Monday, December 30, 2013

97. Help Save Rem Koolhaas from Obscurity

Capitalism: A Love Story | Jimmy Carter | Thora Birch | Michael Moore | Movie Trailer | Review

Hi, I am Conrad Newel,

Instead of using this post to talk about how being a creative original will lead you to architectural fame, I will simply show you.

I would like to also ask you to take a moment to join me in supporting a fellow architect.
The pace of genuinely interesting developments that have positively influenced our profession has hurt a lot of our starchitects. Starchitects who have had no choice than to turn to extra-ordinary means to remain relevant. However, they can only do so much.

That’s why I am asking you to reach into your pockets right now and lend a hand. In the coming years, Kickstarter will be launching a series of projects to help a lot of attention needy starchitects to remain in the spot lights.

There are only three days left for you to help fund the most highly-anticipated documentary film about the legendary Rem Koolhaas: REM - Directed by the architect’s son, Tomas Koolhaas. Please go to the kickstarter website and give generously!

Now, I know what you are thinking:
Rem is already famous, he and his works are on the covers and insides of most architectural magazines, he is already relevant in the architecture world, and I have already bought a number of books and magazines about him.

...and I know you did!

But even though you have supported him in the past, give some more!... it will make you feel smart!

The film takes a little from Bjarke Ingels Group's earlier film My Playground, by using parkour as a narrative element.  What’s not cool about people jumping around in your building? This is how it is used 0.0001% during the building's lifespan, but so what? It’s really cool.

Hey! Louis Kahn's son made a film about his famous father My Architect, why wait till you are dead? What kind of stupid rule is that? Have your son make a film about you now! That's soo cool! Why not take a little from Natheniel Kahn as well?

Taking these two ideas and mixing them together is what originality is about!
My Playground + My Architect = Your Original film

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Sunday, December 8, 2013

96. The Accidental Femminist - Part 2

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "95. The accidental femminist":

this was published on archinect in response to this article-image:

there is something wrong with the article and the image.

it isn't merely zaha who worked with gadafi's and qatar's regimes. everyone and their uncle worked with them. zaha is equally as "guilty" in that sense. no one bothered to collage their image with their building like penises.

did the person who make this image ask permission from zaha hadid first and get it? i assume not. in which case, i assume that they have taken advantage of her image and manipulated it to their end.

which means that, in the name of a so-called feminism (that is an exaggerated pathological direct outcome of sexism -other side of its coin-and not an actual independent feminism that respects women's/people's individual images and bodies), she's being abused by being collaged into an image that - i strongly believe- would contradict with her wishes.

the author and fabricator of the image fall into the same hole -truly no puns here- that this image is employed to counter.

furthermore, there is a strong suggestion that this is was taken from some terrorist attack/military zone - perhaps in iraq. the inversion of victims into suggested violators now being violated by a vagina is completely tasteless.

everyone in this image is being used for a single minded purpose trampling on quite a few people - inverting them for its own whimsical and perverse end.

Hi Tammuz,
Thanks for the feedback.
Sure there are other starchitects that work for dictatorial regimes, and I have been critical of them before (see note #56 & 57). I am not singling out Zaha because she is a woman. I have targeted quite a few other starchitects for criticism before.
I have criticized Bjarke Ingels for not being rigorous enough, but no one bothered to ask why I didn't criticize any female architects who were not as rigorous too?
I have criticized Peter Zumthor for being disingenuous several times, but no one bothered to ask why I didn’t criticize any disingenuous female architects or any other disingenuous starchitects for that matter.
I have criticized Wim Wenders for making a masturbatory film that basically is Zumthor pornography for Zumthor fans to jerk off to, but no one bothered to accuse me of being sexist because I was referring to his manhood as a tool for criticism.

I have posted pictures of Rem Koolhaas breast-feeding Bjarke Ingels, Joshua Prince (REX), Foreign Office Architects and a bunch of his other prodigies, but no one bothered to say "if it was a female starchitect they wouldn’t have depicted her body in such a perverse way to make a point. It’s just because he is a man!"

I am pretty sure that neither Rem, nor Bjarke nor any of the other architects who were featured in that image would approve of it, but again no one asked if Rem was being abused or exploited when his image was used in that way?
Besides giving evidence that I have a very outlandish sense of humor, do you see where I am going with this?
I am not singling her out for this type of criticism because she is a woman. I am singling her out because she is a starchitect with very low moral bearings. Zaha and her allies have a habit of calling every male criticism of her sexist and every female criticism of her jealousy; a quixotic attempt to make herself inscrutable. It has never stopped me before and it’s not going to stop me now.
The intention with the image was to illustrate an alternate universe where Zaha is actually a super action heroine standing up for the repressed women in Qatar. She is depicted as a poised, powerful woman in control. She is smoking a cigar which she has in one had as if to celebrate a victory. In the other had she is holding up the middle finger, like a driver who has successfully cut off an opponent in a traffic dispute and leaving them in the dust. The stadium (looking like a giant steel vagina) is re-imagined not so much as an accidental Freudian hiccup to be ashamed of, but as an intentional powerful act of defiance and symbol of female prowess and strength. It is not accidental that the image chosen for Zaha's face has an expression of conceit and composure that stands in stark contrast to the horror on the faces of the crowd below. In a way, I was channeling Bruce Willis' expression in the Die Hard movie, that moment right after saying "yippie-kye-yae mother fucker!"

The little men in the street below her represent the strictly male power class of Qatar led by the Emir; they stand behind the oppressive system of de-facto slavery and mass female imprisonment. Behind them in the background stands "the cock crammed" skyline - tall sky skyscrapers resembling a forest of male phalluses. This is testament to the highly patriarchal society in which women make up only 1/4 of the population and are diminished in power. If they feel it is necessary to incarcerate and suppress women in their society in such a radical way, one can only conclude that they are afraid of them. It is no wonder then that any building that resembles a female vagina would be a frightening proposition - Super action heroine Zaha has just delivered  them their worst nightmare. So yes you are right, I wanted to invoke an image of what would be terror for such a society: A powerful woman that can stand up to or at least outwit them. That was the main point!
However there is another layer of meaning and intension to this image of terror. If you remember the days leading up to the fall of the Quadafi regime that Zaha worked for, you might recall the violent images of civilians and militia in the streets being attacked by her former employer's solders. As I mentioned Zaha was hired as part of the regime's propaganda wing in an elaborate plan to give the regime an air of sophistication that would help mask the atrocities that he was committing.

THE REALITY: The images in the video above shows the reality of Quadafi's Lybia and the terror he inflicted on the people there.

THE MASK: People's Conference Hall  (above) in Tripoli designed by starchitect, Zaha Hadid, but was 'put on hold' causing her firm to lay off many of its employees. The project was clearly an attempt by Gaddafi to rebrand his image and fumigate the stench of Lockerbie and other adventures of his dictatorship

With my image I also wanted to place the mask (Zaha Hadid and her work) and the reality behind the mask (the image of violence and terror) together on the same image as a way for my audience to see both the mask and the reality in one image.  This was the secondary point.

The third point was to create an image that was outrageous, humorous and offensive as possible to draw attention and spark debate. I wanted to shake my audience from their complacency of looking at starchitects who willingly participate in embellishing violent regimes as a trivial matter. By getting my audience emotionally engaged by either laughing or being disturbed by it, my hopes are that they will remember it and help to create a culture where this kind of behavior is no longer acceptable.  

Some say it is tasteless. Sure, I expected that response. What is tasteless? That varies along cultural, religious, and personal value lines. In some societies complete nudity is normal and acceptable; for them no part of the human body is taboo or can be seen as tasteless and that includes both the male and female genitalia. For some religions any flesh visible above the knee of a woman is indecent, others find it tasteless for a woman to show her ankles or require that the woman is covered so that only the eyes are visible.  So no matter what I do, someone will consider it tasteless by some standards. Therefore, you may have noticed that trying not to offend anyone isn't anywhere on my list of intentions above.  
To answer some of your specific concerns though; Why choose the vagina and not some other body part, or something else as a mode of criticism? Well you my have to ask Jon Stewart, or whoever started the Internet meme. By the time I saw that stadium it was already branded as a vagina. All that was left for me to do was to contextualize it, which i did - both visually with the image and politically with the accompanying article.

As for the alleged victims, No! The collage is not taken from images of actual terror victims; they are from a street protest - demonstrators running from tear gas thrown by police, another is of Arabic men running away at the start of a camel race in Rash al Khaimah, and the third (not sure) probably an Arab comedy skit featuring men screaming.  I commend you though for at least thinking about them. Most of the complaints I get condemns the tasteless victimization/exploitation of Zaha without any mention of the thousands of women or slaves who are victims of the system she works for.
In short, I belive you (as well as others) have misinterpreted my intention and inflated it with some incorrect assumptions. As you mentioned, the image comes with other messages. You interpreted it as a tasteless exploitation of Zaha and victims of terrorism that tramples on people for my own whimsical and perverse end. To this I say, that this is part of what makes art/comedy so interesting and wonderful: Because it can be interpreted in so many different ways. Like a Rorschach test, a psychoanalyst may put an ink splash in front of you and you will see one thing and I will see another. In these scenarios, the meanings we find in the images are more a measure of us and our world view than the actual image itself. 
It draws to mind the case when former NY mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to withdraw funding from the Brooklyn museum because it showed the artist Chris Ofili’s painting of the Holy Virgin Mary that he didn’t like. Ofili's painting depicted the Virgin Mary with dark skin, African features, and was collaged with close-ups of female genitalia cut out from pornographic magazines and real elephant dung.  Ofili's intention was to use the dung and the vagina images as symbols of fertility. Giuliani saw it differently. He thought it was offensive to Catholics and famously exclaimed, "There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!” Ironically though, it was Hillary Clinton who came to Ofili's defense arguing the freedom of expression and cultural tolerance. This is the nature of symbols in art. It can provoke a conversation about the meanings we extract from things between two strangers who know nothing about each other than the values we bring to an image.

All the best,
Conrad Newel
Liberating Minds Since August 2007


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

95. The Accidental Femminist

Zaha Hadid to me has always seemed to be a feminist of convenience; that is to say she is a chameleon-like figure that magically transforms into a feminist only when it suits her; notably, when she is criticized in public by using it as a defense mechanism. When she is criticized by men (which most critics are) she pulls out the gender card and cry “You are criticising me because I am a woman!” and follow up with sentences beginning with the phrase “If a man had done this then….. . However when it comes to standing up for women's rights, in cases where she could use her power and visibility as one of the world's most famous women to defend other women or feminist causes, she tends to go silent. Such was the case when she sat on the Pritzker jury and did not do much to stand up for Denise Scott Brown. I went into this in more detail in note number 92. Zaha & Josephine: A tale of two celebrity women.

The other thing with Zaha as well as other starchitects is that they generally use their works to glamorize autocrats that are inherently violent or oppressive. By choosing to work for dictatorial and oppressive regimes they become complicit in the opression. One such example is where Zaha entered into a contract with Muammar Gaddafi to design a new conference center outside of Tripoli shortly before the regime collapsed in 2011. Gaddafi had enlisted Zaha’s services as part of a larger plan to project an image of cultural refinement and soften his image as a regime that was friendly to western culture and safe to invest in.

So when I saw Jon Stewart’s skit a few days ago in which he remarked that her Qatar football stadium proposal looked like a giant steel vagina, I thought it was kind of ironic. Qatar like Gaddafi’s Libya is also ruled by an autocratic regime - in this case an absolute monarchy - that has laws among others that deem it illegal to criticize the Emir - the highest ranking monarch.

Some other notable  laws gives employers unilateral power to cancel residency permits, deny workers the ability to switch jobs and deny them permission to leave the country. Relative to the fact that Qatar is a country where the great majority of the population are foreigners, the result is a system of forced labour where it is difficult for a migrant worker to leave an abusive employer or travel overseas without permission. So in other words a defacto system of slavery.

When it comes to women rights Qatar boasts one of the best among arab countries, but take that with a grain of salt. Despite having one of the worlds most lopsided gender ratio where women make up just one-quarter of the population, Qatar has one of the highest female prison populations in the world. Most of these female prisoners are low paid immigrant workers, tried in an unknown language, without representation and often without access to consulate assistance. To top it off, in some cases in family courts, a female's testimony is worth half a man's and in some cases a female witness is not accepted at all.

So why would Qatar hire a woman - Zaha Hadid -  to design their prize stadium?  For the same reason Gaddafi hired Zaha - damn good PR! Qatar has a public image problem with The West, among them with women rights. Hiring one of the world most famous woman architect would go a long way in mending that image as well as embelishing them with the "sophistication" of western high culture.
The irony in this case, is that here we have a patriarchal society that tramples on women's rights and diminishes them in general and yet their proudest new monument looks like the gaping hole of a vagina.
Holy Shit!...Zaha unleashes a giant steel vagina on the cock crammed skyline on Qatar

But here is another way to look at it - perhaps just a fantasy of Conrad Newel. The fantasy is that Zaha is actually not just an opportunist or a tool for hire. No! Zaha is actually a real feminist behind the veil of an arrogant unconscionable diva. She is a real champion for women and human rights. Actually she is much smarter and smoother than anyone of us had imagined. What if the stadium was intentionally designed to look like a vagina? Perhaps that was the plan all along. Perhaps she really wanted to send a thinly veiled message to the Emir. Something like this:

Fuck you you sexist oppressive prick!  
I am going to take your money and make the proudest new addition to your cock crammed skyline into the image of a cunt!  
This one is for the imprisoned women of Qatar.
Imprision this Emir!

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Sunday, September 15, 2013

94. Why I Blogg

A couple weeks ago I was invited to write an opinions article on Architizer. 
I  wrote a piece with the working title "An open call for the De-Jesus-ification of Peter Zumthor and a Plea for Critical Journalism and Objectivity when Reporting on His Work" .  It was edited to fit Architizer's format and the title changed to "Zumthor is not God" You can read it the original version here

The piece was in the form of a letter to architectural critics and journalists and discussed their lack of critical engagement when reporting on Peter Zumthor and his work.

Interestingly enough though, the piece was not critical of Zumthor or his work. I don't think I have ever been critical of his work before. I enjoy it thoroughly and I have even gone as far as calling myself a fan. However, I have been critical of Zumthor the man himself and his deceptive self-promotional practice as evidenced here and here.

Christine Murray, a writer for Architects Journal, identifies Zumthor's followers not as followers, not even as fans or fanatics, but as a broad church. In doing so, she references the classic definition of church, not as a building, but as the whole body of Christian believers. 

So before I even put pen to paper to write, I anticipated some blowback. Though Zumthorism is not an officially recognized religion, I understand it as such. So when you go out in public and write a piece that is in anyway near critical of a religious icon (that which they hold most dear) you expect that.

And like clock work the blowback came in. You can see it at the bottom of the article here.  It is hilarious! perhaps a little sad. As also expected, most of them mistook my criticism of the journalist as an attack on Zumthor, his work or his stature. For some the notion that one can both enjoy something and be critical of it at the same time is a little difficult to grasp.

I really love the comments sections, even when they get really nasty. I sit down with my laptop and have a good laugh and interact with the lovely and even with the unlovely ones.

However, I was really floored when I saw this one below, it was something that I was not at all expecting. It nearly brought me to tears. really! It validates what I do. If there is only one person out there that can see the value of what I aim to do with this blog, then it is worth every second of time that I pour into it. So here is to another 100 notes:

Well, you sir, are just begging for trouble!
This is actually a profoundly relevant topic. As for trying to assertively discuss it on the internet... well... good luck with that!
There is, of course, a problem with the use of the word "architect". Peter Zumthor is an architect. I am an architect. Therefore I could conclude that "I am like Peter Zumthor".
I would be wrong. Just because we use the same words doesn't mean we are talking about the same things. Peter Zumthor openly claims that he is not a service provider. He doesn't work to comply with the promoter's needs or wishes and he is proud of his uncompromising nature.
No, Peter Zumthor is not one of us.
Of course, I'm not going to say that being uncompromising is a virtue or an evil. I will say that it is questionable. I would recommend the documentary "Peter Zumthor - Der Eigensinn des Schonnen" (although it is very difficult to find it nowadays) to witness some of the implications, both good and bad, of that approach to the field of architecture, and how it impacts other people.
The problem with the deification of an architect - or anyone for that matter - is that it narrows down and eventually shuts the possibility of debate. The pernicious aspect of having this cult status being promoted by architectural institutions and media - and when I say media I'm talking about critics that often have ties to official associations and academies - is that it becomes an obstacle to an open and healthy debate about architecture.
The corresponding symptom to that ill environment can be witnessed on these comments already. A possible debate gets shattered, not because the arguments raised are questioned, but because they were substituted by a lawyer type approach where (1) the author's credibility is questioned and, once that is done, (2) any argument presented is deemed irrelevant. A known way of sidestepping any discussion.
Keep in mind that Peter Zumthor's quality as an architect is not being questioned here - although it could, why not? But this is true all around the world. Every nation has its set of highly reverenced architects. If, for watever reason, one of their works becomes controversial, architectural institutions and critics will often close ranks around the defense of "the architect", whose personal qualities or overall body of work are not being questioned, to minimize the debate around "the building".
That is why you will have great difficulty finding architects openly questioning buildings such as Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences, Peter Eisenman's City of Culture of Galicia, Zaha Hadid's Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion, and so on, and so on. And if you are an architect and you question these buildings out in the open, trust me, doors will shut on you and you will be on your way to become an outcast.
The real issue here, therefore, is that the glorification of architects is detrimental to a democratic environment where ideas, including architecture, can be questioned through rational considerations from which we can all learn and evolve.
And if we deny that, if we deny the possibility of that to happen because whoever is pointing the finger doesn't hold the seal of some ubber-institution, then we all run the risk of becoming another silent witness standing among the crowd, paying tribute to naked kings.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

93. An Open Call for the De-Jesus-ification of Peter Zumthor


 [pil-gruh-mij]  Show IPA noun, verb, pil·grim·aged, pil·grim·ag·ing.
a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion: a pilgrimage to Lourdes.


 [fuh-nat-ik]  Show IPA
a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

1515–25;  < Latin fānāticus  pertaining to a temple, inspired by orgiastic rites, frantic, equivalent to fān (um ) temple + -āticus,  equivalent to -āt ( us ) -ate1  + -icus -ic


Dear Architectural Critics and Journalists,

I have had enough of your fanaticism with Peter Zumthor. He is a fine architect and an even better self-promoter. I don’t dislike the guy, but I do seriously dislike when journalists—and especially critics—keel over and act like star-struck teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert when confronted with the man or his work.

Specifically, I am ticked off with your constantly using the word “pilgrimage” in describing your visits to Zumthor’s sites.

When I think of the word pilgrimage, I think of a deeply spiritual and religious journey—the type that devout Muslims make to Mecca, for instance, or the trips that Christians take to Biblically-significant sites such as Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, or Calvary, where he was crucified.

The Catholic encyclopedia defines “pilgrimage” as a journey made to a place to venerate it, ask for supernatural aid, or discharge some religious obligation. So I thought it rather strange that I kept finding the word being used in relation to Peter Zumthor.

I have compiled just a sampling of recent quotes from notable critics writing about visiting Zumthor or seeing his work in the flesh. Their descriptions typically begin with the word “pilgrimage,” the size and location of the sacred radius, and finally the term “seminal” to describe the works found within its boundaries. This sets the tone for the rest of the article, which can be summed up in three words: Praise, Praise and Praise.

Here, from Dwell Magazine:

I recently made a Peter Zumthor pilgrimage to Switzerland, where many of his seminal works sit within a 40 mile radius [of] one another in the northeastern part of the country. An architectural journey surely not for the faint of heart, it took a day's harrowing drive through the northern Alps with steep cliffs and crazy European drivers, but in the end, it was well worth it.
A Pilgrimage to Zumthor's Chapel | Dwell, October 5, 2010

This one from ArchDaily was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me:

Our friend and architectural photographer Felipe Camus recently embarked on an architectural pilgrimage to the valley of the Rhein. Located in the Graubünden region in Switzerland, the valley boasts many of the seminal works of Pritzker Prize Laureate Peter Zumthor, all within a 60-kilometer radius. Born in Graubünden himself, Zumthor designed the works in relation to their location and time by paying special attention to details and materials. As a result, the works all present Zumthor’s unparalleled skills of craftsmanship and his uncompromising integrity.
A Photographer’s Journey Through Zumthor Valley | ArchDaily, August 28, 2013

“Unparalleled skills of craftsmanship” and “uncompromising integrity”? This type of language should forever be entombed in fine furniture catalogs, or in the “Our Approach” sections of contractor websites. Take out the word “craftsmanship,” and you could find this on the back label of a wine bottle. This is sales, not journalistic language! If this were an isolated combination of adjectives used by one or two of you, it would be just cute; however this is an industry-wide pathology. To wit:

Peter Zumthor is a master architect admired by his colleagues around the world for work that is focused, uncompromising and exceptionally determined

The Pritzker Prize Jury Report 2009

He has a mythic reputation as a reclusive mountain-dwelling hermit, a monk of materials, with standards so exacting that few clients have the patience, or deep enough pockets, to indulge his uncompromising approach.

The Guardian February 5, 2013

Ask any architect about Peter Zumthor and you will most likely see them get weak in the knees, or at the very least laden with envy. He embodies an almost wizardly wisdom and uncompromising integrity.

ArcSpace July 1, 2013

Known for running a small yet powerful and uncompromising practice, Peter Zumthor founded his award-winning firm in 1979 in Switzerland.

Architecture September 27, 2012

His exquisite but uncompromising buildings do seem to be wrought from the living rock but perceptions of human need are also important in their shaping.

Royal Academy of Arts

The repetition seems almost orchestrated or choreographed. Did you just copy and paste these terms from Zumthor’s press release without filtering it through your noodles? You could have at least used a thesaurus. Some other great words are: steadfast, unbending, determined, relentless, pigheaded, firm, resolute...OK, maybe not pigheaded, but you get what I am saying.

Furthermore, “uncompromising” isn’t exactly a virtue I would exalt when talking about an architect. The process of making architecture is more like a cha-cha—you give a little and you take a little, you listen to the unspoken words of your partners, you respond with a playful and delicate flexibility, and you apply a healthy dose of creativity until the music stops. (Your partner in this metaphor being your site, the surrounding nature, your client, the project’s economy and all the other variables that you come across as an architect in the creative process.) Who wants to work with an architect—or anybody for that matter—who is uncompromising?

Back to the subject of pilgrimage, the quote below reminds me of the scene from the Last Supper:

As the evening wore on and Zumthor kept the wine and beer coming, the architect from London began pouring out his heart – much to our embarrassment - about Camden Council and its failure to recognize and support great architecture. We were all glad when he staggered off to bed and at that point two of us (myself and the late Giles Worsley) decided we’d skip Botta and go on a Zumthor pilgrimage starting with his office, and meet the group in Basel the next day.

Me, Peter Zumthor, and my broken sandal |bdonline, October 1, 2012

Perhaps a more fitting comparison for this is a scene out of True Blood where Vampire Eric cons Sookie into drinking his blood, which has powers to make humans high and infatuated with the vampire of whose blood he/she has been intoxicated with.
Then there’s this:

Everything Zumthor touches becomes a place of pilgrimage, and his elemental work has a broad church. His Therme Vals baths in Switzerland is Mecca for architects, but full of ordinary folk too. His chapels, St Benedict and Bruder Klaus, satisfy visitors seeking either the spiritual or material sublime.

Zumthor's pavilion will be a place of pilgrimage | Architects Journal, 15 October, 2010

If wherever Zumthor touches becomes a place of pilgrimage, then no matter what he creates, it will become an object of worship. An object of worship cannot be taken apart, analyzed, scrutinized, or be discussed in an objective manner.

Whether we worship Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, or Zumthor, as journalists and writers we need to maintain a healthy separation between our personal religious beliefs and our journalistic work. Of course, suppressing our beliefs and who we are is not desirable either. The best we can strive for is a reasonable balance between the two.

I am not asking you to denounce him, or trash his work. No!
I am not asking to be overly analytic like you are writing a scientific report either.
I am not asking you to be dull and boring. Absolutely not!
By all means, if you enjoy his work, write that, be passionate! I love that.
Show your enthusiasm, it is contagious!
But please, pretty please with sugar on top, be objective and critical as well!
We need it, we deserve it. The last thing we need are journalists who are sheep.
Zumthor would be better off because of it and so would architecture too.


Conrad Newel,

Liberating minds since August 2007

Related Posts:
90. The deceptive paradox that is the Zumthor brand
60. Play Peter, the Pritzker Peddling Hermit Genius

originally published on Architizer:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

92. Zaha & Josephine: A tale of two celebrity women and a notion of evolution

Josephine Baker Multidimensional Celebrity

Do you know what I love best about Josephine Baker? Have you ever read her biography? if you did you would love the same thing I love about her. I love the way she developed as a person. She was human and made her fair share of mistakes, but throughout her life you can see a wiser more mature person developing and it showed in her work on and off the stage. What inspires me about her was not just that she is a brilliant performer on many levels, but also her genius as an image and career strategist. Imagine being a black female performer in the American South in the 1920's. That's a pretty rough spot to be in. Now you can say she was very lucky, but then if you read my post on luck you will realize that she was just an optimist who drank her half full glass of water. It takes a special person to really see the opportunity in a situation like that and make it work for you.

The genius of Baker is that she was able to take all the racist and sexist stereotypes that were prevalent about blacks and women at the time and used them to her advantage. She performed topless, mimicking African dance styles while wearing a skirt made of bananas. Her caricature combined all the sexual fantasies that western males had about an exotic African woman and the 1920s notion of what a sexy woman should look like. Additionally, she amplified it all while fulfilling expectations of how American Negro music and dance should be like. Instead of fighting against these images she played up to the expectations and fed it back to them: In essence she used their own prejudices as a tool for creating her image and career. It was brilliant!

As she became more and more famous, Baker not only became a performer, she became a symbol/ambassador for her entire race (and to a certain extent, her gender). Now I am sure there were many black women at that time and even today who take issue with how she portrayed herself and in turn black women in particular. I can certainly understand that since portraying herself that way helped to reinforce some of those very stereotypes that black women have fought so long to refute. However, if you look at her performance in the big picture; meaning how she performed off stage in the public realm, you will see that she was not just a caricature. Oh she was so much more!

When she moved to France and became a citizen there, she used her celebrity status as a tool to help the French resistance during World War II: She helped by smuggling classified information written in invisible ink on her music sheets, entertain the Allied troops, and assisted people who were in danger of being persecuted by the Nazis to get visas to get out of the country. She later went on to support the civil rights movement in the US; being one of the first celebrities to insist on integrated audiences wherever she performed. Before the end of her career, she had done wonders in the way of positively changing the negative perception western society had of black women and women in general.
After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle
I could go on, and on, but I am not here to write a biography about her. I just wanted to point out how three dimensional she was as a celebrity and how she was able to evolve and transcend stereotypes. Not only that, but because she was perhaps one of the most famous black woman at the time she lived, she became a symbol of her race and gender.  That was a responsibility that was placed on her whether she wanted it or not, but she took it and did outstandingly well.

The Munch Museum Fiasco: 

I was in Oslo a few years ago; this was in time for an exhibition of the entries of the Munch Museum Competition. The competition was by invitation only (or pre-qualified, I am not quite sure), and the roster of invited architects were a star-architect studded constellation: Diller +Scofidio, Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma, Foreign Office, REX, Toyo Ito, David Chipperfield, and some local stars. If you were lucky enough to make the roster you would be paid to develop your proposal regardless if you came in first or last. The winner of course would get the commission to develop the project and oversee its realization. The panels for the entries were displayed anonymously for public view at a gallery in the city center.

When I got there to see it, there was a list on the wall saying who were invited, but there were no labels on the panels to say who did what. However, as I walked around to see them, it was painfully obvious as to who did what. It seem as though most of the stars priorities was first and foremost to stamp their signature style on the project. Diller, Scofidio+Renfero’s graphic style was unmistakable, they proposed a building that kind of cropped up out of the water with some cool moments, but looked way out of budget. Their project seemed to say "Hey, this is a really awesome proposal, I know you don't have the money for it, but if you quadrupled your budget wouldn't it be cool to have this. Anyway, fuck you! pay me!"

Ando did pretty much the same thing: "Hey, my project says this was made by Tadao Ando, it would be very expensive, here is a little token bit about solving the program you provided in the brief. Anyway, fuck you! pay me!"

All in all they were all saying the same thing. For the most part it was a beauty contest with token gestures at addressing the issues proposed in the brief. Aside from the obligatory set of plans and sections, most of the entries had models, exploded axons, captions that explain their arguments here and there, and illustrator diagrams explaining the program distribution, circulation, connectivity, alternative uses, etc. to explain their concepts and ideas to the public.

The most shocking one for me was Zaha Hadid's entry. She made a less than an half-assed attempt to solve or explain any of the problems outlined in the brief. Besides a bewildering text (see translation here), there was no attempt to explain to the public what the project was about or how it worked; no axons, no diagrams, no additional helping text, no nothing; just an almost abstracted set of plans and sections with sleek renderings and a model. A diva move if you will. It was basically a centerfold spread of sexy curvaceous forms laid out over several black background panels. It seemed to say: look at me I am a sexy playboy centerfold aint I cute. Feast your eyes on this. Anyway, fuck you! pay me!

The argument Zaha uses here is not all that different from a playboy magazine. Think about it! Buy me not because I am going to solve your problems, not because I am going to save you money, not because I have considered your situation and have some serious ideas about how to help you improve your condition, no! choose me because I am pretty and delicious.

Here we have a situation of mostly male star-architects who are given a fantastic problem to solve. Most of them do a terrible job of trying to solve it, but they tried anyway. The one female star-architect largely ignores the problem altogether and instead offers a pretty object. This to me embodies and just reinforces the dumb-chick stereotype of the cute girl that sits in the back of the class that doesn't do her homework, but flirts with the teacher to make the grade. I am not suggesting that Zaha is flirting with anyone, but the arguments behind her projects almost always come down to the dumb chick/playboy argument: choose my project because it is pretty. The client presents a legitimate list of programmatic concerns and challenges and you basically ignore them and present a pretty object and say - here you go!

It is what I call the dumbing down of architecture.

What she presented at the Munch Museum Competition was the most spectacular and most ill-conceived project in the room.

Perhaps it was the most sincere entry from all the star-architects entries, since it did the least in addressing any of the program, it just acknowledged quite bluntly that she was not there to win or produce an entry that stands a chance of winning. It said: I am submitting an entry because you were dumb enough to ask me and you are paying me to do it. I will use this as an opportunity to make a ton of cash by having unsupervised interns develop the competition entry, pay them some pocket change and keep the rest.

In the end, the jury selected the least spectacular entry that was done by an unknown (to me at least) Spanish architecture firm Herreros Arquitectos. They were one of the few that addressed the site and context in an appropriate manner. This site is located across from the much celebrated and freshly completed Opera House by Snøhetta in the mostly cold and dark Norwegian climate. The Opera house is a building that the Norwegians are very proud of; it is on all their tourist brochures and I believe it has even graced their postage stamps. Herreros’ strategy was not to overshadow or out do it, but rather to complement it by making a quality building that communicated with the form and color of the Opera house. It was a translucent glass mass that resembled a glacier with an oblique angle at the top echoing the slant of the opera house. It picked up on the glacier expression that the Opera House was playing on and made their own interpretation of it. The project also brought to the table some innovative proposals on how to organize the gallery spaces, addressed issues of sustainability, and so on. To be honest, it is not the kind of building that made me thrilled with excitement, but it was the most appropriate and I agreed with the jury's choice given what they had to choose from.
This is what the Herreros Arquitectos’ entry looks like. 
You can see the back side of the Oslo Opera house across on the right.

If buildings could speak this is what I imagine these pairs would say to each other.
The lesson here is that stars tend to end up doing what they do best: Perform and dazzle! So if you give them a problem they will tend to make a theatrical spectacle out of it whether it is appropriate or not. In this case, what was appropriate was a modest complement to the opera house, but it would be demeaning for one starchitect to design a building that played a supporting role to another starchitect's building. No way! it has to be bigger, and more spectacular or nothing else. Star-architects are rather like expensive cats that instinctively need to pee everywhere they go; to mark territory and claim dominance. So I guess Oslo learned this lesson the hard and expensive way.


Zaha Hadid the Public Face of Female Architecture

Earlier this year I tweeted the following statement:
…and followed on Facebook with the following statement:
Imagine that we lived in an alternate universe where it were female architects that won all the Pritzkers and were dominating the profession and Daniel Libeskind was THE token male starachitect. His empty pointy prikly forms sticking up in the air, signifying nothing is what the rest of the world looks at when they talk about male architecture. As a male architect you go out and talk to people and you say, "Hi, I am an architect" and they say "oh cool, I know the great male architect Daniel Libeskind, his forms are realy nice"

would that not be hell?

This is how I think it would feel to be a female architect today.

It has reached a point that just looking at her work irritates me. This is also because I think of her career as having the potential to follow Josephine Baker's arc. Zaha has come so far, and she could be so much more. She is settling for good when she could be great. Now I am using the word good in a very specific way here and perhaps I should explain myself . When I say she is a good architect, I am taking into account the total architect not just her “work” or building projects, but I am including Zaha the business person/CEO, Zaha the self promoter, etc, etc. In this point of view, she has done quite a remarkable job. It’s extremely hard to take a career to where she has taken hers so far and she deserves a lot of credit for that. Notwithstanding that, it's is tough being a woman in a man's profession. So even though I am irritated by the sight of what she makes and calls architecture, I maintain she is a good architect, even dare I say it “ a very good one”, in the broader view.

By achieving this success, she has been unwittingly placed in the position of being the face of female architecture. She did not ask for it. I know, it’s unfair, who wants that pressure of representing your who gender, race or whatever? Judging by what she produces, and what she does (and most important what she does not do) outside of architecture time and time again, it seems quite evident that she does not want to be in this position, and she does not want to accept this challenge.

Instead of using the status that she has to somehow debunk some of the negative tropes about women, she seems to be reinforcing them. I know! I know! There is a paradox here. On the one hand she is making a positive change simply by being a female starchitect since stereotypically women are not supposed to be architects, let a lone starchitects. On the other hand, she is using the spotlight to reinforce a slew of other negative stereotypes. In my view, the net result is a negative.

Firstly, as I have just shown you, she is reinforcing the dumb-chick stereotype when she comes up with entries like the Munch Museum which by and large skips over the clients problems and just makes pretty curvy stuff that leaves you wondering:
Why make the dumbest entry in a contest of starchitects?

Secondly, she cultivates a diva image, feeding another negative trope about women: When you give women power they will become difficult temperamental bitches. Here is an urban dictionary definition of Diva:
A bitchy woman that must have her way exactly or no way at all. often rude and belittles people, believes that everyone is beneath her and thinks that she is so much more loved than what she really is; selfish, spoiled, and overly dramatic.
You just need to ask people who work in her office and you will find this definition well substantiated. It is perhaps unfair to single her out in this way, because her male counterparts are no different, but when a woman in power does so she gets this label. However what I am discussing here is how she is carrying the burden of representing her gender and changing perceptions. This is unfair, I know, I have said this several times now, but that’s life. Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player to play in the American major league. He was called names, harassed, embarrassed and insulted, and had every right to punch someone in the face in retaliation, but if he expressed anger he know very well it would reinforce the negative trope of the angry black man. He knew that he was carrying the burden of his race and so he sucked it up held his head high and carried on. Believe me; Zaha does not have to play Diva!
Why cultivate the image of Diva?

In an interview on Charlie Rose with Pritzker Prize Winners Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano and herself (see video for yourself: link here: ) Zaha makes the following statement:
I mean...I think... if we all go into a know...we know, one of us would know...unless it is very unfair or it is very political and so on...aaaahm... you is acceptable.
What she does here is basically insulate herself from self-criticism. If she believes what she is actually saying here, then she will never be able to come to terms with the horrible failures and shortcomings blatantly apparent in the catastrophe that she submitted for the Munch Museum. She will never acknowledge the merits of Herrero's proposal. She will never understand why she lost and they won because the only reason in her mind is because it was “unfair and political and so on”.

This is the typical behavior and rationalizations of a diva: If you criticize her, then you must be either sexist (if you are male) or jealous (if you are female). No criticism is valid! She is just fantastic!

With this attitude how can you learn or improve on the next competition? If you don’t accept criticism then you how can you grow?

Finally, she reinforces the prettiness-obsessed-female stereotype (similar to the dumb-chick trope) where women are supposedly obsessed with prettiness; Not beauty, but outward appeal that is the domain of fashion, fads, makeup, perfume, jewelry, lipstick etc: Things that are pleasing or attractive to the eye, skin deep and ornamental.

Zaha is branching out into this domain; it is the domain of Paris Hilton: The dumb diva female appropriating the prettiness-obsessed-female stereotype. I do not for one second doubt the intelligence or tenacity of Ms Hadid or of Paris Hilton for that matter. However, I think by clinging to the curvy, “pretty” forms, and branching out into the stereotypical female markets (fashion, perfume, handbags, shoes, etc) she reinforces this stereotype; A stereotype that the feminists movement have fought long and hard to extinguish since before the 60s and 70s.

Why design high heeled shoes, perfume bottles and cosmetic jewelry?

I can understand Zaha and Hilton using the strategy of empowering the negative trope in a positive way to launch their careers as Josephine Baker did. However, after a while Baker gave it up and transformed into a much more interesting person. She evolved! She used her celebrity status to take on a political and humanitarian stance and became a force for the ideas she believed in. She became useful to society beyond just accumulating wealth, status and personal gain.

I am not suggesting that Zaha should become an activist; I just think that she is squandering a golden opportunity to be a gender leader for women. She doesn't have to be an activist like Baker was, but she could at least set an example like Jackie Robinson by being aware of her position as a symbol of female architecture and so avoid reinforcing any negative stereotypes.

This shtick of using the same tired curvy female eye-candy form on every single project, on every single site no matter what the program, size, or location has run its course and now its just plain silly. Her work has become somewhat of a one trick poney caricature; There are no surprises.

Evolution: Branding Form vs Branding Ideas: 

Great artists (I am expanding the definition here to include architects) evolve and are more than just a shtick. If you think of Pablo Picasso, he is the opposite of Zaha in this sense, because once he perfects something, he realizes it's time to move on and then goes on to another thing. This is why we can now talk about Picasso’s blue period, or his cubist period, or this period or that period and so on. The same for Frank Lloyd Wright, he started out with the prairie houses and by the end of his career you see something like Falling Water, or the Guggenheim. These kinds of evolution suggest a critical mind, a curiosity, a willingness to question your-self and develop. This trait is largely missing in Hadid’s work. If you compare her early works with her latest works there are no substantive differences (The formal jump from angular to curvy is not of any significance as far as I am concerned). Where is her critical mind?

If you look at the portfolio of an architecture firm’s work you will often notice a certain quality or set of characteristics that is always present. This idiosyncrasy is what primarily defines the brand of that firm. In some cases this is shaped by a set of ideas, principles, or a method of designing for eg. Zumthor argues that his work is about“atmospheres”, for Bjarke Ingels it is “architectural alchemy”. These are examples of an idea based brand. On the opposite side are Form Based Brands where it is a certain form or shape that is present throughout most of the architect’s work. Here the work is easily recognizable as belonging to this or that architect. Great examples are Frank Gehry’s curves and Daniel Libeskind pointy angular forms. No architect is purely form based or purely idea based; there is always a ratio. In this diagram I have placed a few current star-architects along the scale. As you can see, Zaha Hadid, along with Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, are (in the red zone) almost off the scale on the form-base branding side
The problem starts with how she built her brand. A decent architect builds his or her brand around a set of core ideas which are tested, sculpted, shaped, questioned, worked-on and reworked over a lifetime-career. Zaha, like Libeskind and Gehry, however have built her branding around a formal quality: A form fetish if you will. Building a brand or career on a formal quality is problematic on so many levels I don't even know where to begin. On the first level, it is wrong because it always forces you conform to that formal quality whether it is appropriate or not: No matter what the demand of the site, or the condition of the program that you are working with, you are always forced to apply that same rigid formal condition to it. If the form is your brand, it inevitably has to become your ending point. So what do you do? You make a sculptural form that fits your formal trope and then you are left with an uphill task of forcing the program and the problematics of the site and all the other challenges you are faced with to fit nicely into your sculpture. Alternatively, you can work out the problematics of the program and then plaster on the formal condition on to its exterior like shrink wrap and hope that it works with the site and context. Either way, to me this is an aberration!

It’s like having a dressmaking business that makes everything only in polka-dots in a world where consumers come in all different shapes, colors, sizes and preferences. Your daily challenge then is to constantly confront the fact that not everybody looks good in polka-dots. The question with every customer that walks through your door becomes then:
How can we make him or her look good in polka-dots?
What is the clothes that work best for this customer? or makes this customer feel most comfortable, or what is right for this customer?
If your brand was based less on a form and more on an idea instead (for example a kind of quality, or the idea of organic like Wright, or about timelessness and the immeasurable as with Kahn, or about Atmospheres as with Zumthor, etc ) then it opens up potentials and possibilities to solve problems more effectively. If we go back to the dressmaker example, and lets say this time your brand is about an idea (take the idea of quality for instance). In this case, when a customer walks through your door the first question then becomes:
What kind of clothes suits this customer best? Lets find out what will make this customer satisfied?
...and if that customer values quality in the same way that you do then the next logical question should be:
How can I make what this customer wants in a “quality” way?
Idea based branding also opens up the potential for development and growth; things like quality, and organic, timelessness, atmospheres, etc are subjective and therefore subject to change. As a young architect starting out you could have a certain idea of what quality is and over the course of your career you most likely will have experiences, and realizations, discoveries, and so on that will allow you to see things in a different way: It can be developed on; someone can argue with you and change your mind. It is something that is partly logical and intuitive, so at the end of your career you could come away with an opinion of quality that is much more informed than when you started out. And that is a wonderful thing.

Think about it! if your brand is based on a formal trope your argument almost always comes down to “I am for this formal trope because I like it and I think it is cool”. However, if you ask Zaha what is the principal ideas behind her work, she will probably spit out some fancy words and phrases with some of the usual key terms that she or nobody else really understands; like morphologies, shapes derived from processes, distortion, concave-convex configurations, fluidity, mathematical constraints, concealed nature interwoven with strands of culture and fluidity within the constraints of traditional geometry.

Below is the text for her Munch Museum design proposal that I mentioned earlier ( The text on the left is taken directly from her website and on the right is my translation ). As you read this, keep in mind that it was displayed for public view in Oslo, Norway whose inhabitants first language is Norwegian and second language is mainly English:

To this day, I absolutely can not keep a straight face while reading this:

What was she thinking?

Mathematical constraint? MATHEMATICAL CONSTRAINT!!!?

"Our proposal was based on superimposing a mathematical constraint onto a new city vision"?

Did she just use the term mathematical constraint to mean a cool new curvy form?

Where do people come up with this stuff? the landscape urbanism bullshit generator?

Zaha Hadid uses this kind of language of course to make herself sound very sophisticated, and because the architecture world frowns on simple honest language, but when all the fancy words are deciphered, what it all comes down to mean is “I am for this formal trope because I like it and I think it is cool”
There is nothing wrong with that except that it is purely based on your taste and no one can argue with you about it. That’s just the way it is and that’s that. What's worse is that you yourself can’t question it or reason with it. It’s like your favorite color: I like blue, and no argument in the world is going to change that. My favorite color was blue when I was 5, it is still blue now and for all I know it will still be blue when I am 90. So there is not much potential for growth or change in that, is there?

Zaha likes her curvy forms because she likes them and she hires people who likes them and she attracts clients who likes them. There is no argument that can change that; her forms, are not something one can reason with, either you like it or you don't. End of story.

The positive aspect of this model is that clients know exactly what their building or end product is going to look like if they choose Zaha as their architect. There will be no surprises, it is safe, and you are guaranteed to be satisfied if you like that kind of stuff. This is the mark of a good brand. Its the McDonalds model in fact; no matter where you go in the world, a big mac will taste like a big-mac whether you get one at a Mickey dee’s in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Canada, or the one directly across from the Pantheon in Rome. This model builds strong brand identity, guarantees you a steady customer supply and stable income. If you have that, then why in sweet Jesus’ name would you want to change it?

A future with Zaha Hadid as your Gender Leader?

So if you are a female architect who is waiting for Zaha to somehow evolve into the Josephine Baker of architecture and transform into a champion of women rights or be the kind of perception changing icon that Baker was, then I am afraid you will be in for a disappointment. Zaha isn't coming to save you!

Zaha sits on the Pritzker prize jury at a critical moment in the history of the Prize for women. As a world famous architect with high name recognition value, sitting on that jury she has a lot of power. If she wanted to, she could wield that power to support her fellow women in a major way. She was silent when her very own jury awarded Wang Shu the Pritzker and snubbed his wife and design partner Lu Wenyu. If I were her, I would not want my name to be associated with that decision. I would have simply resigned from the jury in protest. If she had simply done that, then a lot of fucking heat would be on the remaining male jurors. Wouldn’t it? So her silence here equals guilt or complicity as far as I am concerned.

When Denise Scott Brown asked to be retrospectively recognized by the Pritzker Organization for her contribution to the work that her husband and design partner Robert Venturi got the award alone, Zaha didn't do much either. As a sitting member of the Pritzker jury, her protest came in the form of signing a petition that any old Joe can do. An editorial in a major newspaper voicing her disgust for what happened and her support for Brown is the least that I think she could do?

So I will say this again: Zaha isn't coming to save you! For all I know she did not stand up for Lu when her jury dissed her, she is not doing much more to stand up for Denise Scott Brown, and for all I know she won’t be standing up for you. So if you are a female architect under Zaha’s reign and looking at her as a role model then “shut up and make pretty” is going to be your motto for the next few decades. Say cheeez!

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007