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ART & ARCHITECTURE

A Garden Spot With City Smarts

Review: A German visitors' center belies the notion that Zaha Hadid is a better creator than builder.

May 23, 1999|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

WEIL AM RHEIN, Germany — Zaha Hadid has long been a fixture of architecture's fashionable avant-garde. Her talent is undeniable. Her paintings--enormous compositions of fragmented forms shooting off into space--are among the most inspiring by a living architect. A year ago, she won her first major commission in the United States, for Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, and last February she was selected to design an $84-million contemporary art center in Rome.

But to see Hadid's built work, you have to travel to Weil am Rhein, Germany, a quiet, unremarkable industrial town nestled along the Swiss border. London-based Hadid, who was born in 1950 in Iraq, built her first building here five years ago--a fire station for a local furniture-manufacturing company. And last month, she completed the 8,450-square-foot visitors' center for the 1999 State Garden Show, the centerpiece of a sprawling outdoor display of various themed gardens on the site of a former gravel quarry. The center will house an exhibition hall and restaurant, as well as offices for the garden show's employees.

Together, the two projects dispel the myth that Hadid is more compelling as a creator of radical images than as a builder. Built on a budget of $1.85 million and dubbed Land Formation One, the visitors' center is conceived as a collection of fluid, intertwining paths that weave through the landscape. Visitors will glide over the rooftop on an elegantly curved ramp or slip through the building along gently stepped paths. The idea is to create a structure embedded in its natural context. It is a remarkably sensual experience, and few buildings have achieved such a fluid sense of movement.

Shaped like an enormous boomerang, the building's low, horizontal concrete form embraces the landscape like an enveloping arm, with the two-story exhibit hall and the lower form of the restaurant arranged as parallel bands. The design's most dramatic gesture, however, is an enormous ramp that wraps around the back of the hall, rising over the restaurant's roof before stepping down at the building's other end with a series of shallow steps. Seen from below, the concrete ramp echoes the dynamic form of a freeway off-ramp. In fact, the building is a fragment of urban infrastructure, reduced to a pedestrian scale.

But the ramp also functions as part of a subtle historical narrative. Most visitors will arrive from the direction of the garden show's agricultural zone, a re-creation of a typical contemporary farm marked by a quaint timber-frame farmhouse. From there, as they climb the ramp to the center's roof, the jutting form of the exhibition hall will gradually block out the view back to the farmhouse, turning their gazes toward a part of the show dedicated to gardens of the future. Visitors can continue along the exterior walkway, or they can cross a dramatic concrete bridge and descend into the building. Inside, paths lead out to the restaurant terrace or back up to the roof in a fluid pedestrian loop.

Hadid has long been fascinated with the scale of urban infrastructure, and the visitors' center owes much to her earlier fire station design. There too, Hadid placed her building at a bend in the road. The station's main interior space is a garage enclosed behind enormous steel doors. When the doors are opened, the structure seems to dissolve into a cluster of floating beams, one end anchored in the site like a bunker.

But what's most striking about the current project is its restraint. There are no gimmicks here, no empty gestures. Instead the design reveals a remarkable sensitivity to the rhythms and pace of human movement. By gently altering the flow of movement through the site--with a mixture of long shallow ramps, steep stairways and other subtle changes in elevation--Hadid makes you profoundly aware of your own body.

*

During the 20th century, architecture's avant-garde became obsessed with reinventing the modern metropolis. New York, Moscow, Shanghai--all represent the kinds of urban friction and cultural congestion that symbolize the world of the future--a shimmering, electrically charged world of the machine and, later, of the Information Age. Few dared challenge that vision. In the '20s, Soviet "Disurbanists" proclaimed the death of the city, devising schemes that dispersed the population over the countryside in futuristic villages linked through a vast electrical grid. Frank Lloyd Wright, another notorious city-hater, suggested its inhabitants drive out to the desert and never look back. But these visionaries were part of an eccentric minority.

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