A mix of the urban and urbane: Zaha Hadid's remarkable Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center

A mix of the urban and urbane: Zaha Hadid's remarkable Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center
The main lobby at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. (Mike Simons/ For The Times)

Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid died Thursday at age 65. She leaves behind a rich legacy of designs, including the striking Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, which opened in 2003. The Times' architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff profiled the work-in-progress in 1998.

Zaha M. Hadid -- the London-based architect best known for her evocative architectural drawings of a delirious metropolis -- is designing her first building in the United States, the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. It is also her first major public work and represents a remarkable reworking of the relationship between art and its position in the cultural landscape.

The project is budgeted at a mere $15 million but will give the arts institution a greater presence in the city's civic landscape. The building will include 20,000 square feet of temporary exhibition space on seven levels, doubling the center's current room to show art, a 300-seat performance hall, an "Un-Museum"--an education center for contemporary art--a bookstore and a cafe. Completion is tentatively set for 2001.


Hadid is a leading figure among a group of European architects who came of age during the student rebellions of 1968. Their designs show an affinity for the work of the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s, while seeking to replace Modernism's utopian aspirations with a tougher, more fractured architectural language, one that reflects the frictions of urban life.

The group, which includes Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Swiss-born Bernard Tschumi, formed its vision during the '70s at London's Architectural Assn., then a hotbed of architectural talent, and only now is beginning to test those visions with increasingly significant civic commissions.

Hadid is the baby of the bunch, and she is less interested in the politics of architecture than in form. Unlike Koolhaas, for example, whose 1,000-plus-page theoretical tracts are critical to the articulation of his message, it is Hadid's drawings that stick to the mind: dynamic swirls of color that suggest a city in perpetual motion.

Which is not to say that Hadid's work has no political and theoretical depth, only that she does not talk about it much. Hadid's image of the city is radically new. It suggests a layering of social complexities, where cultures move and interact with remarkable fluidity, while the public forum retains the energy and vitality of the dense, towering cities that artist-renderer Hugh Ferris drew in the 1920s.

The Cincinnati site could not be better suited to that vision. The building will sit on a 10,000-square-foot corner lot downtown, across the street from the Aronoff Center, a performing arts complex designed by Peter Eisenman, an American architect who is also a key figure in the contemporary avant-garde. Although the arts center's lobby will be sheathed in glass, conceptually it is intended to be part of the urban street, what Hadid beautifully terms "the urban carpet." Hadid's design lifts the galleries 28 feet off the ground, allowing the city to sweep right in underneath.

The lobby will function as an immense public forum, a place for performance and installation artworks, an active extension of the street life outside. The performance hall will be tucked underground, its roof puncturing the lobby with a narrow, knife-like stair leading down along the hall's outer edge and slightly detaching the hall and the lobby floor, as if the hall were a ship's prow carving through a sheet of ice.

But the design's most radical feature is in the way that circulation is used to unite art and the street. The museum's lobby is conceived as a large floating plane that slopes gently upward toward the back of the building, where it becomes a series of ramps that lead up to the galleries. From the ramps, openings are cut through the building's structural wall, offering unexpected views of the art in the galleries. It is as if Hadid's urban carpet has been wrapped right into the building. On the upper floors, Hadid has created a compressed landscape of shifting volumes and planes. Galleries, offices, light--all interlock like parts of an intricate 3-D puzzle. Taking advantage of the rooms' differing heights--typical gallery spaces will be 20 feet high, the offices half that--Hadid is able to create a remarkably complex and compact building: The roof of an office becomes a balcony overlooking a gallery, a floor bends up to become a partition. Even light has physical substance here. The entire building is pierced by three voids--enormous light wells that cut vertically through the structure, illuminating the galleries on each floor. In the Un-Museum, at the top, these voids become giant jewel-like skylights.

That interlocking of forms continues on the building's exterior as well, where the activity inside is expressed as a collage of various materials: The concrete shell and metal cladding of the galleries, the glass windows of the offices and various electronic displays will all be woven together like a high-tech quilt. As such, the building will read as a perfect expression of the various activities it contains.

Hadid is erasing boundaries--between inside and out, between a controlled and private inner world and the chaotic energy of public life. Crowds will spill into the lobby and down into the performance space below, or sweep up into the galleries above. After hours, the gallery ramp can be closed off, allowing the lobby, cafe and performance hall to remain an active part of the public realm.

Henry James once wrote of a museum high up on a hill, "from whose doors and windows, open to grateful, thirsty millions, the higher, the highest, knowledge, would shine out to bless the land." In Hadid's vision, the reverse is true as well. Art and the public now spill through in both directions, the ultimate expression of a democratic egalitarianism. Since the early part of this century, museums have struggled uneasily with their shifting role vis-a-vis the common man. In Cincinnati, Hadid manages to create a vibrant public forum for art. Architecture, for once, succeeds in binding art to public life in a way that foreshadows a world where distinctions between high and low continue to fade.

That is no small thing. By binding art and life so seamlessly, the building becomes the embodiment of a truly participatory culture, one where various forms of cultural production all seek to have a direct impact on the world we are building, the values we espouse. Hadid, an architect of the future, is designing a museum that is keenly in tune with the best aspects of the present.