November 26, 2013
Hadid Defends Questionable Design
Zaha Hadid’s design for the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar has been turning heads for its resemblance to a vagina.
Last week, controversy brewed over renderings released of Zaha Hadid Architects’ design for the 40,000-seat-Al Wakrah stadium, one of several prominent sporting venues that will be built for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. To many major media outlets and talking heads, the design’s contoured features couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than female genitalia. The Guardian’s Holly Baxter did not shy away from the resemblance, but instead embraced it as a subversive, if unintentional statement about “the increasingly liberal Qatari policies concerning women in sport.” On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart addressed the issue the only way he seems to know how, that is, with typical frat-boy bombast and squeamish humor.
Both were reacting to a flythrough video of the stadium done by Neoscape studios, an architectural visualization company that was contracted by the 2022 World Cup organizing body. In a blog post reacting to the hubbub, the studio didn’t express shock at Hadid’s design (done, in part, with AECOM) nor at how architecture came to captivate mainstream media. The episode, they later explained to me, was just the latest in on-going discussions about the role of visualization in architecture. “We're not naive enough to think that our images spurred the reaction to the stadium design, but as communication tool they're indispensable,” the office says.
They’re right, of course. The design, and not the visuals themselves, spurred the lewd, if not outrageous comparisons. “We're all very familiar with Zaha's design aesthetic,”and how “there's something very sensual about the fluidity of the forms in her designs,” Neoscape says. In this case, however, the “sensuality” of the building form was particularly overwrought and as such, bound to turn heads and elicit commentary.
Hadid’s response was unambiguous. Speaking with Time magazine, the architect wrote off the media’s reactions to the stadium as nonsense: “What are they saying? Everything with a hole in it is a vagina? That’s ridiculous.” Had a male architect designed the project, she suggested, he wouldn’t be lampooned with the same puerile quips aimed at her design. Rather, he would be taken seriously or simply ignored. (Though I have a hard time thinking that a middle-age male architect would ever consciously design something like this.)
In the same segment mentioned above, entitled “Unnecessary Muffness,” Stewart goes on to defend Hadid's design, albeit in roundabout fashion. In between the wisecracks, he touches on how architectural form often emulates human anatomy. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the visual connection between, say, the Gherkin or just about any skyscraper ever and a penis. (See Jean Nouvel's seeming fascination with dildos.) But Stewart’s conclusion that “it is time that things evened out a bit,” sounds right, even if it isn’t. What exactly needs evening out in his formulation isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps society needs more vagina-esque buildings to offset the urban parade of steel-and-glass phalluses. Maybe cities just need fewer compensatory skycrapers to begin with. Or possibly, female architects should just be afforded the same respect of their male colleagues.
Having said all that, the design really can't be helped.