the benefit of hindsight one can guess that Chris’s designs were an unconscious commentary on the state of his parents’ marriage.”
With this and other examples, Moore establishes “the triumph of look” as an overriding problem in design today. Buildings compete visually with their neighbors, going shoulder to shoulder as icons. Marketing and the pervasive influence of advertising, aided and abetted by photography and the voracious computer screen, have so privileged image that buildings become, effectively, two-dimensional objects. “A brand is essentially a thing of sight,” he writes, and building silhouettes have become logos tattooed on the skyline, branding space. “The eye is engaged,” he writes, “but not the body.”
No city is immune. Close to his home, Moore singles out the London City Hall, designed by Sir Norman Foster and built as part of a larger market-based project by developers. Its striking, postcard-perfect profile as a leaning, striated sphere does little to enrich the life of its sanitized surroundings. Isolated in a “well-finished, well-detailed, well-maintained world of grey granite, grey steel, and grey glass, through which well-made grey suits can come and go as they please,” City Hall exists only “in the zone of sight.” It does not engage the city or the visitor, and any “excitement can only be had by a passive spectator, looking.” City Hall had fallen into the pockets of the developers who created this urban vacuum.
London City Hall
Advocating an interactive, participatory architecture and a friendlier, even messier environment that engages both the site and the occupant, Moore uses a Heideggerian term, saying that City Hall is not a place in which to “dwell.” “This book explores the ways in which these concerns of the living interact with the dead stuff of buildings. […] [T]hings get interesting […] when desire and built space change each other, when animate and inanimate interplay.” This interplay is absent in London City Hall, as it is in Dean Gardens and Dubai.
Beyond the practical purposes of architecture, Moore finds intangibles, such as emotion and desire, to be forces necessary for bringing buildings to life. He argues, counterintuitively, that buildings are unstable, even after their builders leave, susceptible to changes of use, configuration, and perception. They are not, and should not be, fixed. Moore devotes a whole chapter, “Eternity Is Overrated,” to the need for mutability rather than timelessness. Change is the constant, and it is even desirable, for buildings, and should be allowed and cultivated.
Moore reaches into architecture history. He details the way Gothic cathedrals connect with people. They are not just feats of spectacular engineering but work like movies as immersive environments: “rich in content, sensorily engaging, animated by light.” Their stone vaults carry “stained glass, sculpture, and painting, and […] house music, performance, and ritual. Their arches, ribs, and buttresses were means to the end of enabling more light.”
He reaches into literature. Citing a 1777 book by Vivant Denon, Point de Lendemain, Moore describes the seduction in a chateau of the willing young hero, who, “astonished, delighted,” entered into a wilderness of trees, “which seemed to stand and rest on nothing,” the hero says. “In truth, I found myself in a vast cage of mirrors.” He wends his way through a series of ever more enticing interiors, in an environment that recalls Moore’s descriptions of Gothic cathedrals. “Space is an accomplice to seduction. […] It stimulates the senses,” Moore writes:
Light sources are mysterious and concealed, there are incense burners, a flame on an altar, flowers and garlands, statues of Cupid and other deities, a temple of light-hearted design. […] At one point the hero confesses that “it was no longer Mme de T — whom I desired, it was the little room.”
Throughout, Moore challenges received wisdom, upping the ante of his book. Few critics would take on a sacrosanct priest figure like the lovable engineer-architect Buckminster Fuller, who always asked what a building weighs, and once pronounced, “If you can do it, it’s natural.” But Moore does challenge the guru. He critiques Bucky’s geodesic dome — which enveloped the greatest volume with the least amount of material — as mute to its surroundings: its fixed form, consistent and perfect, was “rigid and indifferent to the contingent, specific, and temporal.” The sphere couldn’t really adapt to the irregularity of a site or a brief. It could only span, not stack. The geodesic dome was a pure form allowing no exception, no impurity, and ended up a dead end, exhibited at theme parks like Disney’s Epcot, as though in a zoo.
Moore visits the High Line in New York, which, like a geodesic dome, is a raw and efficient piece of engineering. Several years ago the abandoned and elevated rail line snaking through Chelsea was appropriated and designed as a linear park: thousands now stroll on the instantly beloved structure every day with no purpose other than the pleasure of seeing and being seen, as on a paseo in Spain.
The designers, James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, set wood and native grasses among the existing rails, weaving new and old, mixing straight paths with pockets of landscaping in a materially rich and tangible environment. A combination urban beach and hiking trail threaded through the city, the walkway offers previously undiscovered views of the streetscape and skyline, turning Manhattan into an architectural exhibition seen from unexpected vantage points. The city responds: singers perform from their fire escapes overlooking the High Line; developers have rushed to build adjacent to this new public amenity. “Through time, redundancy, and adaptation it has also become habitable, by both body and imagination,” writes Moore.
High Line, New York City, 2012
With its low design profile, the park does not really offer an iconic “look” but establishes instead a receptive, casual environment in which pedestrians somehow make themselves at home in public on strolls. The design offers experience through its pockets of greenery, while woods and steel engage the eye (and mind) as they constantly evolve along the promenade. The experience is strong and sensuous without being overpowering.
In the midst of his disquisitions on architecture’s triumphs and failures, Moore introduces his muse, Lina Bo Bardi, an Italian-born Brazilian known primarily to cognoscenti, who practiced primarily in São Paulo after World War II. She ducks and drakes across the book in Moore’s analyses of why her buildings succeed. Critics can be judged by the architecture they admire, and Moore likes her straightforward structures, which can hardly be accused of formal narcissism: they are clean-lined, simple armatures intended to host and nourish the life their occupants bring to the buildings. When she conceived her own Glass House in sketches, she drew and defined the house by depicting people, furniture, plants, pictures, even a black dog, in the spaces inside and out, the house almost disappearing altogether in favor of the life it supported.
The house was “an instrument that enables other events and experiences to happen,” says Moore, using the word “immersive” to denote a house that was lived in and experienced rather than viewed. Glass walls and open verandas fostered an interaction between the residents inside and Brazil’s abundant flora and fauna outside. Over time, the spare house invited the lush nature to envelop its form, and it kept changing over the years. Unlike other modernist structures that are valid only when pristine, Moore says that her Glass House does not “embarrass” with the passage of time but instead thrived: “You want buildings to stimulate, give cues, propose, provoke, engage, give evidence of human presence, reveal,” he writes. With Bo Bardi’s work, Moore establishes other criteria of architectural judgment: a building’s ability to engage the occupant’s senses and emotions, and its ability to encourage interactions with occupants over time.
Casa de Vidro, Morumbi, Brazil
The modernism that Bo Bardi practiced escaped the totalizing formality that other Modernists, like Austrian architect Adolf Loos and German-American architect Mies van der Rohe, inherited from classicism. In the chapter “The Inconstant Horizon,” in which he treads bravely into the minefields of gender in architecture, Moore discusses the 15th-century writings of Leon Battista Alberti, who believed that harmony was desirable in a building, as in life, and that it resided in the correct ordering of parts to the whole — a.k.a. “classical ordination.” As in Alberti’s hugely influential writings, and da Vinci’s drawings of the figure of man inscribed within a circle and a square, Renaissance thinkers associated the male principle with geometric order. Moore itemizes the architectural consequences in his characteristic lists: symmetry, order, fixed over mobile, repetition, axiality, porticoes, pediments, domes, colonnades, volume over surface, form over ornament.
Theorists of Modernism, such as Loos, perpetuated these underlying attitudes in their pure white cubic structures; Mies translated temples into steel; Le Corbusier sculpted fixed and solid buildings that Moore calls “wholesome, sunlit, manly.” Le Corbusier also devised the Modulor, based on a studly six-foot-tall guy, as a standard of architectural measure, and cast the outlines of his figure in concrete on his facades. Man, as mankind, was the measure that gave buildings their proportional system, and the norm to which they were built.
For architects practicing in this tradition, the horizon is fixed, immutable, and implicitly male. Moore, however, advocating the desirability and inevitability of change, proposes what he calls the “inconstant horizon.” Bo Bardi’s architecture is again his example, receptive and subordinate to the life it supports; she embraces such intangibles as the memories stored by a building over time as it ages and changes use.
His list of the qualities of a softer architectural otherness includes illusion, shadow, reflections, surface, artificiality, and the erasure of fixed boundaries. He advocates ambiguity, which multiplies the ways in which a building can be used and perceived. Eschewing labels, he never refers to post-structuralism, but post-structuralist theory insinuates itself nonetheless into his arguments: his “inconstant horizon” recalls Jacques Derrida’s “moving center,” which releases geometry, and meaning, from fixity into relativity.
It makes sense then, that as director of the Architectural Foundation he hired Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid to design its London headquarters, which he describes in his chapter “Form Follows Finance.” Hadid is in some ways the sequel to Bo Bardi in that she represents the next generation of the inconstant horizon, though in radically evolved form.
Hadid started her career by pursuing the unrealized Suprematist theories of the early 20th-century Russian mystic painter and architect Kazimir Malevich, who sought to intensify feeling through his work. Malevich aspired to a fourth spatial dimension in his often otherworldly paintings, and Hadid imported illusion into real buildings by deploying painterly devices, such as forced perspective, used since the Renaissance. In her first built major structure, the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, she streamlined several blocks of the building in forced perspectives that did not converge on the same vanishing point. The eye splayed in different directions: perceptually, she split space. The plays of perception tricked the eye into thinking that the space in her buildings was divergent and even accelerating. Her buildings, though abstract, physicalized and intensified experience: they engaged the body through the eye. The concrete Fire Station seems weightless, and the illusions take you on a virtual ride. They zoom.
Vitra Fire Station. Photo © Christian Richters.
First painted and then built, her hyperspatial visions caught the attention of admiring professionals and curators, and it was catnip to a public fascinated by an architecture that manifested such strange otherness. After she completed a handful of buildings, including the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati and a sweepingly curved ski jump in Innsbruck, she won the coveted Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel. Though there were only a handful of buildings in her portfolio, the prize was prescient: she has gone on to build one of the most successful practices in the world, working on four continents, realizing remarkable designs that have become international sensations.
The term “starchitect,” often applied to Hadid, among others, disserves her reputation because it implies hollow celebrity rather than the consistent quality and inventiveness of her work, which constantly renews her career.
Before her international success, Hadid had toiled in the trenches for years, an Arab in England and a woman in a man’s field, proposing what seemed unbuildable structures. But gradually, critics and clients like Moore acknowledged the validity of her vision: in hiring her to design the Architecture Foundation’s headquarters in 2004, he was practicing what he stood for as its director. He understood her unusual work — “charged with seismic energy.” He also got her zany eccentricities, describing a handbag tossed on a table: “white and gold and tsarist, Fabergé in its intensity of ornament, but also futurist.”
For the Foundation, she designed a structure composed of galleries lifted on two inclined legs, all edges converging in forced perspective. The structure looped through space like a deformed paper clip, and offered galleries not only on its upper floors but also in its inclined legs, with a vast glazed hall beneath, all on a small site. The design “was a series of ideas about the interaction of inner and outer life, of exhibitions and street, resolved into daring and confident form,” Moore writes. Its figural shape staked out its claim as a landmark in the city and would have reified the Foundation’s promotional mission by lofting forward-looking architecture and urbanism into public awareness.
Architecture Foundation Competition Submission
But it was not to be. Throughout his book, Moore embeds architecture as a discipline in broader social circumstances. And very often, it’s tough out there, starchitect or not. In one of his most personal and searching chapters, Moore tells the story of how, with the best of his intentions and the best of her designs, the Foundation project nonetheless failed. The circumstances that had enabled the commission in the first place — Moore had secured a site slated for a commercial development required to have a cultural component — came with what proved a fatal flaw: the developer, after initial enthusiasm, finally wanted to build the structure at the price of conventional construction, which would have meant an art warehouse. Moore recounts how Hadid’s office offered another, simpler design that should have been less expensive, but inexplicably even that design went up rather than down when priced by the developer. The developer basically stonewalled the project, and it died.
Moore stops short of blaming either the architect or the developers, but the title of the chapter, “Form Follows Finance,” implies that any project depends on a financially willing client. In this case, the objectives of the developer did not align with the aspirations of the Foundation: Moore wanted to build the design that exemplified the most advanced work in the field, but the financial basis of the project was commercial, not cultural — there was a mismatch of expectations. The design was a casualty of the same market-driven planning that had compromised the drab new gray district around London’s City Hall.
Hadid has seen other projects in Great Britain dissolve mysteriously, including the Cardiff Opera House in Wales, a commission she won twice in successive competitions in the mid-1990s. She now has a keen nose for when she’s not wanted, and she warned Moore in the middle of their shared dilemma: “They don’t want me.” He should carry on with a different architect. She was not being coy or self-pitying or teasing him to sign on, but forthright. And, as it happened, she proved to be correct. There are many quiet English ways to bar admission to the club.
Moore might have gone on to cite other projects where Hadid’s nimble office adapted a design to a budget, as in her brilliant design for the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. There her office adapted one iteration of the winning design for another, in order to meet the budget. (I served as the competition adviser on the project, and so witnessed how her office recast the design that brought the building in for the desired cost.) Hadid, often accused of being a diva, generously lent the project a million dollars as her office worked for months without pay to satisfy the brief and its cost limits. The building is now the pride of the university, the city of East Lansing, and its principal donor, Eli Broad, famous for watching the bottom line.
She does not make a display of her philanthropy. Last year she came to New York at her expense to speak at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gratis, at a sold-out benefit lecture, on the occasion of an evening dedicated to Iraq and the opening of the new Islamic galleries.
Despite obstacles in her career, especially in England, this member of architecture’s radical left earned her way to the top of her field. She won Japan’s Praemium Imperiale award for architecture, conferred by Prince Hitachi in 2009. Queen Elizabeth named her a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2012 at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.
Success on this scale breeds envy and backlash. Comments she made in public last February, when she was asked about the deaths that have occurred at construction sites in the Gulf, have been distorted, especially by people who just don’t like her work and use para-architectural issues to attack the architect and her architecture.
Martin Filler’s NYRB article claimed that Hadid had said, “I have nothing to do with the workers. […] It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.” The cherry-picked abridgment suggests a chilling and nonchalant indifference. The complaint sent to the New York Supreme Court, however, fills in the ellipsis: “I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government — if there’s a problem — should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.” Asked if she was concerned about the issue, Hadid added: “Yes, but I’m more concerned about the deaths in Iraq as well, so what do I do about that? I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at.”
In the fuller quote she regretted the deaths, stated that it’s a government issue, doesn’t take it lightly, and basically clarified that the contractors, not the architect, are formally and legally responsible for worker safety. In other remarks during the same response she implied that the same and similar problems occur elsewhere. (China especially comes to mind, where worker safety has actually been a problem for millennia, dating from the construction of the Great Wall.) On a personal level, she said that she was greatly concerned by the ongoing situation in her native Iraq, but that she was equally impotent to right that situation: “so what do I do about that?” Her rhetorical question does not imply she doesn’t care, but that she is not in a position to solve the problem.
There is an even larger context to the full quote. Though Hadid is well known for speaking her mind, she is surprisingly guarded when it comes to politics. She grew up in a political family — her father, Mohammed Hadid, member of a wealthy Mosul family who trained as an economist at the London School of Economics, was the leader of Iraq’s Progressive Democratic Party and, previously, vice president of the National Democratic Party, which fought for democratic reforms in the country. He served as the country’s minster of finance and industry during the country’s brief republican period: he helped decolonize its economy from Britain by industrializing Iraq. But politics in Iraq are dangerous, as history has shown, starting with the brutal assassination of King Faisal II and members of his family in 1958. After a coup in 1963, Mr. Hadid was imprisoned, for political reasons, and deprived of his assets. Hadid has said that early on, as a girl, she learned from her parents never to say anything about political issues in public. Her comments about politics are always reticent, even among friends, as the most casual remarks could prove dangerous. She in fact has little record of political statements made in public, and although she has lamented the loss of life in Iraq in public, she has rarely, if ever, commented about the politics of the Iraq invasion itself, which set off a chain reaction causing hundreds of thousands of deaths — and counting.
In the February conference, Hadid said that she might make a personal statement about her concern, but her way of addressing a basically political situation is not to demonstrate on the streets or remonstrate from a podium. Her way is to work back channels quietly. Anyone who wants to draw her out politically in public hasn’t lived in her part of the Middle East. Cultural differences and personal experience are at play.
The irony of the accusations of her indifference to workmen’s plights is that Hadid has an acutely developed social conscience, cultivated from the time she saw her father, a socialist, build up the economy of the country in ways that helped lift large numbers of Iraqis out of poverty: in the 1950s and early ’60s, during his most politically active period, the country was progressive. As an architect, she translates those progressive social goals concretely into designs. She consciously cultivates and designs public spaces outside her buildings, with participatory and engaging environments that elevate life in the public sphere. She then brings the public spaces into and through her buildings: her outdoor promenades and plazas function like the High Line, as energy fields that socialize the interior, prompting a collective public life.
At the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, where she brilliantly packed and stacked a multitude of differently sized and finished galleries onto an impossibly tight urban site, she extended the streetscape outside into the interior via what she called “an urban carpet,” which rose in the stairwell up through the building. The gesture virtually beckoned the public outside to step inside, and opened this elitist institution to the city: she and her buildings are deeply democratic.
While she has designed commercial projects, institutional buildings allow Hadid to best realize her social agenda, and the unprecedented scale of a recently completed project, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, offered her the most complete opportunity to date to test and put into practice her theories about public space.
The brief was for a public library, concert hall, and museum set on the grounds of a former military complex. Her design is anything but self-contained and formally aloof. The building, a free-flowing form, grows from a large park she designed, organized around an open and public promenade that winds and zigzags through spilling pools and terraced gardens up to an arrival plaza. At the top of the site, the ground lifts like a flying carpet, transforming into the undulating walls and billowing roof of the cultural center — the horizon here is indeed inconstant, as the ground becomes the building, evolving and revolving hypnotically into a Möbius strip of turning form and space. The whole structure, grand but mesmerizing despite its voluminous scale, seems to float like a handkerchief lifted in an updraft. The promenades outside, as engaging as the High Line but in an abstract idiom, continue inside, within a billowing public space that the three venues have in common: here the respective audiences and occupants commingle.
Heydar Aliyev Center. Photo © Hufton + Crow Photographers.
Heydar Aliyev Center. Photo © Hufton + Crow Photographers.
It is hard to describe the spaces without descending into what appears to be exaggeration and adjectival excess. Immersive and experiential, the building incites the “intensity of feeling” that Malevich advocated, the sense of awe described by theorists of the fourth dimension at the turn of the last century. On what Le Corbusier called the promenade architecturale through the public spaces, inside and out, visitors embark on a path of discovery, enticed by shifting vistas and surprising views in what one visitor called a “field of wonderment.” The discovery gives visitors a sense of engagement, as though they own the building through their own unique experience. The experiential intensity makes the public building personal.
This is the emotional engagement that Moore recommends, though exponential in intensity and magnitude: the amplitude of the halls, which rivals monumental Roman public spaces, also triggers a collective emotional engagement. The capacious generosity and grandeur qualify the space as a national room. The public owns it as well as the individual. Hadid has given Azeris a building block for the public psyche, as does Grand Central Station in New York or the Mall in Washington.
Heydar Aliyev Center. Photo © Iwan Baan.
Conceptually ambitious, the building is structurally advanced: the sense of sailing form and expanding space is made possible by an innovative adaptation of a space frame very much in the Buckminster Fuller tradition, but applied to a free-form structure that avoids symmetry and axiality, and verges on the organic.
In London, Hadid’s Baku project won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award for 2014, but Hadid came under criticism for building a monument to a repressive regime: critics say she should have turned the commission down in protest, just as she should have voiced outrage to worker abuse in Gulf countries. They demand that she become Joan of Arc.
Were the Baku center less beautiful, perhaps its underlying intelligence and political agenda might be better recognized, but armchair critics are quick to assume a beautiful building is only beautiful — “formalist” is the damning phrase — and therefore one-dimensional and without content.
Hardly. Hadid came of intellectual age as Michel Foucault launched his critique of power and space. Widely discussed at the time was the panopticon, a plan often used for prison design from the late 18th century, with guards positioned at the hub of a wheel for clear views down corridors that formed the spokes. The geometry of surveillance and control from a central point allowed guards to watch all cells and prisoners. The layout was totalizing, subordinating all design decisions to this controlling geometric idea.
Hadid’s first buildings, which look like exploding geodes, were based on fractal geometries. Verging on wildness, the basic geometry was liberating rather than controlling. With the advent of the computer, she has since smoothed the fragments into curving shapes and flowing spaces while retaining the freedoms of the early work. It is possible to interpret the free geometries of the Heydar Center from Foucault’s point of view, its liquid forms challenging the geometry of power.
The Peak, by Zaha Hadid, 1983
Arguably the design positions the building as a subversive monument within a repressive political culture, just as Dmitri Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony stood as a musical response to Stalinism. With sinuous lines and undulating surfaces, her free-flowing building has no center, and no control point. It is also located a short distance away from its spiritual nemesis, the stiff, classicized, overpowering Government House, built for over 5,000 people on Lenin Square in the waning days of the Stalinist regime. Its rigid symmetries and body language, with every detail assigned its place within the larger ordination, grips the surrounding city and avenues geometrically, every line of its fabric dictatorial. It embodies and symbolizes inflexible authority.
Government House, Baku, Azerbaijan
Buildings like Hadid’s, as with buildings by Bo Bardi, are “intimate with power,” as Moore writes, because they require authority and money for their construction. But their daring imagination and openness, not to mention skill and inventiveness, challenge social control. For anyone doing a close reading of architecture in Baku, Hadid’s design challenges and undermines repression. Beautiful it is, but its very posture makes concrete an ethos of political and social liberation: Hadid’s way of protesting and expressing her politics is to inscribe her position in the design.
Heydar Aliyev Center. Photo © Iwan Baan.
Though Moore does not discuss the Heydar Center itself, what he calls “the instability of architecture” is “the reason why places shaped with the help of corruption, tyranny, greed, fear, megalomania, or repression — which includes many of the most admired public spaces in Europe — can be beautiful and liberating.” Good architecture, even if it is beautiful, can play seditious political roles.
Why We Build is not a history, not a how-to book, and not even a manual about connoisseurship. Nor is it an earnest or self-righteous manifesto: Moore prefers to amuse rather than scold. Sometimes his tales are even rollicking, as when he chronicles the more libidinous quarters of London that have since settled into paragons of architectural propriety: the history of buildings is itself inconstant. Moore’s story exfoliates unpredictably across centuries, continents, cultures, and even down the same street through time, and the complexities and unexpected turns of the book engage the reader in the same way that the complexities of the architecture he prefers engage the people who dwell in them.
Like the buildings, the book is not linear but relaxed in its storytelling and structure and associative in its thinking. He takes detours. He builds his case by layering, again like the buildings he admires. The buildings are not simplistic one-liners, but designs rife with associations, emotions, responsibilities, and above all invitations to the dance. He does not like authoritarian buildings that dictate order in space, and he does not set himself up as a commanding authority, but allows readers to encounter ruminations that gently add up to a soft thesis about architectural quality and appreciation.
His basic points are simple: fixed, consistent, and perfect form is indifferent to the moment, and likely to leave the user uninvolved and uninterested. “Architects expect magic to come from form, but form alone does not mean much if separated from light, scale, making, context, and time.”
Architecture is “a thing to be lived,” says Moore, and not just looked at, whether it engages the occupant like a trampoline, fostering activity, or, like an oneiric object, cueing reverie. For Moore, architecture that matters is not the methodical production of standardized units: “It is an architect’s job to make worlds, and one who brings only indifference or neutrality creates another kind of tyranny.”
No wonder he wanted Hadid to design the Architecture Foundation. He quotes the eminent Italian architect Gio Ponti: “Enchantment: a useless thing, but as indispensable as bread.” In Hadid’s design, it would have been possible to step through the looking glass into another world.
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.