Bursting the Zaha Bubble: Ordrupgaard Museum a Failure of Form

A visit to Hadid’s latest project—a museum addition to the Ordrupgaard in Copenhagen—produces some uneasy feelings.

Zaha! Are there two more stirring syllables in all of architecturedom? No, none—particularly when they are followed by what has become a flow of newsy triumphs: Zaha wins the Pritzker! Zaha is building for BMW and VW! Zaha is doing towers in Moscow and Marseilles! Museums in Glasgow and Rome! A swimming pool in London! A master plan in Bilbao! A ferry terminal in Salerno! A Guggenheim in Taichung! Housing in Vienna! A plaza in Nicosia! A bridge in Abu Dhabi! An opera house in Guangzhou!

Unless new research reveals that the Pyramids were designed by Cleopatra—excuse the implicit sexism, it’s just polemical—Zaha Hadid is the most important female architect in history. Yet here I was, not getting any younger as her buildings proliferated around the world, and I admit through veils of shame, I had yet to see one. So it was with great glee and anticipation that I set off to visit her newest work just days before it opened last summer. At about 1,150 square meters, the addition to the Ordrupgaard, a museum of French Impressionism on the outskirts of Copenhagen, may not be her most impressive job, but it seemed a fitting enough venue to lose my Zaha virginity.

I tried to keep an open mind. Because of the hype that surrounds her, because skepticism is so much healthier than credulity, because cameras can lie (and drawings never don’t), I’ve had my doubts. Nothing personal. My memories of the first time I saw her in the flesh—chain-smoking imperiously and barking smart remarks at unhappy students—left me feeling rather warm toward her. And a trusted friend who spent some time in her office has always been quick to counter the pervasive ogress slander; she sounds like a good boss, devoted to her team, and that’s no small thing. But I had never been moved by her art alone, as so many had—so many that her fame was based on little else.

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During Hadid’s long years of teaching and painting, long years that were capped with such fanfare by the wartime whim of the 2004 Pritzker Prize jury, who can deny that her place in the roster of greats was maintained (a handful of completed projects aside) on the power of her images alone? Without those swooshy drawings of the Peak, there would be no Zaha. And certainly no Zaha!—purveyor of chic futures, force of nature, hallmark of swank, edgy cool.

But drawings are drawings—alas, fictions. I love Wonder Woman like a sister, but I never much believed in her invisible jet, specced as it was in transparent aluminum. I think Zaha does; the preconstruction images of her Contemporary Arts Center building in Cincinnati showed multiple facade planes billowing, all somehow letting the eye carry past to the next. When it was completed in 2003, of course, no such transparency graced the magazines. Instead there was an ungainly closed form, decidedly opaque and not far from Brutal. That’s no demerit. But call it what it is—and represent it like it is because honesty is the best policy. For if a fancy architect relies on duplicitous dazzle—okay, misrepresentation—to get a job, and he or she gets away with it because she or he is a fancy architect, and the press, when the very different and usually less spectacular real-world thing is unveiled, does not have the spine to call bullshit on the switch (as they did not, in the main, about Cincinnati), then what?

I kept an open mind as the taxi edged out of town and pulled up the gravel drive at the dignified mansion (c. 1918) to which Zaha had added her mark. The opening was still a few days away. But in my mind I deleted the bulldozers. I noted the craftsmen’s frantic intentions and completed their work. I patched the plantings and filled in the lawn that will grow over the back of the new building, a long half-buried bar, variously folded and bent, made from messy pours of black lava concrete set off by clean steel and glass.

I really did try; you’ll have to trust me. But the body doesn’t lie. Cayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, has a strange ailment that she turns to her advantage: she has physical reactions to logos, and the bad ones make her retch. Later in life she consults on corporate branding. I thought of Pollard as I approached my first Zaha: I was feeling queasy. It wasn’t the absence of a datum, vertical or horizontal (I don’t get seasick). It wasn’t the tentative, casually disrespectful way the black mass met the old house with a forlorn bridge (I don’t fetishize the past). It wasn’t even that the cartoonish form was not to my taste. I handicapped for all that, traversing the awkward entry cleft, but the sick feeling grew.

I walked through the building. The main halls are planned like a maze, the galleries like a trap for Impressionism-loving rats. Nausea became a kind of terror. If Zaha had been asked to design, say, a Holocaust memorial, her building would have had me at hello. But Zaha was charged with the fitting display of Monet and Manet, Gaugin and Degas. Her tiny gray rooms with guillotine angles made no sense, brought nothing new to the art, even seemed to damn it. But that didn’t bother me either.

What I was reacting to was a failure right up in the heart of the Zaha myth. The problem with the building was its form. Form! I hadn’t been prepared to find that Zaha was, on her own terms, an inept form-maker. But there it was. The turns and wraps of the concrete slabs didn’t match; where the different geometries met it was a travesty, and where straight lines intervened, as they always do, it was appalling. Her forms were simply not speaking the same language; they were not derived from the same topological genus. There was nothing coherent about it. And I doubt she was going for collage.

What went wrong? The reception desk, which I noticed anew as I fled the place, held the answer. In the massive white Corian of that fixture, Zaha exhibited the command of form that we all know well—its molded invaginations, seemingly spat fresh from the digital realm, were perfect. But the translation of forms from computer to life at that scale is easy—and it’s not architecture. Much more than the museum building itself, that beautiful desk looked like what we think of as adjectival “Zaha”: novel, confident, and seductive. She was clearly in control. At the structural level, where that nasty thing gravity competed with the delights of her eye, she couldn’t hold the magic that appears to come so easily at the level of furniture, and in her art. And until I visit another Hadid building and find a mastery of realized form in space—let’s call it “good architecture”—I’m going to consider her a glorified graphic artist and promising furniture designer. With great buzz.

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