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Tuesday, 23 August, 2011, 3:18 ( 1:18 GMT )
Zaha Hadid's Contemporary Arts Centre Cincinnati: An Innovative Gallery Experience
04/01/2011 19:18:00
By: Abdul-Jawad Elhusuni

It is often the case that the 'other', to use Edward Said's metaphor, is sidelined in artistic and architectural discourse. We find little more than token mentions of Islamic art and architecture in the canons of 20th century modernism, and the spatial implications of philosophical works by Ibn al-Haytham for example, are for the greater part unheard of in the West. It is comforting therefore to see the continued success of Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who spent much of her life in the West struggling as an Arab 'other'.

Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950, and studied at the American University of Beirut and the Architectural Association in London. She was very much inspired by the landscapes of her native Iraq as a child, imageries and aesthetics which she carried forward into her architectural career. We are edging closer now into the Spring of 2011, which marks two anniversaries for Hadid - eight years since the beginning of the unreasoned war that has left her country in tatters, and on a more positive note, eight years since the completion of her first American building, the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati.

I was privileged to have had the chance to visit the building as a young Libyan student three years ago, and so let us take a moment now to pause and reflect on the architectural ramifications of perhaps her most important building.

In 1997, the then director of the Contemporary Arts Centre (CAC), Charles Demerais, issued a challenging brief to design a new building for the association. "The building itself will be a sign, proclaiming to the city and to visitors: Here is a place that values experiment, innovation and diversity" said Demerais during a symposium meeting to formulate the building's programme.

Over three hundred architects from around the world applied for the competition before three finalists were announced in December 1997, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi and Daniel Libeskind. Hadid's approach was purely conceptual, something which excited the committee and responded to an innovative brief. More importantly however, Hadid's concept showed a willingness to respond to the context of the CAC, both historical and social. As the gallery has no permanent collection, her spatial concept continually morphs and responds to changing and temporary installations. And so it was that by the beginning of 1998, Hadid was announced as the winner and began to develop her concept.

As a visitor, I first noticed the significance of the building from the outside, so what better place to start our journey through the CAC than from street level. The outer façades consist of a series of interconnecting volumes that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The smaller interweaving forms of the building are an agglomerate of the nearby buildings - each of the smaller blocks is an element derived from an adjacent structure. Hadid thinks of the process as 'pixilation' and 'aggregation'; she describes the collection of forms as aggregates of solid and transparent volumes that represent the connection between the small scale buildings of downtown Cincinnati.

But whilst this works to temper the gallery with its neighbours, and allows it to blend in, at the same time the building stands out as a separate entity. Gallery architecture is increasingly seen as a piece of artwork in its own right, along with the art displayed within.

Hadid notes that "art is attracting many kinds of people today, and
the role of the building is to be part of the attraction".

As we move into the building, the first thing that strikes the visitor is the significance of circulation in the design of the gallery. Like Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim in New York (one of Hadid's favourite buildings), movement forms a very important element of the gallery experience at the CAC. The stairs run through an open atrium piercing through the galleries, and give a continual sense of orientation in relation to the space as a whole. Hadid also employs perspective distortions throughout the gallery spaces to guide the visitor and facilitate an orderly experience of the artwork and the space. To use the words of another visitor, Bob Gaffney (who was amongst the first to see the completed building in its opening night in 2003), "I think the building is unusual. It has a nice flow to it".

It is however in the experience of the individual gallery spaces themselves that the innovation in Hadid's design becomes apparent. In the second floor of the building, one encounters the first set of gallery spaces. What is striking here is the sense of variation in the interconnecting forms. One moves from a large cubic space upon entry, to a narrow and long space in the middle of the second floor, all the way to a small and intimate box like space where videos of the displayed artist are shown. This difference of experience continues throughout the other floors, and gives the gallery a sense of spatial variety. Windows are used in the galleries on the 6th floor, another curious element for a space dedicated to showcasing art. The sense of context that the transparency gives however is very interesting, because it allows the artists and the artwork to exist against a backdrop of Cincinnati's skyline.

On the whole, the Contemporary Arts Centre is a building which redefines the common gallery experience with a series of innovative spaces. The combination of very particular circulation elements, facade patternations and spatial tools, whilst not innovative in their own right, when put together they create a new understanding of an art gallery.

And so as we near the 8th anniversary of the construction of her first American building, it should be a time to mourn the ravaging of Hadid's inspiration - her native Iraq - by invasion and war, but also to celebrate the architectural achievements of perhaps the most significant architect to emerge from the Arab and Islamic worlds in recent times.

This article has ( 2 ) Comment(s)
Name: Abdulhafid JawadDate: 01/04/2011 20:42:00
Beautiful article Mr. Elhusuni. Hope we will read more from you about our Arab and Islamic contemporary architects.
Name: WorldemocracyDate: 03/08/2011 11:18:46
Today is the international womens’day. Write on www.worldemocracy.com what you want to say to them. Share this message around you.
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