Sovereign of all that swoops and flows Zaha Hadid has had her Heydar Aliyev Center selected by London's Design Museum as its Design of the Year, making her the first woman to receive the award in its seven-year history, and the competition jury has fallen all over itself to praise the structure in the most overwrought ways possible. That honor goes to architect Piers Gough, who described it as "an intoxicatingly beautiful building by the most brilliant architect at the height of her office's powers" and "as pure and sexy as Marilyn's blown skirt." The combined auditorium and museum is located in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, and is named after Heydar Aliyev, who rose through the ranks of the KGB to rule Azerbaijan as its president from 1969 to 1982, earning many accusations of human rights abuses on the way. Anyone familiar with Zaha "Migrant Worker Deaths in Qatar are Not My Responsibility" Hadid's stance on this kind of thing can probably tell that the stars have aligned for an epic design controversy.
The legacy of an unjust ruler isn't the only less-than-desirable association the building has. There's also the more recent memories of present-day injustices, like when as many as 250 homes were cleared away to make room for the construction of the center. Speaking to the Guardian, Giorgi Giorgia of Human Rights Watch describes the usual manner of these forced evictions, saying "the government squeezed people out by cutting off their supply of electricity, gas and water. Sometimes residents would be detained and when they came back, their homes were simply gone. Other buildings were demolished with people still in them." To compound things even more for the project, in 2010, migrant laborers from Bosnia and Serbia were found forced to work in Baku in what the Guardian's Oliver Wainwright describes as "appalling conditions, subjected to physical and psychological violence, with their passports confiscated."
Gizmodo's Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan finds that in light of all this, the Design Museum's aesthetics-only selection of a "pure and sexy" project executed by a corrupt government espouses a view of design that renders it "nothing more than sugary frosting slapped atop whatever cake the highest bidder offers up." Meanwhile, Ekow Eshun, a writer and broadcaster who was a member of this year's jury, responded to that kind of concern saying "the view we took was it was a singular piece of architecture and uniquely realised. People can look at the wider context and that is an entirely valid response. Our role was to look at a piece of work." Given that, as Rory Olcayto of the Architects Journal points out, Design Museum director Dejan Sudjic has explored the relationship between architects and dictators in a book called the Edifice Complex, perhaps the jury's decision was meant to be more provocative than it's being given credit for.
All this freshly brewed back-and-forth recalls the time when, reviewing the center for the Architectural Review, Peter Cook contended that upon viewing the "totality, the whiteness... the sheer spectacle" of the building, "you have to throw out those English morals and weedy thoughts about world problems: here is architecture as ultimate statement of theatre." For her part, Hadid has described the project as an "incredibly ambitious" one. "It was always my dream to design and build the theoretical project and that was the closet thing to achieving that."
· Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Center wins Design of the Year 2014 [Dezeen]
· Wave of protest over Zaha Hadid's Baku prizewinner [The Guardian]
· The Troubling History Behind the Best Design of the Year [Gizmodo]
· All Zaha Hadid coverage [Curbed National]