Artipoeus Episode 07 – Tribute to Zaha Hadid


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…one month after her untimely death, Artipoeus pays tribute to Zaha Hadid and the building that launched her into hyper-speed.

Negative space.

2016 is shaping up to be a year of negative space.  That’s an architectural term I picked up from an architect friend of mine, although I don’t think it means what I think it means.  But you get my drift: it feels like there are holes being torn in the fabric of our creative universe, as though the world’s great visionaries are being plucked off the Earth one by one, leaving us to fend for ourselves: In January it was the master, David Bowie, in April it was the magical Prince, and in between that glitter guitar glam sandwich was the innovative, unpredictable, unbelievable Zaha Hadid.

Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born feminist architect who became the first woman to win architect’s highest honor and who, over the course of her 40-year career, shocked the world with her drive, her bluntness, and her ability to give form and substance to the impossible, shocked the world one final time with her sudden death on March 31st, and event as unpredictable and impossible as any of her buildings.  It felt an awful lot like her death left an undefined, negative space.

Actually, in architectural terms, negative space describes the space in between structures through which we move.  So, for example, if the buildings placed around a green lawn on a college campus make a square, designed to be used by college students for outdoor study and hackeysack tournaments, is called positive space.  Positive space is the space we inhabit inside a building — the living room or lobby — and the space we inhabit in an environment, like a town square or a campus quad.

The outlying buildings on that campus, placed at random, create no defined space.  It’s the space we move through in between the buildings.  Positive space is for dwelling to be inhabited.  Negative space is about movement, about moving through.  We’re not, in architectural terms, meant to stay there.

Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.

Zaha Hadid famously won competition after competition for her architectural paintings, but it took forever for anyone to be convinced her gravity defying vision could be… built, that concrete and steel could morph and bend like it did in her renderings.  But if there was anyone who could bend steel, it would be Zaha Hadid.  Her first realized building, the Vitra fire station in Weil am Rhein in Germany…  is a building that sails up from the ground, sliding geomertic planes that act as a gateway between the surrounding countryside and the commercial plots it sits between, like a gental portal from one dimension to another.  At the same time the building is built for action, designed to both motivate and assist the firemen it was built for as they go from 0 to 60 at the sudden sound of an alarm.  It’s built for speed.  For movement.  Like negative space.

Like most people, I’ve only seen photos of Zaha Hadid’s buildings — the incredible Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Azerbaijan,, the gravity defying Bergisel Ski Jump in Austria, and the controversial World Cup stadium in Qatar. They’re incredible to look at, their swoops and curves and elegance, but it’s hard not to wonder: what are they like really?  Are they useful? Are they practical? Is it all just show on the outside but just normal rooms on the inside? Does the world really need these expensive, swooping buildings that nobody can afford to visit?

In 2000, Hadid won the commission to design the new administrative faculties at the BMW plant in Leipzig, incorporating the company’s long-held ideals of openness, transparency, and minimizing corporate hierarchy…  which kind of explains their prominence in The Bourne Identity.

But seriously: can a building really do this?  I’ve done my time as a secretary, and during those years stuck at my desk on one side of my shared fake wall with my partner secretary, I thought a lot about office space — not the movie, but the space I was actually working in.  I thought about how us secretaries were all in the center of the space, with no direct access to windows and natural light and life outside of our prison I mean company.  I thougth about how the not very high ceilings were oppressive, how the floursescent lighting made everything seem flat, how everything was designed to discourage creativity, imagination, dreaming, revolt…

When I learned of the philosophy behind the BMW Werks adiministration buildling — an entire building constructed especially for office workers, it was hard to believe.Can what amounts to an office building at an automotive plant promote openness?  Transparency? Communication? Minimize corporate hierarchy?  Have these people never been a temp????

Hadid called the BMW Werks her first opportunity to really speak in her own architectural language — it was the first time she had the chance to design a building large enough and faceted enough to contain all her vocabulary.  The building opened in 2005, just a year after Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Award for its design.  It remained her favored first-born for the rest of her professional life.

When I arrived at the BMW plant, about 20 minutes outside of Leipzig, it looked to me like a blue whale: the lower part of the building is a silvery blue, while the upper part — extending into what they refer to at BMW as “The Bridge” is clad in a deeper blue, but hugely ribbed and all of it looking like it’s plowing through the Saxony plain at a steady 50 kmh.  Not exactly fast, but unstoppable, organic movement.

And what immediately popped into my head was the Frank Black song “Speedy Marie”, which I hummed to myself during my entire tour and interview with Jochen Muller, the head of PR at BMW Leipzig.


Inside the building feels more like a ship at first — well, a space ship, with a design that is all curved cement, soaring ceilings and moving conveyor belts.  Everything inside moves: the people, the workflow, the cars.  The cars because, even though this is an administrative building, there is a silent conveyor belt of BMW cars, gliding from the body shop to the paint shop, that never stops moving over head… never letting you forget why you’re here and what BMW is all about.

If Zaha Hadid had been a more traditional rock star, this building would be her Space Oddity, her Delirious.  It would be easy to say little red corvette — obvious, in fact, but Hadid’s design is smoother, and way more futuristic.

Herr Muller took me on a guided tour throughout the building, telling me not only about the architectural details, the inspiration Zaha Hadid gave to BMW as the building’s construction progressed, the way she translated the company’s mission into actual form: the building does not have seperate floors, but rather cascades, like gentle water falls so no one actually feels like they’re above or below anyone else.

There is unbroken space above heads, gradiated planes that literally help communication flow through the air. Long walkways echo the sweeping concrete forms of the walls and ceiling, no hard angles or edges and everything is curved and aerodynamic, like ramps for dreams to ride.  Movement, movement, movement.

The building acts like a heart, flowing information and orders – the lifeblood of BMW – to the limbs of the plant: the body shop, the paint shop, the design center.  If positive space is meant for dwelling and negative space is teh space we move through, Hadid’s building is the perfect point at which positive and negative space meet.  You work there — live there, in a sense, but you’re always pulsing, always moving.  Like a life form.

The Frank Black song sticks with me.

Speedy Marie.

That’s obvious.  You look at Hadid’s buildings, and they’re built for speed, they’re all motion, on the outside, they’re the chorus.

But once you get into the song, once you’ve been there a while, you get comfortable with the rhythm of it, it suddenly moves into its strange coda:

Juxtaposed  in each moment’s sight.

In Hadid’s design, You turn a corner and gasp — the building sends you curving around and back again, but gently, smoothly.

Nothing can strike me in such awe.

It’s so strange her building, so alien and cool, absolutely nothing like you expect a factory, and office building, an opera house.  And the longer you’re inside, these lines of really beautiful poetry hit you.

She is that most lovely art.

Step outside the song again and look at the lyrics, that last coda as a whole.  It’s an acrostic — the first letter of every line of really beautiful poetry, the capital letter — the bones of the sentence, as it were — creates a new word, in this case the name of the woman he wrote the song for.  Step outside the BMW Werks once again, your own sense of thrill at the movement and poetry, and what do you see?  The bones of a new world, the structure of movement, communication, migration.

Chameleon, transformative, pushing the boundaries — If you step outside the life and career of David Bowie, of Prince, you’ll see the continuing line: it doesn’t really matter how they wore their hair or what costumes they stomped around in.  The songs are all one message, all one story, but life itself, and the vehicles of life, evolves and changes and grows.  Nothing stays the same.

Hadid understood that too, and created the closest we have ever come to buildings that mimic our own biology and the biology of life itself, from the cellular to the galactic.  She’s called the queen of the curve, but her buildings are so much more than that: they pulse and breathe and squeeze and squidge through space, like a single cell in search of life, already carrying life inside.  They mimic our networking societies, our migrant populations, the transformation of thought and time and space.  And us.

Zaha Hadid was, first and foremost, an artist — of the very best kind.  An artist that changes the way we think, showed us a possibility, a promise, a different way to live.  Like Prince and Bowie, she was relentlessly and unapologetically herself.  Forever moving forward, built for speed, ahead of the now, redefining positive and negative space.

The BMW Werks is located in Leipzig, and can be visited by appointment through their website at

The lyrics and song “Speedy Marie” are written by Charles Thompson and recorded on the Frank Black album, Teenager of the Year, and used in this podcast under Fair Use.

With very special thanks to Mr Jochen Mueller and Mr Thomas Girst of BMW, that’s all for Artippoeus this week.  I’m Susie Kahlich, see you around town!

From Susie Kahlich originally posted on Artipoeus

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