American University of Beirut

President's Speech - Zaha Hadid

Dr John Waterbury's speech
introducing Zaha Hadid 
June 24, 2006

I have had the privilege of introducing honorees from academia whose work, while earth shaking, is not easily understood-the chemistry of Dr. Ahmad Zeweil or the mathematics of Sir Michael Attiyah come to mind. Rest assured brilliant architects, at least in the words of their critics and admirers, are no easier to fathom. This has been written about Zaha Hadid:
"The meaning of fragmentation is to open the hermetic volumes, to offer porosity instead of fortification."

"Adopting isometric and perspectival drawing techniques used by the Suprematists to achieve strangely irrational spaces that did not add up to Renaissance wholes, she entered an exploratory realm where she developed forms distorted and warped in the throes of Einsteinian space."

"Zaha creates platforms for meaningful activity." At least that last statement is clear and accessible, yet all of the statements try to grasp in words what one immediately senses in viewing a Hadid design on paper or in the flesh so to speak. Her spaces and masses momentarily appear irrational and to some extent unsettling. Yet on sustained observation they are the epitome of simplicity and functionality. What is initially unsettling becomes exciting and uplifting.

One of her early designs was of the Peak Country Club in Hong Kong, and the drawings developed for that design have elicited raves in themselves. "For those who have seen them only in books, the paintings are striking for their meticulousness. To create a bird's-eye perspective, Ms. Hadid began by sketching hundreds of abstract buildings in ink, then transferring them onto paper mounted on canvas. Each of the surfaces was then painted in a different color.

Any experienced draftsman will recognize the years of practice and repetition it takes to work at this level of precision. The inking alone, and the steadiness of hand it requires, takes years of training: skills that have been virtually lost in the age of the computer. This is part of what distinguishes Ms. Hadid's work from the synthetic imagery churned out by computer software in a culture that is too often obsessed with surfaces." According to architect/critic Joseph Giovannini in his Pritzker Prize tribute, the Peak proposal radically broke new ground in the field: it "suspended weight in the same way dramatists suspend disbelief," creating a "visual connection between the sky and the ground."

Zaha Hadid was born in Baghdad in1950 into a liberal secular Iraqi family; her parents and brothers encouraged her, and at the age of eleven she had already designed furniture for her own bedroom. After some part-time study in mathematics at the American University of Beirut, she moved on to the renowned Architectural Association of London. There she studied and later collaborated with architectural giants Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis.

Hadid has completed one project in the United States, the Richard and Lois Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio; and is currently developing another to co-exist with a Frank Lloyd Wright structure, the Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Her other completed projects in Europe include a fire station for the Vitra Furniture Company in Weil am Rhein, Germany; LFone/Landesgartenschau, an exhibition building to mark the 1999 garden festival in that same city; a car park and terminus Hoenheim North, a "park and ride" and tramway on the outskirts of Strasbourg, France; and a ski jump situated on the Bergisel Mountain overlooking Innsbruck, Austria.

She has numerous other projects in various stages of development including a building for BMW in Leipzig, and a Science Center in Wolfsburg, both in Germany; a National Center of Contemporary Arts in Rome; a Master Plan for Bilbao, Spain; a Guggenheim Museum for Taichung, Taiwan; and a high speed train station outside Naples; and a new public archive, library and sport center in Montpellier, France.

In May 2004, Zaha Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize in Architecture, the single most prestigious award to be granted in the field. She joined the ranks of some of the greatest architects of the 20th and 21st centuries including Rem Koolhaas, Oscar Niemeyer, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. The ceremony for Zaha Hadid was fittingly held in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Juror Frank Gehry stated "The 2004 laureate is probably one of the youngest laureates and has one of the clearest architectural trajectories we've seen in many years. Each project unfolds with new excitement and innovation." A new juror this year, journalist Karen Stein who is editorial director of Phaidon Press, commented, "Over the past 25 years, Zaha Hadid has built a career on defying convention-conventional ideas of architectural space, of practice, of representation and of construction."

In February of this year she was named the winner of the international design competition for AUB's Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. Her building, to rise on the site of the present Gulbenkian Infirmary, was described by a juror as emerging "fluidly from the geometry of the surrounding network of public paths, as opposed to sitting on the land as an isolated object." It is tremendously exciting to realize that in the near future a Zaha Hadid structure will be on our campus. I hope she will be kind to us in contract negotiations.

Finally, anyone visiting New York in the next few months will want to visit the special exhibition of Zaha Hadid's designs and drawings at the Guggenheim Museum.

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