What In the Zaha is That?

Debates have begun to spur regarding the 2020 Olympics and the new Japanese National Stadium design that is the centerpiece to the sacred games.  A second round of petitions have been circulated after a positive response to the first wave which is attempting to either have Hadid reconfigure her designs or scrap them for another designer all together.  Bringing up a recurrent discourse on contextualism and architecture, the stadium has appalled many who call the 2020 Olympics area home.  Is this the beginning of the end for structures which blatantly ignore context both through aesthetics and scale?  

Contextualism in Architecture

For as long as many can remember, the debate of contextualism has been a large one in the field of architecture.  A huge neo-post-modernist movement called "Critical Regionalism" coined by Kenneth Frampton sparked the debate of place and how buildings defined place both internally and externally.  A place always had a certain feel to it, but with the rise of the sterile Modernist movement and the over-ornamentation of the Post-Modernism, cities began to lose their overall feel.  Critical Regionalism was the beginning of a response to architecture that defied its surroundings and created itself for self-indulgence and admiration.  A huge force in this movement was Japanese architect Tadao Ando, a man who believed architecture should borrow bits from the past, present and see itself into the future with a whimsical timelessness that rooted itself in the site and culture of its place.  Contextualism and its subsequent deliberation have held a place in the field of architecture since then.

So what is an architect's responsibility to contextualism in regards to the buildings they root into a site?  What must they consider and juggle when components such as religion, cultural practices and habits are all thrown into the mixture?  Is this even the responsibility of the "architect", a term which only is defined as a person who engages in the practice of building and making structures?  The best answer to all of these questions is an architect is responsible for every little piece of a building.  Whether it's how a building sits on its site or how it offends the public, the blame/credit for such things must fall on the person who has manifested such a mass. Recent court cases against architect Santiago Calatrava have begged the legal system to hold the architect accountable for things such as contextualism, it is their job to ensure that the building works in every single aspect.  Still, many find it hard to find a gauge of judging a building on something so subjective.

Zaha Hadid and Architecture

Remember those days in school when you and your fellow classmates would droll over those $250 Hadid books, idolizing her use of the curve and how it made such majestic spaces and experiences?  It's not hard to see that her mastery of the spatial experience is an overtaking experience in itself.  For well over 30 years, Hadid has followed the same exact project time after time again.  Is it a bank?  Expressionistic curvature.  Is it a hotel?  Expressionistic curvature.  Is it a stadium plopped down right in the center of a Japanese city?  Expressionistic, out of scale curvature. For the entirety of her solo career, Zaha has found a way to embed her brand, if you will, of architecture in every project.  No matter what the location, no matter what the program, her functions ALWAYS follow the forms.  In a world where space is so precious and density continues to grow at record pace, isn't what she is doing a bit unethical? 

Zooming in on a single project to analyze a bit more closely, the 2020 Olympic Stadium in Tokyo is a sight to see (in its renderings for now, at least).  Admittedly it's a beautiful piece of art that gets any geometrically-inclined individual's blood pumping.  It is majestic and seems to float about, heavy yet airy at the same time, the stadium promises to be a fantastic home to the games, for a month.  After that, the gigantic and scaleless monster will be a sunshade to those who prefer sunshine in the mornings.  Rising to 20-stories at some of its highest peaks, the stadium will replace the Meiji Jingu Gaien Stadium, a structure which has been on that site for decades now.  Sure, the stadium was outdated and it almost definitely needed updates for the international stage, however replacing something that may have been as high as 8-10 stories with an edifice double that size is preposterous.  Scale aside, the general form borrows nothing from its surroundings.  A curve thrown into the mix of city blocks, parasitically overtaking the souls of those who still are forced to live in the area (those who haven't been force to move due to the games, that is).  How can something this offensive be allowed to happen?

The answer is simple:  Zaha Hadid.  Her name, as mentioned earlier, sends architects into a tizzy.  A force for women architects everywhere and even more for daring designer everywhere, she is certainly an architectural role model.  Wouldn't it be great to do the same project for your entire career and collect the accolades of a deified human?  Hadid certainly feels this as she continues to push another dangerous disaster to the brink of construction.  Her lack of consideration towards what is already there, the culture that exists and even the general aesthetic clashes that will occur is ethically sickening.  It is absolutely beautiful but had a smaller firm entered this competition with the same exact design, same exact renderings and same plans, they would have been laughed off the stage by a jury that included none other than Tadao Ando.  Japan is paying for Zaha Hadid, they stopped thinking about paying for a stadium months ago.

The Battle for Context 

Architecture is a living, breathing entity.  It exists as a machine that is activated everyday by not only the people around it but the ecosystems it exists in, both man-made and natural.  The second round of petition has begun by two Japanese architects - Toyo Ito and Pritzker Prize-winning Fumihiko Maki - with well over 14,000 signatures.  The hope is that Hadid's design can be trashed for something more appropriate for the site, something that will respond and manifest itself in a much more respectful manner.  As Tom Mayne once said, architecture needs to be offensive to make progress.  No truer statement can be made, but Morphosis' buildings typically do respond to context drawing upon implied lines and scales of the surrounding areas.  Hadid is not only being disrespectfully offensive, she's also breaking all the rules because she can, possibly another case of affluence.  While I do have the utmost respect for Ms. Hadid and the legacy she has built, I also believe in the integrity of the urban fabric and the ability of a city to grow when all of the right pieces come together.  The new stadium is the wrong piece for growth, not only will it be out of scale, it will suck $1.3 billion from the pockets of investors everywhere.  Couldn't that money be employed in a much better way for the still-struggling region?  It's time to start holding ourselves responsible both in regards to safety, wellness and ethical confines of the buildings we create.

Demolition of the existing stadium is slated to begin in July, already many have been displaced from their public housing plans to prepare the site for the obtuse new stadium. Will the petition work?  Probably not, as a matter of fact they may even add a few hundred feet to it to make their point.  It will probably be a beautiful piece of art, but for it to be considered architecture it should have put more emphasis on focusing on every aspect of its existence.  Zaha Hadid creates beautiful artwork, but at times it's hard to consider her an architect because of her flagrant disregard for contextualism, budgets and public input.  If we don't start to focus on our built environment creating place again, the sterile environments that have been manifested through the Modern/Post-Modern eras will thrive on, and we'll become an even more globalized placeless-place.  

VIA| Co.Design