What next Zaha? Where now?

I’ve no doubt Zaha is a great architect, but we want more from our great architects than another cursory project that doesn’t develop their thinking in any way, and gives us what we already know.

Call me greedy, but I want to be surprised and delighted by great architects. I want them to always be several steps ahead of the rest of us, and bamboozle us with their clever thinking. Sure, we also need great artists to fail too – but the Sackler extension isn’t really failing; it just isn’t really trying.

The Sackler feels lazy in so many ways. It was a lazy commission by the Sackler, where Zaha is a trustee. The Sackler’s logic was presumably her commission would encourage lay visitors, rather than anything else. But they had greater obligations than just this, and a gallery should know better than to allow itself to be a passive recipient of genius. Any project – any interesting project – is the product of a conversation between architect and client, and it strikes me that this conversation wasn’t very inspired. Maybe Zaha isn’t used to being challenged – but being challenged is surely part of the delight of the best interactions with clients?

The point, of course, of a small project for a major architect is to act as a piece of research where either something – anything – is explored, or where it acts as a piece of polemic – but this is neither. With a small project from an enthusiastic client, you are so free from the conventional constraints – space, money, restrictions on experimentation – whatever – and given the relative freedom of brief from the Sackler in terms of what it had to do, the extension doesn’t work any idea hard enough. It’s not particularly clever.

Zaha’s oft praised greatness is more reason for not making allowances. One definition of a great artist (and part of the responsibility they have to retain this status) is someone who keeps pushing at the boundaries of what is possible and moving the game on. But the Sackler doesn’t move the game on. It’s a building that might have happened any time in the last 20 years of Zaha-dom. Formally, it is what we might expect – no more or no less. It is an instant Zaha by numbers. Once, Zaha’s relationship to the advanced geometry unit at Arup was her calling card, but now that has gone, what is there? I’m not a shape fascist, like many architects, but of all the things this extension could have been, why this?

The Sackler doesn’t even really work very well in terms of the lack of connection to the existing gallery (its main raison d’etre), or what it achieves for the occupants. It expects us to marvel at its formal genius, and indeed, if it allowed us to sit in landscape under a glorious folded handkerchief roof and achieved nothing else – great – but instead, we’re forced to be contained in a rather oppressive and mean sealed little box with a clunky soffit and no connection to the outside. Despite what Zaha may think, walls of glass are very much a physical barrier.

Materially I feel a little cheated, too – because it doesn’t really have materials – or at least doesn’t use materials interestingly. Materials were never really Zaha’s thing, granted, but here, the materials are little more than an inconvenience to her – particularly when they don’t go round corners very well.

The Sackler extension is the sort of project that a younger architect would have given their eye teeth for, used to demonstrate clever thinking, and show the world what they were capable of. It makes me wonder whether the old guard, of which Zaha is now part – have the equivalent burning hunger to excel.

Ultimately, it feels like a building from another time, one when we were all a little more naïve. But that was then – and this is now. What next Zaha? Where now? To keep your status you need to continue to be a game changer. Next time, Zaha, show us a glimpse of something we didn’t already know. Something new.


This review of Zaha Hadid Architect’s Sackler Gallery extension, for Architecture Today, by Piers Taylor, appears in the October issue of Architecture Today.

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  1. Posted November 5, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your criticism and I am curious about your particular interest in something “new” and “clever thinking” in this review. Are these what you always look for in architecture? (Or should that have a capital A for “Architecture”?) Or just in this case because of the particular architect or project?
    What about the qualities of a building that is extraordinarily well done, or just beautiful, but doesn’t necessarily offer anything “new” or any “clever thinking”? (Or perhaps more philosophically, is anything ever really “new”?)
    Sometimes Zaha Hadid’s architecture has made claims of clever thinking (particularly her early work) but it has always appeared to me as an exercise in form making for the sake of it. And when I spoke to a friend who worked for ZH they confirmed that most of the buildings were dreamed up out of “interesting forms” and “interesting mathematical form generation” rather than any specific ideas of architecture. Which I don’t think is invalid or necessarily a bad thing and actually kind of reflects a common reality – architects design stuff for all sorts of reasons, and often whims, and then wrap it up in a nice story to make claims to “clever ideas”. But who are these “clever ideas” actually for? Advancement of society? Exclusive Peer Pleasure? (sounds like a euphemism I know!)

  2. Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink


    It’s an interesting piece that you’ve written, but for me as a non-architect, misses the point to some extent. Albeit in a slightly different context the point raised by Owen Hatherley, and mentioned on your Twitter account, sums up the issue: ‘ (the) fallacy of the idea of the icon as a shortcut to regeneration’ in UK cities. Whilst I’m sure Hadid’s latest work was not intended as a piece of regeneration, the point is still relevant; thus do we necessarily want or need ‘clever’ any more than we necessarily want or need ‘icons’ ? Surely ‘architecture’ is more than just the work of Architects; some of the greatest built environments contain (individually) fairly ordinary buildings (Ruskin talked a lot about this). For example much of Venice, Tuscan hill towns, Cotswold villages. Arguably it’s the layout of the places, the context, the materials, the honesty, rather than the ‘design’, that makes these buildings contribute to the specialness of the whole. If that is true then I’d argue that Architects sell us short, no matter how ‘clever’ the buildings – and thus there is something ‘beyond architecture’ that we did once have but don’t have today (master builders / master craftsmen ?) Surely the emphasis placed almost solely on the need to deliver a great building design somehow diminishes the emphasis that should be placed on making places special – and arguably that isn’t the job of the Architect. Has this exclusive club of (clever / ‘cleverclever’) superstar Architects usurped the inclusiveness of great place making ? Has Architecture become the proxy for the role of all of us in creating great built environments ? Is the emphasis placed on Architecture and the Architect holding us (all) back from addressing the need to create great places ? Undoubtedly there is a very technical aspect to making buildings that is best handles by architects and civil/structural engineers, but that to me is different from creating a place that looks and feels beautiful.



  3. Posted November 6, 2013 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    I think your criticism is correct, but I think a problem lies in the scale of this building. It feels like ‘a bit of a Zaha’ and not the whole thing. We have become so used to the huge enveloping canvasses of Zaha buildings, sweeping and swooping around us, that to see a small bit of one, especially next to a larger classical composition, looks a bit like an arm fallen off a stone sculpture. It is like an artefact, or a archeological fragment, rather than a whole composition. This idea leads one to try to think of other small buildings that Zaha has successfully created, and then on to wonder if her style works in the full XL, L, M, and S range. They might be tricky to pull off maybe, like a Ferrari peddle car?

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