Arts & Design

Celebrating an architect’s vision in 360 degrees and 3D

An exhibition in Mexico City combines virtual reality and 3D printing technology to highlight the work of legendary architect Zaha Hadid.

By Garage Staff — February 7, 2019

The late architect Zaha Hadid left her signature on the world in cursive. The swooping, gestural lines of her buildings, like the sinuous Heydar Aliyev cultural center in Baku or the pulsing outline of the Galaxy SOHO retail complex in Beijing, favored unbroken curves over neat boxes. Over the four decades of her career — cut tragically short when she died in March of 2016 — Hadid actively worked against “this idea that you could only have the 90-degree angle, when there are 359 others,” as she once told The Guardian. “I wanted to look at the way you move through space, rest your body or look at, feel a space. When you move through spaces that have a degree of fluidity, you use them differently, organize your life differently.”

Throughout her career, she used technology and three-dimensional design, even when her buildings were ahead of their time. But eventually technology caught up to her creativity. Design as Second Nature, an exhibition at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City, presents a portrait of the late architect as an innovator not only in construction, but in the ways in which people interact with the world. Curated by Woody Yao, director at Zaha Hadid Design, the exhibition showcases the evolution of Hadid’s work as she embraced new fronts in technology,  featuring models and renderings of her iconic buildings made possible by digital design, as well as examples of her forays into other disciplines, including fashion and furniture. Visitors to the exhibition, which ends March 3, also get the opportunity to experience the latest work from Hadid’s architecture firm, using virtual reality as a design tool, one of the last endeavors Hadid explored during her life.

Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

The Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev cultural center in Baku won the London Design Museum’s Design of the Year award in 2014.

A pioneering architect

Hadid was a pioneer in countless respects, not least of which was her ascent in an industry where so few women have risen to the top. By the time of her death in 2016, she commanded a staff of 400, with nearly 1,000 projects in the works. Developers around the globe lusted after her designs for their museums, airports, high-end shopping centers and luxury residential towers, because a Zaha Hadid building was the utmost symbol of modernity. It was an announcement of one’s presence on a global scale, and a portal into the future.

Hadid was born into an affluent, well-educated family in Baghdad in 1950, a progressive period in which a young Iraqi woman could dream of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or an architect. She moved to London in 1972 to attend the prestigious and radical Architectural Association, and stayed to launch her own firm there, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) in 1980.

The specter of sexism showed itself throughout Hadid’s career each time she was referred to in the media as a “diva” or “difficult” — curious words for a profession known for cultivating outsized egos, but unsurprising for a field dominated by men. She could also never seem to shake the label of “female architect,” despite being, in both vision and practice, more influential than any architect of the late 20th century, male or female. She shifted the discourse of the profession toward an entirely new realm of possibilities, establishing a distinctive style and technologically driven approach to architecture. For this, she became the first female winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize. She was also the award’s first Muslim laureate, as well as the first Iraqi-born.

"I never use the issue about being a woman architect,” she said in a 2004 interview shortly after winning the prize, “but if it helps younger people to know they can break through the glass ceiling I don't mind that.”

“When you move through spaces that have a degree of fluidity, you use them differently, organize your life differently.”

— Zaha Hadid

From the canvas to the computer screen

At MUAC, a cluster of Hadid-designed chandeliers cut from space age, translucent material hangs above a selection of greatest hits: there are models of striking towers with latticed facades, a glossy chair molded from a single sheet of high-sheen carbon fiber and a towering pair of silver platform heels, among dozens of other designs that speak the same fluid visual language. The prolific nature of Hadid’s career belies its continuous uphill battle against a number of obstacles: convention, budget, technology and perhaps most of all, gravity.

Hadid’s award-winning design for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong was never built, but its use of floating forms and gravity-defying layers established her reputation as an innovator.

Zaha Hadid/Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Hadid’s award-winning design for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong was never built, but its use of floating forms and gravity-defying layers established her reputation as an innovator.

One early and influential work was in 1983, before the advent of computer-assisted drafting, when Hadid entered a design competition for a luxury health club in Hong Kong. She proposed a series of towers that would spring out of the rocky hillside horizontally, creating its own jagged landscape infused with luxury amenities: swimming pools, snack bars, workout platforms. They would sit in the interstitial spaces between the cantilevered units floating above each other, setting a precedent for the weightlessness that would define the rest of her career.

Hadid won the competition, but her design was never built. The announcement that Hong Kong would return to Chinese rule created uncertainty that impacted funding for The Peak and other private developments at the time.  

As Hadid waited for technology to catch up with her vision, she spent the early decades of her career questioning theories of building, urban design and basic notions of space using a paintbrush and canvas. The proposals for the Peak Leisure Club are almost Cubist paintings, with one composition launching its individual parts in an explosion of confetti, allowing the viewer many viewpoints at once. “It’s all about promenading,” she later said, “being able to pause, to look out, look above, look sideways.”

It wasn’t until digital technology advanced in the ’90s that Hadid’s career was really able to take off. Over the last 20 years, her firm completely digitized its workflow, and in 2008, her chief collaborator and business partner at ZHA Patrik Schumacher (who is currently suing his fellow executors for control of the firm) coined the term Parametricism — a difficult-to-define field of architectural discourse that relies on computers to calculate an optimal form according to multiple variables, or parameters, at once. It’s what allowed Hadid’s work to grow exponentially in scale, ambition and sheer audacity of form. She embraced her newfound ability to design and communicate in three dimensions and 360 degrees, both within architecture and other realms.

360-degree vision

Hadid was forging through new frontiers until the very end, having launched a ZHA Virtual Reality Group in 2014. VR makes it possible for multinational teams to develop highly complex designs, with immersive modeling tools that enable collaborators and clients to walk inside and view designs from all angles. The MUAC exhibition presents a slice of this technology to visitors with Project Correl, an immersive virtual reality experience that explores the future possibilities of digital design. The name “Correl” stands for the correlation between human beings and machine logic, the possibilities of which Hadid presented to the world.

Within the museum, four visitors at a time don VR headsets and enter a massive virtual space — about 18 square miles, with an 18-mile-high ceiling — and collaboratively build. They’re given building blocks that, true to Hadid form, aren’t block-shaped at all but thin and curved with a few surprise corners. Visitors can flip, rotate and scale them up or down before attaching them to a single monumental structure.

The program, needless to say, required a lot of horsepower. “Project Correl runs at least 90 frames per second for each eye, and so we couldn’t simply take any standard PC for that kind of visual fidelity and frame rate,” says Helmut Kinzler, head of ZHA Virtual Reality Group. The firm turned to HP for the high-powered processors, creating a mini network of five HP PCs for the VR simulation. Another partner, NVIDIA, provide graphics cards for the project.

Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Visitors to The Correl Project collaborate on virtual structures they assemble by arranging fluid, curved shapes.

“What I found really compelling about the Correl Project was that it was a completely unique way of participating in the formation of an art experience,” says Scott Rawlings, head of commercial VR go-to-market at HP, who had never seen an installation like this before. “It was an opportunity for us to be part of the pioneering work.” HP also coordinated the use of an HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 printer, so that visitors’ collaborative work over the first four months of the show can be realized in the physical realm. The museum has a 3D print of the final design and will exhibit it atop a plinth as a symbol for the future potential of this technology.

In the five short years since its inception, the ZHA in-house VR Group has made leaps and bounds refining its real-time visualization tools. “The beginning was really clunky, and we didn’t necessarily see that it would become what it is right now — obviously, the technology had to also catch up,” says Kinzler.

The refinement forges ahead today, inspired by Hadid’s pioneering spirit. Her style and design approach set the stage for the multi-iterative and dynamic design process the firm uses today. From a 2.3 million-square-foot airport in Beijing to what is slated to be Malta’s tallest tower, ZHA continues to build groundbreaking works around the globe.

“Hadid’s radical individualist approach is one of her main legacies carried into the digital age,” Kinzler adds, and experiments like the Correl Project open questions about how technology can empower the individuals in the design process. How that will ultimately shape the future of architecture is difficult to predict, but, as Kinzler says, “In VR, real-world constraints do not apply, making it the perfect testing ground.”


See how location-based VR is cropping up everywhere from museums to malls.