If there has been a name to know in architecture in the last decade, it’s Zaha Hadid. Though she won the Pritzker — the Pulitzer Prize for architecture — in 2004, her most significant works have only cropped up in the last few years, even since her passing away in 2016.

Last Tuesday, Satoshi Ohashi, Director of Zaha Hadid China, visited Taubman College’s spacious commons to talk on the breadth of his firm’s work worldwide, particularly in China. Ohashi himself is an alumnus of Taubman, graduating in 1984. In ’87, he met Hadid in her New York City apartment and was hired to her firm soon after. At this point, the firm was more of an atelier operation than an economy-shaping force.                                        

The firm grew in the ’90s and shifted their conceptualization process from oil painting to digital. From the slides Ohashi showed of these early designs, the firm’s vocabulary of movement and fluidity has hardly changed in 30 years. Their influence has, though.

The now over 400 person team of young designers, computer scientists, civil engineers, product designers and video editors serve to spectacularize the firm’s work with a kind of self-promotion that certainly didn’t exist 30 years ago. Ohashi had several videos prepared by the firm to run throughout — videos of austere atria, terrific terraces and, above all, captivating curves with thousands of people moving in time lapse over high-octane electronic music. 

There’s no doubt the firm is at the forefront of architectural technology, but with the advent of such tech and the overachieving millennials who made it out of the firm’s vast applicant pool, they’ve overstepped the bounds of architecture and have reached a scale of production that is nothing less than irresponsible.

Without differentiation, Ohashi flipped from slides of Zaha buildings to slides of Zaha furniture, Zaha running wear, Zaha electric cars, Zaha jewelry. This blurring of the distinction in design between these fields isn’t what bothers me. Architects are designers, and if there’s a will within the firm to use their influence to pursue their curiosities, then so be it. 

But architects are also directly responsible for orchestrating the climate crisis we have at hand. On top of every building created are on average hundreds to thousands of sheets of paper, all kinds of plastic-styrofoam composite models, and only after design do you get to the real problem of construction (which as an industry accounts for 23 percent of global carbon emissions).

A necessary evil, maybe, but not in the development of 3.5 million square foot tech complexes (the area of 60 football fields). These buildings are really quite impressive until you boil them down into a compilation of 20 others nearly the same. Visually, they looks like eggs moving through water. Functionally, they’re all integrated into transport networks, they all spur the development of previously unoccupied neighborhoods and they all host hundreds of companies that will also produce, produce, produce.

We all play the capitalism game, no doubt, but this is excess at the expense of us all. Hadid’s designs are at their best the vanguard of design technology, at their worst streamlined material towers. Next time you’re in one (in about any major city), consider for yourself if its cultural capital is worth its environmental expense.

Ohashi seemed at home back in Taubman, but the work on show didn’t reflect what he was saying or the attitudes of those in the crowd. Slight head shaking could be seen from particular staff and students throughout. Though at first this may have been in awe of the work — work a student can aspire to — it soon became in disapproval. 

 

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