Hadid still a shining light

The new Port House (left) in Antwerp, Belgium, by the late Zaha Hadid; and an undated handout image of an archival sketch of the original building (above).
The new Port House (above) in Antwerp, Belgium, by the late Zaha Hadid; and an undated handout image of an archival sketch of the original building.PHOTO: REUTERS
The new Port House (left) in Antwerp, Belgium, by the late Zaha Hadid; and an undated handout image of an archival sketch of the original building (above).
The new Port House in Antwerp, Belgium, by the late Zaha Hadid; and an undated handout image of an archival sketch of the original building (above).PHOTO: NYTIMES

Architect Zaha Hadid died earlier this year, but her career continues posthumously, with nearly 50 more structures to be built

ANTWERP (BELGIUM) • For architects, or at least for Zaha Hadid, there is an afterlife.

On Sept 22, nearly six months after the British architect's sudden death at 65, one of her boldest buildings, Port House, opened in a ceremony on the newly christened Zaha Hadid Square in Antwerp.

Under the soaring prow of a dynamically angled glass-and-steel structure drifting like an airship over a palatial brick firehouse, a chorus and orchestra performed Ode To Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The score and backdrop amounted to a curtain rising on the second act of Hadid's career, as operatic as any since Frank Lloyd Wright's.

Hadid's high-C moment signalled, with the recent opening of another building in Italy, the start of a posthumous career that promises to deliver nearly 50 more structures - as many buildings as were created in her lifetime.

Her professional journey started late but gathered momentum, culminating with 36 projects under construction or in final drawings, and others in the pipeline.

Her business partner, Mr Patrik Schumacher, now principal of the firm Zaha Hadid Architects, estimates they will roll out in 26 countries over the next decade.

The importance to Zaha was the layering, setting a new structure over the old one.

PROJECT ARCHITECT JORIS PAUWELS on Zaha Hadid's vision for the Port House

The firm will retain its name even as it evolves under his direction, "but always with Zaha's DNA", he said.

At the opening ceremony, Mr Marc Van Peel, president of the Port of Antwerp, called the faceted structure, its facade erupting in a stormy field of reflective triangles, a "diamond ship", referring both to the city's famous diamond trade and to the building's site overlooking the sprawling port.

Even taxi drivers had strong opinions. "I like it because it's by a woman and because I like science fiction," one said. "It's magic."

Starchitects do not usually enter open competitions with such long- shot odds.

But in 2008, Hadid signed up with 100 other architects to vie for the chance to adapt and expand a turn-of-the-century fire station into an office building for the 500 employees who run the port's operations.

Before completion of Hadid's nine-storey, US$62-million (S$84.6- million) design, when officials introduced foreign delegations to a port updated with the largest berths, deepest channels and latest technologies, they had to do so from a scrum of offices overlooking a vestigial harbour serving pleasure boats.

According to project architect Joris Pauwels, a Belgian who works in Hadid's London office, but is from the Antwerp area: "They wanted their headquarters in a building that represents their state-of-the-art port."

Hadid did her homework for the competition.

Because the existing building, a copy of a 16th-century Hanseatic structure, had a historic designation, she hired a heritage consultant who advised that a spire originally designed for the firehouse, but never built, anticipated and justified an "accent" piece atop the four-storey base.

Mr Schumacher recalled that when Hadid saw a map and images of the site, she said its sheer scale - the Port of Antwerp is 10 times larger than the city itself - called for a signature piece "that would own the port but address the city", he said. "Anything less would disappear."

Mr Pauwels recalled: "The importance to Zaha was the layering, setting a new structure over the old one that would both read at a distance and liberate ground for public space. And Patrik wanted the new structure to overshoot the fire station and land on a single point."

Hadid and Mr Schumacher reviewed and changed numerous options.

The architects perched the four-storey, 60,000 sq ft volume of new offices on a leaning, sculpted column housing a fire escape that meets the ground like a Louboutin heel, and on an elevator core rising from the original courtyard.

A tall space between old and new buildings is a promenade deck for viewing and receptions.

The whole volume lists like a ship under sail, capturing the movement of a boat that, counterintuitively, looks as though it is suspended in a dry dock.

Halfway down, the flat planes of the leaning sidewalls crack into a tessellated field of triangles that reflect light, activating the surfaces and dynamising the shape. Edges are cut and bevelled, sometimes for views, sometimes for interior stairways.

At night, the structure resembles a huge suspended urban lantern competing with the moon.

Since Hadid's death, the office has received several major commissions, among them a mixed-use central business district in Prague with nearly one million sq ft of offices and retail, and the Sberbank Technopark headquarters in Moscow, said to be Russia's answer to Silicon Valley.

Several high-rises and a vast airport in Beijing are under construction.

Then there is the issue of profits. "So far we have made profits only on a minority of projects and often pay for the last project with the new project," said Mr Schumacher.

There remains one potential issue of Zaha Hadid Architects without Hadid: Will the firm have the magnetic power to draw prestigious institutional and cultural clients without its charismatic leader?

"For a long time, we've had a very distributed leadership and collective design process, so that won't change," Mr Schumacher said. "But I'm not so well known in the project world of clients and the question is, will I have the credibility to attract commissions of cultural significance? For me, without Zaha, that will be the challenge."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2016, with the headline 'Hadid still a shining light'. Print Edition | Subscribe