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In Defence of Radicalism - On the Work of Zaha Hadid
Patrik Schumacher 2000
Published In: City Visionaries, Venice Biennale of Architecture, Catalog for the British Pavilion, Cornerhouse Publications, Manchester

Zaha Hadid has been a persistent radical in the field of architectural experimentation for the last 20 years. The importance of her contribution to the culture of architecture lies primarily in a series of momentous expansions - as influential as radical - in the repertoire of spatial articulation available to architects today. These conquests for the design resources of the discipline include representational devices, graphic manipulations, compositional manoeuvres, spatial concepts, typological inventions and (beyond the supposed remit of the discipline proper) the suggestion of new modes or patterns of inhabitation. This list of contributions describes a causal chain that significantly moves from the superficial to the substantial and thus reverses the order of ends vs. means assumed in normative models of rationality. The project starts as a shot into the dark, spreading its trajectories, and assuming its target in midcourse. The point of departure is the assumption of a new medium (multi perspective projection) which allows for certain graphic operations (multiple, over-determining distortions) which then are made operative as compositional transformations (fragmentation and deformation) leading to a new concept of space (magnetic field space, particle space, distorted space) which suggests a new phenomenology, navigation and inhabitation of space no longer oriented along prominent figures, axis, edges and clearly bounded realms. Instead the distribution of densities, directional bias, scalar grains and gradient vectors of transformation constitute the new ontology defining what it means to be somewhere.(1)

This assessment of Hadid's oeuvre in terms of the expansion of architectural methods, resources and repertoires is independent of the success and merit the various built and unbuilt projects might have with respect to the particular tasks they are addressed to solve. Rather than fulfilling only their immediate purpose as a state of the art delivery of a particular use-value - e.g. a fire station or an exhibition venue - the significance and ambition of these projects is that they might be seen as manifestos of a new type of space. As such their defining context is the historical progression of such manifestos rather than their concrete spatial and institutional location. The defining ancestry of e.g. the Vitra Firestation or the Millennium Mind Zone includes the legacy of modern abstract art as the conquest of a previously unimaginable realm of constructive freedom. Hitherto art was understood as mimesis and the reiteration of given sujets, i.e. re-presentation rather than creation. Architecture was the re-presentation of a fixed set of minutely determined typologies and complete tectonic systems. Against this backdrop abstraction meant the possibility and challenge of free creation. The canvas became the field of an original construction. Through figures such as Malevitsch and vanguard groups such as the DeStijl movement this exhilarating historical moment was captured and exploited for the world of experimental architecture. A key example is Rietveld's House Schroeder. The value and justification of this building does not only depend on the particular suitability to the Schroeder's family interests. It operates as an inspiring manifesto about new compositional possibilities which much later are further extended in the Vitra Firestation - Hadid's first built manifesto to be understood within Zaha Hadid's oeuvre at large.(2) Both these manifesto buildings radically violate the typological and tectonic norms of their time and dare to suggest compositional moves hitherto unknown to the discipline of architecture.

The introduction of categories such as "manifesto", "the discipline of architecture " and "oeuvre" suspends but does not cancel or deny concerns of utility. These categories are not set absolute, autonomous and forever aloof from the functional concerns of society. Rather the concrete uses and users are bracketed for the sake of experimenting with new, potentially generalisable principles of spatial organisation and articulation with respect to emerging social demands and use patterns. Functional optimality according to well corroborated criteria is thus renunciated for the experimental advancement of social practises of potentially higher functionality. The very nature of the kind of iconoclastic research of "the avant garde" is that it thrusts itself into the unknown and offers its challenging proposals to the collective process of experimentation in a raw state rather than waiting until the full cycle of experimentation, variation, selection, optimisation and refinement is complete and ready to present secure and polished results.
Despite the often precarious status of its partial and preliminary results I will argue that this radicalism constitutes a form of research; an unorthodox research in as much as it's methods include intuitive groping, randomisation and automatic formal processes, i.e. the temporary relaxation and even suspension of rational criteria.

The dialectic of the New

Hegel grasped that the New is always consuming its immediate precursor as its defining opposite, maintaining and carrying it along like a shadow. And this shadow carries a further shadow etc., so that a cultural innovation can only be identified and appreciated by those who are able to place it within the whole historical evolution. Such appreciation therefore becomes a relative, graded and ultimately infinite act. (And it is essential for the culture of architecture to insist that a new architectural position can not be reduced to an isolated form or gesture, but - like a scientific idea - involves a whole network of historically cumulative assumptions and ambitions.) This process, which Hegel called sublation, is borne out by the fact that the definition of the New, e.g. of deconstructivism or folding in architecture, stretches across hundreds of magazine and book pages, broadly retracing architectural history, referencing classic as well as modernist tropes.
But - and this is beyond the grasp of hegelian dialectic - each time the sequence is traversed it is twisted and retro-actively realigned by current contingencies and emerging agendas. The history of (architectural) history reveals how distinctions and relative newness are redistributed, emerge and collapse under the force of current innovations, a force that thus works to a large extend against the arrow of time and this has bewitching consequences: A thought might no longer speak the language of its own beginning. As Derrida puts it "... all is not to be thought at one go ... " and "The necessity of passing through that erased determination, the necessity of that trick of writing is irreducible"(3).

Resources of the Radical Imagination

Creative Revilalism

It is no accident hat the New in the arts always announces itself in the guise of a revival. Hadid's career starts with the reinterpretation of Malevitch's tectonics. Her early work has indeed been (mis-)understood as Neo-constructivism. Also one might recount how Peter Eisenman takes off from the early Le Corbusier. Revivalist appropriation is the easiest and most immediate option to articulate dissatisfaction and resistance towards a dominant practise. But this has nothing to do with repetition. For instance, to pick up the unfinished project of modernism on the back of post-modernism can not be a simple re-enactment, even if one initially works with literal citations. For a culture which reflects its own history, this history can never be circular. Although there have been attempts to write a circular history - e.g. the history of western art as swinging back and forth between an appollonian and dionysian sensibility - , discursively the second time can never be the same. Also: what usually follows on from the second time clearly reveals its irreducible newness. Revivalism - the hurling back in front of what was left behind - has been a pervasive and effective mechanism in the production of the New. The re-introduction of formal systems leads inevitably to over-determination, distortion and transformation.

Re- combination: Collage and Hybridisation

The second mechanism that has to be mentioned here is the dialectic of re-combination and hybridisation. The important reminder here is that the result of combination is rarely just a predictable compromise. Synenergies might be harnessed: Unpredictable operational effects might emerge and, on the side of meaning, affects are engendered as the whole taxonomy of differences is forced into an unpredictable realignment. The new combination re-contextualises and reinterprets its ingredients as well as its surroundings.


Abstraction implies the avoidance of familiar, ready-made typologies. Instead of taking for granted things like houses, rooms, windows, roofs etc. Hadid reconstitutes the functions of territorialisation, enclosure and interfacing etc. by means of boundaries, fields, planes, volumes, cuts, ribbons etc. The creative freedom of this approach is due to the open-endedness of the compositional configurations as well as the open-endedness of the list of abstract entities that enter into the composition. (To maintain the spirit of abstraction in the final building a defamiliarising, "minimalist" detailing is avoiding that cuts turn into windows again.)


Analogies are fantastic engines of invention with respect to organisational diagrammes, formal languages and tectonic systems. They have nothing to do with allegory or semantics in general. Hadid's preferred source realm of analogical transference is the inexhaustible realm of landscape formations: forests, canyons, river deltas, dunes, glaciers/moraines, faulted geological strata, lava flows etc. Beyond such specific formations abstract formal characteristics of landscape in general are brought into the ambit of architectural articulation. The notion of an artificial landscape has been a pervasive working hypothesis within Hadid's oeuvre from the Hong Kong Peak onwards. Artificial landscapes are coherent spatial systems. They reject platonic exactitude but they are not just any "freeform". They have their peculiar lawfulness. They operate via gradients rather than hard edge delineation. They proliferate infinite variations rather than operating via the repetition of discrete types. They are indeterminate and leave room for active interpretation on the part of the inhabitants.

Another source realm is food stuffs: sandwiches, melted cheese, chewing gum, papadams, spaghetti. Ultimately anything could serve as analogical inspiration. Often such analogies become to be considered as the concept of the project: The Cardiff Opera House as an inverted necklace, the Copenhagen Concert Hall as a block of terrazzo, the Victoria and Albert Museum extension as 3D TV, i.e. a three-dimensional pixelation etc.

Surrealist mechanisms

One of the most significant and momentous features of architectural avant-garde of the last 15 years is the proliferation of representational media and design processes and the attendant theoretical reflection on those media and processes. Hadid's audacious move to translate the dynamism and fluidity of her calligraphic hand directly into equally fluid tectonic systems, her incredible move from isometric and perspective projection to literal distortions of space, from the exploded axonometry to the literal explosion of space into fragments, from the superimposition of various fisheye perspectives to the literal bending and melt down of space etc. - all these moves must initially appear rampantly illogical, akin to the operations of the surrealists. But then these strange moves - once taken seriously within the context of developing an architectural project - turn out to be powerful compositional options when faced with the task of articulating complex programmes. The dynamic streams of movements within a complex structure can now be made legible as the most fluid regions within the structure; overall trapezoidal distortions offer one more way to respond to non-orthogonal sites; perspective distortions allow the orientation of elements to various functional focal points etc. What once was an outrageous violation of logic has become part of a strategically deployed repertoire of nuanced spatial organisation and articulation.

The initially "mindless" sketching of graphic textures (see Vitra sketches) in endless iterations operates like an "abstract machine" proliferating difference to select from. Once a strange texture or figure is selected and confronted with a programmatic agenda a peculiar form-content dialectic is engendered. An active figure-reading mind will find the desired conditions but equally new desires and functions are inspired by the encounter with the strange configuration. The radically irrational and arbitrary detour ends up hitting a target.

This "miracle" can be explained by recognising that all functionality is relative, that all well articulated organisms have once been monstrous aberrations and still are such - relative to other "higher" and more "beautiful" organisations. Before we dismiss arbitrary formalisms we need to realise that all our time-tested typologies themselves adhere dogmatically to the arbitrary formalism of orthogonality and platonic simplicity derived from the constraints of measuring, making and stabilising of structures handed down to us from a rather primitive stage of our civilisation. To remain locked in within these figures at this time and age would be more than arbitrary. The only way out is radical proliferation and testing of other options. All points of departure are equally arbitrary until tested against presumed criteria. There is no absolute optimality. Every measure starts with a finite array of arbitrary options to compare, select from, adapt and thus working away from absolute arbitrariness. It is significant in this respect that the logic of evolutionary innovation starts with mutation: mutation, selection and reproduction. Hadid has been a vital engine of mutation with respect to the culture of architecture.

Harnessing the power of chance

More and more it seems to become an urgency to incorporate the category of random accidents and chance mutations into our theories of innovation and progress, even though these terms - randomness and progress - have hitherto been absolutely anti-thetical. Randomness seems to be the absolute antithesis of any notion of strategic conduct or rationality.

Should one not know what one is doing? Not necessarily if one is alert towards finding one's purposes along the way. One might very well learn and define what one was doing retrospectively, after the event.

Deconstructivist design-processes significantly have had this folded time structure: 'choose' now, 'motivate' later. The design process was systematically purged of any preconceived intention and replaced by an ever extending series of initially arbitrary formal moves: mappings and extended series of formal transformation as form-generating aleatoric processes. Such a process or method involves the radical suspension of everything usually associated with "design" as deliberate purpose-lead activity, directed to solve well-defined problems according to known and explicit criteria. Progress can no longer be monitored as the systematic accumulation of solutions on that basis. Instead of such step by step accountable conduct, initially unaccountable graphic proliferation and groping was the order of the day. Freedom and progress are here mediated through coercion in the sense of the designers (temporary) submission to the arbitrary determination of the graphic process. In the aleatoric design method the formal process is running ahead and a meaning and programme is read into it a posteriori, allowing for an innovative (re-)alignment of both new form and new function. The aleatoric "play" is an instrument of intelligence, not its negation or substitute. As in biological evolution, the necessary condition for the ability to harness chance for the purposes of innovation is reproduction, i.e. the ability to reproduce an initially unintended and uncontrolled effect. The machinic process becomes domesticated and human. What was play has become method.

"Playfulness is the deliberate, temporary relaxation of rules in order to explore the possibilities of alternative rules. When we are playful we challenge the necessity of consistency. In effect, we announce - in advance - our rejection of usual objections to behaviour that does not fit the standard model of intelligence. Playfulness allows experimentation. At the same time, it acknowledges reason. It accepts that at one point ... it will be integrated into the structure of intelligence. ... tolerant of the idea that he will discover the meaning of yesterday's action in the experiences and interpretations of today."(4) Such reasoning might grant us some breathing space for experimentation not only on the drawing board, but also - within certain limits - with the building itself. Who is to judge and deny a priori that a strange building will not attract and engender a strangely productive occupation.

The work exhibited at the Venice Biennale, British Pavilion

The British Pavilion features a series of recent projects that work with ribbons : folded, twisted, bundled, splintered. Three of them are bridges funneling and distributing various trajectories. The forth project also foregrounds movement and trajectory, moving visitors through the story of the MIND. To select the work on the basis of a set of related analogical themes - flexing and folding ribbons as well as splintering bundles - reflects Hadidıs design heuristics, i.e. the development of the work via families of conceptually related projects. The folding ribbon was first explored in 1994 for the housing project to be constructed over and between the railway viaducts running alongside the Danube canal in Vienna. It was further explored with the Blueprint Pavilion built in Birmingham in 1995 and in the larger structure for the Mind Zone at the Greenwich Millennium Dome in 1999.

The folding structure offers a spatial interplay and confrontation with the subject matter whereby the path folds back upon itself allowing certain items/phenomena to be re-encountered from different perspectives in different contexts. The overall ribbon breaks here into three parallel parts each describing a peculiar trajectory respectively representing the mindıs aspects of "input", "process" and "output". Each of the three ribbons reaches out into the space with a large cantilever.

The bundle concept was first explored with the winning competition entry for a Habitable Bridge across the Thames River in London in 1996.

The bridge is conceived as a bundle of trajectories and cluster of volumes crossing the Thames diagonally. As the bridge crosses to the South side the tight bundle splinters and spreads connecting widely into the South Bank and Coin Street. Within the volume of the bridge various forms of habitation co-exist: living accommodation of different types combine with recreational and cultural spaces. In the middle of the river the bundle of volumes tears clearing the view along the axis of the river. Only the thin pedestrian routes bridge this cleft and precariously hold the shearing bundle together.

This concept was re-applied and elaborated on a smaller scale with the the winning competition entry for the Holloway Road Bridge in London in 1998. The pedestrian bridge - again as bundle of trajectories - serves the University of North London campus hich is dispersed within a mixed urban field and cut apart by Holloway Road. Within this urban field exists a secondary layer of routes and corridors that forms the Universityıs internal circulation system. The project funnels and extends this internal network across Holloway Road, connecting three University buildings above grade, revealing the internal pedestrian flows. The project offers a deliberately incomplete composition ready for further branches and offshoots to be attached in the second phase when further facilities will be build and connected.

Finally there is the 3rd Bridge Crossing I Abu Dhabi.

The architectural concept proposes a smooth dune-like structural wave propelling across the creek. The wave bifurcates and describes a complex three-dimensional figure as it rises between the bulging highway decks to dip down and rise again hugging the decks from the outside. The touch down points are unevenly spaced allowing for a big span across the main navigable channel. A pedestrian path is thread through the structure below the main decks. The landscape design interprets the bridge as emerging from a field of parallel ribbons gathered on one shore from which single strands are lifted and undulated across the water plane.


What is at stake is Hadidıs ouevre is the attempt to push the development of the discipline of architecture itself, its spatial concepts and formal registers. But these formal innovations do not just produce arbitrary difference for the sake of newness. Rather it is possible to explicitely frame the general thrust of innovation: towards new levels of formal complexity. Elsewhere (5) I have argued in detail that this general thrust has an underlying progressive rationality: it represents the potential to engage with the complexities and uncertainties of emerging post-fordist social arrangements.

My main point of contention here is that formal innovation can be opposed to programmatic functionality only on the level of an individual project or career, but never on account of the discipline as a whole. Formal innovation deserves respect in as much as it has the status of a deferred potential for higher functionality. A particular project or oeuvre might be formally innovative without itself yet delivering any respective programmatic innovation. Indeed the initial proliferation of spatial concepts and formal techniques flourishes best in the absence of functional and programmatic constraints. This is the raison d'etre of the oeuvres of a lot of the protagonist of the current neo-avant garde. But the rationality of such practice can not be posed as absolute. Rather it depends on its partiality, i.e. its embeddedness within an effective division of labour that separates formal experimentation from its functional exploitation. The value of this formal innovation lies precisely in the promise that a formally enriched discipline will be more versatile and resourceful in the spatial organisation and articulation of the evolving life process.

The functional implementation of the newly elaborated formalisms is often regarded as trivialisation. But without its "trivialisation" - which indeed is its only redemption - this formalism would be nothing but an irresponsible fetishism. Any new formal concept reveals its power and productivity (and I would argue even fulfils its full aesthetic affect) only as a lived space. Zaha Hadid is very well aware of this and aims operate on the integrated front of formal and functional innovation.


1. Of course these innovations have been (and continue to be) produced within an international collective/competitive milieu of experimenters. The totality of discoveries emerging within this milieux immediately appropriated - and rightly so - by each and every contributor. The elaboration of the ambition, meaning and achievement of the oeuvre of Zaha Hadid therefore makes no claim here concerning the question of original authorship - a question which can only distract from any substantial discussion.)

2. Hadid's oeuvre in turn can be defined as an attempt to push ahead with "the incomplete project of modernism". This is the most general account Zaha Hadid has - on many occasions - given of her work. The "incomplete project of modernism" as Hadid understands it is more tilted towards Russian Constructivism rather than German Functionalism giving greater prominence to formal innovation rather than scientific rationalisation. But this opposition is one of degree rather than principle. For all shades of the modern movement the historical intersection of abstract art, industrial technology and the social progress conquered in the wake of the 1st world war have been the indispensable ingredients.)

3. Derrida, J., Of Grammotology, p.23, Baltimore 1974, French: Paris 1967

4. March, J.G. & Olsen, J.P., Ambiguity and Choice in Organisations, 1979

5. Patrik Schumacher, Produktive Ordnungen (engl.: Productive Patterns) in: ARCH+ 136, April 1997, Berlin, pp.28-33, pp.87-90 see also: a) Patrik Schumacher, Productive Patterns - Restructuring Architecture. Part 1 in: architect's bulletin, Operativity, Volume 135 - 136, June 1997, Slovenia b) Part 2, in: architect's bulletin, Volume 137 - 138, November 1997, Slovenia
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