By 1993 Zaha Hadid had come to a point of synthesis of a decade where her poetics and visual language – made of powerful references to the artistic avant-garde and the work of Kazimir Malevič and El Lissitsky – had already shaped the imagination of an emerging generation of designers and theorists, starting from the milieu of the Architectural Association in London as well as from projects such as the winner of Peak Area competition in Hong Kong. Her idea of design as a philosophy was strong early on, as she confirmed speaking to Alessandro Mendini in the 1983 issue of Domus that featured her as cover star.
From the 1990s, this great charge of thought began taking off toward translation into architectures destined to become symbols of an era and above all of a language – deconstructivist language – as would also happen with Coop Himmelb(l)au, Libeskind and Gehry. Vitra’s commission to build a fire station on its corporate campus was the great opportunity to translate the lines of Hadid’s drawings and paintings into built shapes, which would obtain immediate relevance within the global architectural discourse. The building debuted on Domus in September 1993, on issue 752.
Zaha Hadid, Fire Station, Weil am Rhein
Small-scale buildings often become milestones in the history of architecture. Today a modest-sized building in Weil am Rhein could become, for the ailing architectural avant-garde in the late twentieth century, what the tomb of Theodoric the Great in Ravenna was for the Italian Futurists. Or the Katsura Pavilion in Japan for the early members of the Modern Movement. Or the Einstein Tower in Potsdam for Expressionism. The building is quite simply the fire station of a furniture factory in Baden.
Until recently the architect Zaha M. Hadid was seen as something of a paper tiger. She owed her reputation to the interior designs and intergalactic fantasy designs with which she had turned the heads of architectural students all over the world. Zaha Hadid’s first building has brought an end to this period of fearful waiting. And what a superb piece of work it is. This operational building for the 24-hour fire service at the Vitra Furniture Factory is a revelation, a bright light after nights of nostalgia.
The building does not “speak” and does not represent anything either. It could be seen as a starfighter or speedboat, as a collapsing bridge structure or an exploding spaceship. Its discontinuous structure through wall piers wedged into each other and roof wings is so spectacular that we can dispense with graphic analogies. Zaha Hadid’s achievement has to be seen in the context of the similar aims of the choreographer William Forsythe and the performance artist Laurie Anderson: the breakthrough to image- and concept-free elementary forces, the cleansing of the representation of all semantic garbage.
The building recalls the metaphors of flight suggested by Saarinen’s TWA Terminal Building in New York, the flowing spatial continua of Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerrit Rietveld or Mies van der Rohe. But these radical modernists always created only wall surfaces indifferently flowing past each other, which had merely incidental contact on their journey from nowhere to infinity. Zaha Hadid has taken this approach, again with millimetre precision, to the archimedean point of supreme development.
Any one who approaches the wing-type building from the rear of the factory site has an experience similar to the opening scene of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where the main character, played by James Stewart, is frozen in free fall by a camera zooming in and out.
The building both opens and shrinks back. Like the point of a needle, a thirty-metre-long cantilever roof projects over the vehicle room; it then changes into the binding framework of the first floor and recreation and work rooms extend radially, creating neither a closed interior volume nor a valid exterior structure, but are like something cut with a knife from the spatial rigidity of Euclidean geometry. Each of the shifted surfaces unites, rising and curved, convex and falling, a whole bundle of directions. The subject-centred central perspective has been levered out; the space develops a life of its own.
This mobile building frozen in space works with such economical and precise movements that we can confidently forget the Mikado aesthetics of other Deconstruction architects. We are no longer dealing with the poetic confusion of Schwitters Merzbau or Scharoun’s grotto architecture, or the irritating blurring of the free natural form and the austere artificial form. The building is neither an organic expressive chance structure nor a clever piece of mathematics but the ice-cold and at the same time crackling masterstroke of a furious intellectual fire-raiser. Zaha Hadid has made good her claim, often received with some condescension in the past, to build the experimental spatial studies of Malewitsch’s “Architektons” or El Lissitzky’s “Prounes”.
She does not represent what she sees in an object but what she knows about it. She is nourished by the same abstractionist energies as those Chinese painters who, in times gone by, endlessly extended their bird’s-eye-view landscapes with double perspective vanishing points. Her approach to design is more ascetic than that of the Modern Movement. She has no time for the self-justifying labels of modern architecture, such as transparency, emancipation and even clinical aesthetics. Its lofty claim to produce the appropriate design every time so as to create either new people, clever machines or better societies became harnessed so tight to the mass production of consumer goods and administrative utility that this modernity turned into an affirmative propaganda art.
Zaha Hadid goes behind this process of making once great architectural fantasies useful and distills from them astral bodies never before seen. In their reticence, which is both monumental and intricately ornamental, they radiate a supreme degree of architectural excitement. From one hundred cubic metres of bare concrete she has created an 800 square metre “arte povera” spatial study with building costs of only DM 2.6 million. Techonology, science and art come together to create a hitherto unknow poetry reflecting the terrible beauty of the twentieth century. Such a risk architecture is not merely a product of the unruly gestural language of its creator. The building reflects both the topography of the hilly Baden landscape and the run-down area on the outskirts of the town where the factory is located.
As a synthesis of the design of individual buildings and town planning, it brings the urban fabric right into the building. However, this highly taut spatial composition can also be understood without any knowledge of the urban services. The inner balance of the curved ribbon windows, the tapering succession of spaces and the projectile-like projections are almost perfect. At the spot on the first floor where the horizontal and vertical wings meet at their centre of gravity, the architect cunningly leaves a gaping triangular hole in the floor.
This simple fire station makes it clear why architecture can be content neither with the provision of decorated boxes nor with the invocation of the purity of “space” and “light”, if time is forgotten in the process. This is an architecture of speed. It creates an inspirational enclosed emptiness as a spiritual projection, a sparkling grindstone with which to sharpen the wits. Formerly, the best avant-garde designs were for millionaires’ villas. Today’s avant-garde – Venturi, Koolhaas, Eisenman, Hadid - have all won their spurs by designing fire stations.
This one-off architecture will not make the world a better place and will only retain its powerful impact if it is not eroded by fickle “style reproductions”. Despite its threatening nature, it radiates an invincible optimism, and this is something which is needed if we are to take up the equally bleak and exciting challenges of today’s risk society – even if the challenge is only the next smouldering fire in the wood store of a furniture factory.