Welcome to ZHA World 29.10.13

ZHA-Galaxy-Soho-013 by-Hufton-and-Crow

Hadid, who recently opened a huge shopping complex in Beijing and launched a sculptural shoe, has had a prolific year. Brand Zaha is now a formidable, swooshing global force

The Zaha Hadid Architects office in Clerkenwell, London, is going through a prolific period. This year alone it has completed four projects, received four large commissions, staged three exhibitions, displayed 13 new products (12 at the Salone in Milan), received nine awards and opened a gallery dedicated to its work. The scale of these projects ranges from a gargantuan shopping mall to a limited run of expensive shoes. A staff of 400 develops and details these ideas, adhering to the stylistic dogmas that underpin the practice's work. As an individual, Zaha Hadid has gone from paper architect to architectural pariah in the 1990s to instantly recognisable global brand with a DBE for Services to Architecture. "Zaha" has, in the words of Jonathan Meades, joined "the glitzy cadre of the mononominal: Elvis, Arletty, Taki, Sting, Mies". Everyone wants a piece of ZHA – and they are willing to pay handsomely.

In the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, edited by Rem Koolhaas in 2001, Hiromi Hosoya and Markus Schaefer say: "Added value, on the one hand, is the resulting economic benefit of innovative combinations of technologies or services; on the other, it is the value vested in a product's identity, which stirs the consumers imagination and elevates its status." For ZHA, the latter is especially true – it is the go-to company if your plot of land, city, fashion label or design firm needs that elusive status boost.

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credit Roca Gallery, London, Hufton + Crow

Of course, big architectural practices regularly diversify their output, producing tangential spin-offs and allowing corporations to exploit their brand, skill and vision. Oscar Niemeyer and Jean Nouvel have both designed shoes; Libeskind unveiled almost as many products as ZHA in Milan this year; Rem Koolhaas has a long collaboration with Prada. The style and design approach of an architect are marketable traits.

In that vein, the style of ZHA – once labelled the new avant-garde – has often been appropriated as a marketing tool. Indeed, whatever the firm's ideological purpose – company director Patrik Schumacher discusses the theory of parametricism in his lengthy books – it is clouded by its commercial objectives. In the book Brandscapes, architect and branding expert Anna Klingmann (who briefly worked for Hadid in 1996) says the architecture of such brands is "symbolic capital". "Signature-branded buildings, instantly linked to the prestige and aptitude of their authors, transform the star power of the architect into a material commodity," she says, adding their clients work towards "combining emphatic design with real estate logic". This is as true for cultural and masterplanning projects as commercial ones, and it is not a new phenomenon – architecture has always been lucrative for landowners and instrumental in transforming our experience of cities. Recently, however, the reach of architecture and its impact has undergone massive change. Buildings are an easy sell to a population that digests the news and develops its worldview through images. Architecture is consumed through images like never before and an instantly identifiable visual language allows the people who commission a building to exploit the leverage of an architect's brand. ZHA in particular excels at delivering landmark projects – its buildings perform the tasks they are meant to, but with considerable flourish.

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credit Prototype shop-in-shop system, ZHA

This month, during the London Design Festival, ZHA will unveil a collaboration with Samsung and Swiss fashion house Heidi.com. The architect and the South Korean materials and technological giant have worked together to produce a shop-in-shop prototype that will launch the once online-only brand into the unforgiving physical world of retail. The prototype is essentially a series of display cases and surfaces that can be configured into a series of spatial arrangements to suit the needs of Heidi.com in department stores and shows. The second part of the commission is a permanent store at the Heidi.com headquarters in Neuchatel, Switzerland. The brand has taken over a disused fire station, which ZHA will fit out – a rather neat coincidence as ZHA celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Vitra Fire station, its first built commission.

"We wanted to offer flexibility and also maybe not a fixed appearance," says Fabian Hecker, an associate at ZHA who led the project, of the prototype. It will be constructed in Staron, a material similar to Corian, produced by Samsung. Three units at varying heights, united by the material and ZHA's flowing forms, will be used to display goods. Samsung has developed an integrated, interactive ordering and sales system. Small, experimental projects such as these allow ZHA it to test ideas, materials and technologies, yet its approach, says Hecker, remains consistent across its work. "There is an explorative drive at the beginning of every project and it's in the DNA of the company. It applies to projects across all scales and types."

On a larger end of the scale, ZHA unveiled a 332,000sq m shopping mall in Beijing last year. The Galaxy Soho has four towers – each 15 storeys tall with three floors of retail and 12 office floors. The design is a massive version of a traditional Chinese courtyard. The flowing balconies and soaring bridges create a sinewy retail oasis that rejects the city and focuses on the interior. It is the architecture of ZHA that has united the city and consumer. It is a purely commercial use of her work, and the shops and businesses in the complex have been absorbed into an aesthetic symbol that screams quality and prestige. It is working, too – rents top £8,000/sq m, and in December the design was found to be strangely similar to another building being constructed in Chongqing.

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credit Nova shoe for United Nude, United Nude

Earlier this year Hadid designed a shoe for United Nude, founded in 2003 by Rem D Koolhaas – nephew of Rem. "If you look at some of Zaha's designs and some of ours, you can already see there was a match," says Farah Tiwow of United Nude. "She chose to work with us for that reason. The goal was then to create a shoe with 'Zaha DNA'." The rotation-moulded Nova shoe is an intriguing design – its manufacture combines techniques such as injection and rotation-molding, as well as hand-moulded methods such as vacuum-casting. "We chose the final design together, as it worked best for what we aimed for," says Tiwow. "A sculpture for the foot." These smaller works, and her expensive and popular industrial products show that the "Zaha DNA" has commercial value outside architecture. This is, again, testament to the strength of the work of ZHA and its entrepreneurship. The return on a project as small as the Nova would be minimal compared with an architectural project – but such works reinforce the idea of ZHA as a creative force.

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credit BMW Central Building, Leipzig, Hélène Binet

In 2005, ZHA unveiled the BMW Central Building at the German car company's headquarters in Leipzig. The 27,500sq m building sought to translate functional industrial architecture and processes into a new aesthetic and working structure. Here, ZHA not only designed a building to make cars, but was allowed to reassess and restructure the managerial hierarchy of the company through its spatial treatment. Like in its work with United Nude, Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, Roca, Artemide and Magis (to name but a few), both the ethos and the process of ZHA were employed. These commissions were for more than just a parametric swoosh to update a brand.

Hadid commissioned creative agency Greenspace to develop a new website and branding for ZHA in 2011. Greenspace developed a visual identity for the company and an "ultimate archive" that catalogued its output and challenged the prevalent misconception at the time that its work was rarely realised. "We came to realise that there was no consistent way of writing about or describing ZHA," says Greenspace founder Adrian Caddy. "Nor was there a consistent form the practice used to show itself to the world." The designers were given permission to conduct interviews with 40 of the most senior partners at ZHA to build up a word cloud of the adjectives used most often to describe the method and spirit of ZHA. "Charismatic, disorganised, contradictory and brilliant were the values that emerged," Caddy says.

The designers were surprised at the strength and coherence of the responses. "In a sense, the project is about corporate identity rather than a piece of product branding," says Caddy. "It can also be seen as the visible language ZHA uses to communicate with." In her 1998 monograph, Hadid called for "a new image of architectural presence with dynamic qualities such as speed, intensity, power and direction". Greenspace distilled this onto paper to create a corporate presence for the neo-avant-garde. Along with the website, Greenspace worked with typographer Miles Newlyn to create the Zaha Hadid Sans typeface and printed materials in the ZHA brand colours of silver, black, white and magenta.

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credit Zaha Hadid Sans, Greenspace

On the slick and comprehensive ZHA website there is a link to "ZHA World". A stylised map is scattered with little pink dots that show the impressive reach of the ZHA empire. There are notable omissions – the firm has worked in Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Riyadh, and before the bloody end of Gaddafi's regime, it was designing the now discontinued "people's conference hall" in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. If architecture is the product of a physical place and a reflection of the politics, dialogue and collaborations that bring it into being, then why hasn't the ZHA brand been damaged by these associations?

Rather, the ZHA brand operates across all its projects. Big, small, in the UK and abroad, ZHA produces buildings and products that capture the imagination and enhance the quotidian – the parametric sweeps and curves that once challenged the status quo are now being realised, yet they have also become status symbols of luxury and political posturing. ZHA has evolved from a theoretical outfit conducting isolated and exploratory investigations into the nature of space and the city into a revered, powerful but no less inventive company that is integral to many local and global economies. The "ZHA DNA" has had to alter to accommodate commercial and aesthetic interests. Now, the ZHA brand is a commodity and the ZHA business model is successful. Welcome to ZHA world.

 

Image

Galaxy Soho, Beijing, Hufton + Crow

 

Words

Owen Pritchard

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Big architectural practices regularly diversify their output, producing tangential spin-offs

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