More than Form

Post by Catarina Ferreira, AIA

So much has been written about Zaha Hadid and her work in the past two days. Two recurring themes stand out: 1. She was a great (albeit) female architect; 2. She was obsessed with form.

Both of these characterizations miss the point.

1. Zaha was a great architect; period. She was a great architect because she was able to elevate buildings beyond their constraints. She built poetry.

2. Her interest in form was clear, but it was not as superficial as some believe. Since the beginning of time, architects having been pushing materials to their limits, trying to create new realities. If that had not been the case, we would still be living in caves. Ultimately, her work was about pushing materials and building occupants to their limits. It was formal as much as it was experiential.

Her interest in form was perhaps a reflection of her painterly inclinations, of a cultural background in which calligraphy and having 'a good hand' are valued, in which patterns and abstractions go way back, collaged with an interest in Russian constructivism and the rigors of the AA. Is the formal intensity of her work, truly, what makes her architecture sublime? Yes and no. Minimalism is also a means to create sublime architecture, but it looks entirely diferent. Gothic architecture was sublime, but, again, very different. They all have one thing in common: an emphasis on the experience. However, they all use different formal languages.


Zaha Hadid created  buildings that appear to take flight or take off like speeding trains, she placed visitors smack in the middle of unsettling movement, on the edge of cliffs, under inverted, pointed geometries, etc. The overarching intent was to heighten the visitors sensory experience, and to make them aware of it. Every one of her buildings is remarkably different from the others, for that reason. It may not be for everyone, but neither is Baroque or Gothic architecture. Some call it self-serving architecture as sculpture. All architecture is a form of sculpure, but much more.

What Zaha did was invent a new, provocative style, and use it masterfully to create fantastic, experience-based architecture that puzzles even professional architectural critics. The patterns, the lines, the swoops, are the means for achieving this, in a more up to date and intense aesthetic than that used by other architects. The forms she invented truly created new experiences, and in her buildings form and experience are inseparable, because one cannot exist without the other, the same way that Gothic  architecture would not be the same without impossibly tall arches. This is where her genius lies. Perhaps the interest in form came first, and is so strong that it is almost distracting, but the end result surpasses it. It's Gothic architecture on steroids, with abstract contemporary music in the background.

Other architects of our time have created buildings that aspire to similar qualities, but their work fails to surpass the formal gymnastics, because their understanding of the experiential factor is lacking. Form alone is not nearly enough.  What matters is what you do with it, and what it does to you when you are in it. That's where sculpture ends and architecture begins.