Magazine article The New Yorker

Artistic License the Sky Line

Magazine article The New Yorker

Artistic License the Sky Line

Article excerpt

Zaha Hadid is famous for producing extraordinary drawings of visionary projects, such as a night club in the hills of Hong Kong that looks like a series of broken shards. She is a cultish figure who has built very little of note, save for a fire station in Germany--which was converted into a museum shortly after its completion--and a building designed for a ski jump in Innsbruck, Austria. Hadid was born into a cosmopolitan Iraqi family in Baghdad in 1950. Her father, Muhammad Hadid, was a businessman and a leader of the National Democratic Party, which advocated social democracy and parliamentary reform during the postwar years of the Hashemite monarchy. He had studied at the London School of Economics, and Zaha went to the University of Beirut and did graduate work at the Architectural Association in London, where Rem Koolhaas was her mentor. After working with Koolhaas for several years, she established her own atelier in London.

A medium-sized city in the American heartland is the last place you would expect a Zaha Hadid project to come to fruition, but Cincinnati is about to open her first American building, the new Contemporary Arts Center. The center was founded in 1939 as the Modern Art Society, and for years was run from the basement of the Cincinnati Art Museum. It moved downtown in the nineteen-sixties, and has been making do with galleries over a Walgreen's drugstore. That's where its most famous show took place, in 1990--the "Perfect Moment" exhibition of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, which resulted in the arrest of the center's director on obscenity charges, followed by a high-profile trial about artistic freedom, in which he was acquitted.

The Mapplethorpe flap made Cincinnati look like a redneck hotbed, but it has always had a fairly progressive arts community, and the Contemporary Arts Center, under the leadership of Charles Desmarais, who took over in 1995, grew so steadily that its mediocre galleries became an embarrassment. The board decided to build a real museum, and a committee led by Richard Rosenthal, the primary patron of the new building (it is officially the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center), conducted an international search that was narrowed down to Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind, and Hadid. The committee chose Hadid, Desmarais says, "because she has a real understanding of the contemporary art world and what we are trying to accomplish." It probably doesn't hurt that her building puts the center on the international-architecture star map.

Hadid's first designs, which were shown in 1998, were conceptually heavy and were difficult to understand except as a series of fragmented, disconnected masses floating in space. It was easy, back then, to wonder if Cincinnati, in its eagerness to embrace the avant-garde, would be willing to challenge its architect to stay within the bounds of reality. I remember thinking that Hadid might have sold the museum a bill of experimental goods. But Desmarais, Rosenthal, and their colleagues turned out to be clients of quiet, firm sophistication, and Hadid performed with considerable flexibility and great sensitivity. The result is a spectacular building. Hadid uses architecture as a way of enlivening the street and creating an incentive for entering the building, and then she lets the architecture recede in stages, from the street through the lobby into the galleries. We have become accustomed to the notion that architecture can be an energizing factor in the experience of museum-going, but Hadid knew when to turn down the voltage. The galleries feel more like loft areas of varying sizes and ceiling heights than like aggressively sculpted spaces. They are not sublime, as are the rooms Tadao Ando designed for the new Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, but, even though they don't offer enough space for enormous sculptural pieces or monumental canvases--this is not going to be where Richard Serra shows his major work, or Anselm Kiefer mounts a show--it is easy to imagine them displaying a wide range of contemporary art. …

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