Contrary to what you might expect, both the archinerd circle and the lay public love to see great architects make shoddy buildings. For the former, it's a chance to exert a personal sense of superiority over the big shots of the art-house circle; for the latter, it's a chance to take those high-falutin' ivory tower types down a peg. Practicing architects tend to fall into either of these two camps, or break off entirely and proclaim sincere disappointment, fearing that these high-profile examples damage their reputation as service professionals. As a study-abroad chaperone I feel I need to steer some kind of middle course: some students are far too eager to gleefully gloat over the failings of their onetime idols (what better way to feel like you yourself have your head above water in this vast, bizarre field?), or to unreservedly defend them against all challenge.
It's an old story. "Great architecture leaks," we're told. Frank Lloyd Wright failed in his trust as a professional when he let Fallingwater become, in the client's phrase, "Rising Mildew" - but would architecture as a field be better off without that building? Certainly not. Alan Berman's recent Jim Stirling and the Red Trilogy is an extended and largely even-handed treatment of a more infamous case, Stirling's influential, inspirational, and barely-functional university buildings. If he's too eager to excuse all failings (as part of an attempt to get the powers that be to shell out for architecturally-sensitive fixes), he does make a strong case that not all of the failures were down to the architects. The memorable issue of the terra cotta tiles that detached themselves from the Cambridge Library and began falling on people, for example, was legally taken off Stirling's shoulders. The architects had done their homework and designed their details correctly, but they were let down when, under cost pressures, a contractor recommended a new adhesive - - which, it turns out, did not perform to the guarantees and specifications of its manufacturer.
But the questions are not so easily settled. Couldn't Stirling have taken some time to do a mockup wall with the untested glue? And what about the other problems? Whose fault is it if the building overheats, when the client rejects the architect's plea for air conditioning? Well, it was Stirling who specified giant fans as a halfway substitute. It was the client who decided not to turn the fans on because of noise concerns. But it was Stirling who specified too-loud fans! These things can go around in circles for a while; I think the most useful thing, educationally speaking, isn't necessarily to fix the blame for these particular buildings and these particular failings, but to make the young architect aware of all the ways things can go wrong, and of the architects' fundamental responsibility to steer clear of these rapids.
This brings us back around to our actual topic today: Zaha Hadid's newly-built ruin of an opera house in Guangzhou, one of the four flagship cultural buildings at the southern head of a new, monumentally axial CBD. As word about this building's numerous constructional faults and garish, improvised fixes spreads, I suspect it will overtake Frank Gehry's Stata Center to become this decade's go-to building for architectural skeptics. No doubt this process will be aided by Hadid's already-cemented stereotype: she's a diva, an artiste, a gestural dilettante detached from the gritty realities of construction.
This sketch is, of course, overwhelmingly sexist, and occasionally verges on racist: Hey, have you seen the "separated at birth"? Zaha Hadid is Ursula from the Little Mermaid! Not that they actually look at all alike, but, crazy woman with funny-colored skin, amirite?? Apocryphal stories abound: Zaha won't have stairs in her buildings because she once tripped while vainly wearing high heels to the job site. And note the ubiquitous, often unconsciously belittling familiarity: rarely do we hear it said that "Jim's" buildings failed at Oxford or that "Frank's" building is approaching a lawsuit, but always it is "Zaha." (It should be charitably allowed that perhaps the novelty of the name in an American context makes it simply work better as a short-hand: there are a lot of Peters, but few Zahas. And certainly Koolhaas is "Rem" as often as not.)
But really - we can imagine male architects being discussed in these terms, but never so consistently or with such self-satisfaction on the part of the speaker. And again, think of Stirling, whose leaky, overheating, tile-flinging buildings are (justly) celebrated for their formal boldness and slightly-ahead-of-their-time technical ambitions. The language here is often gendered, though more subtly, through the Randian-Brutalist filter of the architect as shaper of will into form. Stirling's buildings are bold, powerful, uncompromising, et cetera et cetera. Hadid's buildings are curvaceous and sensual - nevermind her angular, aggressive Deconstructivist work, or the updated, self-critiquing Brutalism of Cincinnati. And the distracted, flighty artiste seems not to have shown up for the immaculate, powdered-sugar concrete of Phaeno or its shuttered counterpart at BMW.
All this leads me into a bit of a bind personally, because I want to defend Hadid both from the sexist narrative, and the easy dismissal of the badly-built buildings that come in to support it from the hard-hat boys' club. The problem is, the Guangzhou Opera House is badly-built - in fact, quite a mess. And even had it been pristinely-executed, it's no Stirling library; despite its budget, the client's hopes, and the major site, it's a minor Hadid work. There are a few nice things happening: the emphatically non-monumental pile it presents to the square is a nice counterpoint to Rocco Yim's frontal, emphatically cantilevered museum-box (speaking of reinvented Brutalism), and the idea of breaking the program up into smaller volumes to create some urban connection between the volumes further sustains the impulse.
Hadid vs. Yim
The path between the two major volumes.
As well, when the details do pan out, the building's "eroded pebbles in a stream" form, metaphorically cheesiness aside, is striking, attractive, and takes full advantage of the strong tropical light. From far enough away, this is a damned good-looking building. The circulation zones between the skin and the theatre volumes are memorably weird, reminiscent of the MAXXI in Rome and perhaps more appropriate here, where they presumably serve to detach the visitor from the ordinary world and guide them into the fantasy of the operatic performance. And of course, there's the auditorium itself, where (if you set aside the blotchy, smeared-looking finish materials) the architect sets aside the temptation of irony to fully embrace the theatrics and glitz of the program. It's a beaut.
But, all those good feelings aside, it's hard to shake the sense that the theatre volumes and their enveloping skins are two entirely different entities. The space between them, though animated by the complexity of the skin and the drama of the stairs, feels left-over, and there's a lot of it. Of course theatres need spillover space for intermissions and cocktails, but it all feels a bit loose and improvised, when the other moves seem to promise a theatrical promenade, some kind of choreography with one space dancing into the next. Instead, it's a bit of meander, the switchbacks are abrupt, and the building seems almost apologetic about finally leading you to the theatres. It compares unfavorably with, say, UN Studio's admittedly smaller Agora Theatre where the formal gymnastics guide you inwards and upwards, and the language of the theatre space feels like a natural extension of the exterior, the lobby, and the detuned grand staircase.
As well, it'd be fair to say that the under-space beneath the building's plinth is underprogrammed and spatially underdeveloped. Phaeno, developed around the same time, shares this problem, although at least its undercrofting is more porous and admitting of the public, and offers a sculpted ground plane that, while a disaster in terms of drainage, supports a skateboard culture.
Above: Guangzhou Opera. Below: Phaeno.
So then, finally, there's the issue of construction. Our visiting guests Karla Trott and Bob Wandel were as eager as I am to put these things in proper perspective, but thankfully they had a lot more experience and expertise to bring to the table. Karla pointed out that, to be fair, we don't know enough of the behind-the-scenes saga to really know what happened here: many of the hideous errors visible in the buiding could be in a punch-list right now - Hadid could be on the phone with the contractors this very second - withholding payments, threatening lawsuits - who knows?
Bob took a somewhat more critical, but still reasoned stance, riffing on a comment Meng Yan of Urbanus had made the previous day about the "balance" an architect has to strike. To Bob, the story went like this: Hadid was asked to do an opera house in Guangzhou and had in mind a certain idea, which cost a certain amount of money and would take a certain amount of time to complete. Somehow, the balance of those things got out of whack: the architect did not adjust her design to address the lack of funds to realize it as-envisioned, or ran out of time to incorporate sprinkler pipes and gutters in the design so they wouldn't end up tacked-on later. "Certainly, she had the talent to do it, but evidently she ran out of time. Alternately, the budget wasn't adhered to, and the contractor had to come up with something to fix that." As Bob saw it, it is indeed the architect's responsibility to prevent this balance from being lost: look at the budget and the time, and make adjustments. But, he cautioned, echoing Karla, we don't know the whole story.
There may even be other chapters to this thing we can't imagine. Perhaps Hadid did attempt to dial the design back in response to the emerging difficulties, but the client insisted on keeping the concept with which they'd fallen in love: "No, no, it'll be find - I know a guy Steve who can do great curved tiles!" Perhaps - and this is a big one - the fire during building construction set everything behind, wasted precious time and chopped into the budget with a vengeance. That, in fact, seems the likely explanation for many of the observable problems, and maybe even the direct inspiration for the tacked-on and goofball sprinkler devices (did the client or the local regulatory agencies up their expectations of fire-proofing?).
Other compromises are harder to explain in terms of a budget reduced late in the game. Crucially, the skinning system of curved triangular tiles seems like it would have been a bad idea from the word go. Hadid's office, far from Guangzhou and apparently lacking the kind of strong local head that Steven Holl had in Li Hu, seems to have gone with a cladding system doomed to fail in the China of the mid-2000s. The country's construction industry is rapidly developing, aided no doubt by the experience of working on these ambitious projects. An architect beginning a project in 2012 might more reasonably expect to get the precision-tolerances and quality of manufacture to make these kinds of things work out a little better. But frankly, the entire tiling enterprise itself seems like a compromise: the design of their layout is slipshod with numerous awkward joints in obvious places. The big mistake here is in the tesselation strategy, not the material quality of the tiles or their attachment to the surface.
One suspects, then, that at some stage this was intended to be a concrete building on the Phaeno model, and that this somehow went awry. Maybe the requisite quantities of reinforcing steel, or the complexity of the formwork, would have been a budget-buster. Maybe the self-compacting superfluid concrete of Phaeno simply wasn't available in China. Maybe the local building code is too conservative, and would have required so much steel or so much coverage as to distort the form or close off the generous fenestration. Maybe the client wanted more metaphor or more luxurious materials, and so the Chinese-sourced stone came in. Once again, we just don't know.
Ultimately, the architect has to make the tough decision: err on the side of caution and dial down design expectations? Optimistically trust the client's assurances that it'll all work out fine? Or, at considerable cost, politely walk away from the project? It's easy for us to criticize the finished building - not so easily to say how exactly we would have fixed everything. If Guangzhou does do the kind of damage to Hadid's reputation that the Red Trilogy did to Stirling's, it would be understandable, but not necessarily fair.
If all that wasn't enough for you, consider flipping through my Zaha Hadid set or the rest of the photos from our afternoon in Guangzhou, over on Flickr. Or take a look at Evan's pithy summary of Guangzhou, including a comparison of the Hadid and Yim buildings in terms of construction and technique.