Every now and then you’re reminded that there’s Building – and then there’s Architecture. Building is something that comes out of a catalogue or off a production line. It is never credited to a designer, but rather to Barratt Homes, Wimpey or whoever. Architecture, on the other hand is an art, made by an artist – something exceptional.
There have been attempts in the past to bridge this gap. In 1920s left wing architects in Germany called their work Neues Bauen – or New Building – and tried to apply prestige architectural techniques to functional building for the working class.
But today most of us make do with Building, while the elite few get Architecture. Prestige architects such as Norman Foster are effectively multinational corporations employing a huge staff – a far cry from the romantic image of the individual architect in a garret working with paper and compass.
Zaha Hadid is a also an Architect with a capital A. Her work has been controversial – and frequently considered unbuildable. It is the subject of a new exhibition that has just opened at the Design Museum in London.
Hadid was born in Iraq and first came to prominence in the early 1980s as an unrepentant modernist. This was at a time when Thatcherism was running rampant in architecture, and cloaking itself culturally in old fashioned classical or Victorian styles.
The exhibition at the Design Museum starts with Hadid’s projects from this period – mostly her paintings, which are fragmented yet fluid, thrusting themselves into wild angles.
Sometimes these paintings impose Hadid’s abstract shapes onto familiar cityscapes such as Trafalgar Square. This is a polemic against conservative notions promoted by the likes of Prince Charles that architecture should be “in keeping” with its imperial surroundings.
In recent years Hadid’s striking visions have started to get built. Even so, this has come after years of setbacks. A design for the Cardiff Opera House in the late 1990s was first accepted, then attacked by both Tory and New Labour politicians, and eventually rejected.
The exhibition shows a variety of Hadid’s recent structures, both under construction and finished. They look stunning – unearthly and hard, tactile and gravity defying.
This is Architecture as something impossible to ignore, and for the most part it doesn’t seem whimsical or contrived. The “art” isn’t tacked on ornamentation, as is so often the case with contemporary architects.
“I don’t design nice buildings,” Hadid once claimed, and her work is modernist to the core – right down to the unfashionable raw concrete.
Yet for all its artistic brilliance, “signature” architecture as distinctive as Hadid’s can’t help but become a corporate selling point – a building as the perfect logo.
Many of her newer projects are for office blocks in playgrounds for the rich such as Dubai – doubtless to be constructed by overworked and underpaid migrant workers.
It’s also an approach that fits neatly the ideology of New Labour. While “bog standard comprehensives”, as Alastair Campbell once called them, are not supposed to be of any architectural interest, pet government schemes such as city academies are encouraged to “aim high”, “achieve excellence”, and all the other managerial cliches.
Hadid’s most recent project is for a city academy in Lambeth, south London. Again, the design itself is dynamic and exciting – perhaps exactly the sort of stimulus needed for teenagers in this impoverished part of Britain. But it is of its very nature an exception – for the use of the few, not of the many.
In a recent interview, Hadid suggested she was discontented with designing prestigious, signature buildings. “What I would really love to build are schools, hospitals, social housing... the basic architectural building blocks of society,” she said.
The problem is that if there are commissions for such public projects in Britain today, they’ll almost always be tied in with a private finance scheme.
The prestige design can first serve as an artistic legitimation for such a project – then as a convenient scapegoat if the financing falls over.
Zaha Hadid’s architecture is hard not to admire. But Architecture has its economic role as much as does mundane Building, and today that role is to dazzle, to gentrify, and to maintain at all costs a separateness from the lives most of us lead.
It would be a mistake for socialists to dismiss this sort of Architecture out of hand – but it would be equally foolish to pretend it doesn’t play a very particular ideological function under capitalism today.
Zaha Hadid: Architecture + Design is on at the Design Museum, London SE1, until 25 November. Hadid’s Lilas installation is at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, central London, until 21 July. For more information on both shows go to »www.zahahadidblog.com