Saturday, 20 February 2016

Zaha Hadid - the tabula rasa architect

So she has finally made it. Recently Zaha Hadid was awarded the most important accolade of the architecture establishment, the RIBA Gold Medal. She is the first woman to get this prize in her own right. Whilst this marks the well deserved culmination of a long and distinguished career, her rise to architectural stardom has had its hiccups.

Zaha Hadid

An early stumbling bloc was the Cardiff Opera house. She won the competition twice, but locals just simply did not warm to her hypermodern design and, in the end it was rejected. The house now standing on the site was designed by Jonathan Adams, whose design is said to be incorporating Welsh elements and reflect Welsh national culture. As a former resident of Cardiff and frequent visitor to the Welsh Millenium Centre, I am actually glad that her design was never built. Whilst the current house certainly has its flaws, its gentle, non-threatening nature is probably right for the city. There is a pedestrian-ness about it, without ever being dull, and it may just be the best design for the Welsh capital.

Hadid's design for the Cardiff Opera House

And therein lies part of the problem with Hadid. Her indisputable genius often appears to be outside of time and context. And so her designs sometimes struggle to latch on to local environments. Her work seems to work best where she can start with a blank sheet of paper. Her most recent work, the Olympic Swimming Pool in the London Olympic Village is a courageous piece of breathtaking curves. Beautiful as it is, its design would simply refuse to relate meaningfully to any other building in the locale. Luckily for Hadid, the building was practically built on wasteland with no context other than its own.

London Aquatics Centre
In a recent interview she mentioned her work for BMW as one of the most gratifying pieces in her portfolio. She may just be one of those architects who thrive on the tabula rasa. As blank spaces are rare in this country, she may come to build even less than previously, which is our loss.

BMW Headquarters in Leipzig

A sovereign Britain?

Although the details are still a bit vague, the Prime Minister has given the starting signal for the referendum campaign for Britain in Europe. Some Cabinet ministers have already declared the unwavering allegiance whilst others see the chance of a generation to say good bye to the European Union. One big beast, Boris Johnson, is still sitting on the fence, no doubt carefully calculating how his political fortunes may fall if he campaigns for in or out.

Although I should declare an interest (I am not British and would surely like Britain to stay in the UK for matters of convenience), I have interrogated my own views recently in moments of quiet contemplation and found that I have little feeling either way. Similar to the Scottish independence campaign, I am firmly of the view that Britain would do well outside the EU, just as it will do well inside it. Sure, there are transitional arrangements and uncertainty to be faced if Britain would leave, but Her Majesty's politicians will clearly be in a good position to negotiate favourable trade terms with the EU.

The gripe I have with both campaigns is of a different nature. It is the vision of an independent, sovereign Britain that both sides appear to advance. Leave the EU and we will be free of onerous supervision from a bureaucratic class of pencil pushers in Brussels, or stay and the new terms of engagement gives Britain a special relationship approximating total national sovereignty.

Unencumbered Sovereignty - Do Cameron and Farage pursue the same pipe dream?
 Foto: Getty/LNP
What is so wrong with this ideal of unencumbered national power is how little it reflects the reality of nation states trading and dealing with other nation states in an interdependent, highly connected global arena. The animating vision underpinning both campaigns is one of total control, control over borders, trade and immigration.

This is a cartoonish picture of what modern government has been ever since the Westphalian Treaty was signed in 1648. Modern governments, of large or small states, have always had to recognise the interests of others and to negotiate compromises with adversaries or friends alike. We even gave a name to the art of negotiating (diplomacy) and reared a class of people with special skills in this field (diplomats). The vision of segregated, clearly demarcated political units, enjoying unmitigated sovereignty is little more than a pipe dream drawing its inspiration from a caricature of monarchical absolutism. Only, instead of the all powerful monarch we are now thinking of a unified people expressing their political will in Westminster. Nothing however could be further from the truth.

There is practically no issue of any importance to the British people, be it trade, business, war and peace, education, or health, that hasn't got some implications for our neighbours and vice versa. No matter whether we are in or out of the EU, we will have to deal with people and governments around us who think differently to ourselves. And it is this harsh reality of life that both campaigns neglect at their peril.