First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Every day in August, we'll profile one architect's first finished building—often surprising, always insightful—as a solo practitioner. Within the vast field of great building design, we aim to uncover the significance of first acts.
Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany
Date completed: 1993
Getting the Gig:
It took a fire to give a paper architect the chance to realize her first commission. In the early morning of July 20, 1981, in Weil am Rhein, Germany, a fire sparked by a portentous lightning bolt burned down nearly half the Vitra furniture factory. In response to the blaze, the chairman of the iconic design brand, Rolf Fehlbaum, decided to take advantage of the mishap and commission a cutting-edge new factory and corporate campus, enlisting talents such as Nicholas Grimshaw and Frank Gehry to turn the Vitra facility into a destination, not merely a plant. While new buildings, such as a ribbon-shaped museum, were being constructed, the company's volunteer fire brigade was still operating out of a wooden shed. Commissioning a new, state-of-the-art station seemed like a fitting, phoenix-like gesture. The high-profile job ended up in the hands of a 43-year-old architect who had spent the better part of the last decade lecturing and sketching building, but had no completed projects to her name. Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid, educated at London's Architectural Association School of Architecture in the '70s, had met luminaries such as Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi, later worked at OMA, and even established her own London-based practice in 1980. But for the remaining part of that decade, her work was mostly in the abstract, a series of daring sketches and plans that may not have won commissions, but slowly gathered a critical mass of admirers. A New York Times critic once wrote that her drawings were "virtually calligraphic in their capacity to convey emotion through line." Concepts for projects such as the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong, tangles of lines and floating elements, looked as much like symbols as potential structures. But the underlying Constructivist and abstract influences showcased energy and inspiration. As the Vitra chairman explained, Hadid got the job due in part to the fact that "the appeal of her architectural compositions lay in their mobility, speed and performance. Zaha was the perfect choice for a fire station."
Description and Reception:
If done today, the project would have looked very different, according to Hadid, since she had so much time to break down and refine her ideas. Working with her associate Patrik Schumacher, Hadid decided to create a building that treated the setting, a long road through the middle of the Vitra campus, as a linear landscape. The station had to reflect the brand's promise of precision ("like a clock") while also navigating fire regulations and the site's layout. The resulting mass of vectors and shapes, a prism of reinforced in-situ concrete with a pointed roof that some have said is an homage to Koolhaas, exemplifies movement. The pointed exterior, with a dramatic overhang, converges above the entrance, and gives way to an interior just as angular and sharp; lighting is provided by florescent strips embedded in the ceilings and walls, and the design of the locker room was influenced by Richard Serra. While the large garage for the fire trucks illuminates the vehicles from below, no effect can compete with the drama of the building itself. Hadid has said the structure is almost like a piece of Land Art due to the way the slim profile defines a narrow corridor. "If God is in the details," said one critic, "then this would seem to be an atheist's building."
Impact on Her Career:
In a 1993 review in The Architectural Review entitled "Provocative Pyrotechnics," critic John Winter manages to compare the building to a "pile of boards that have tumbled into a semi-random and rather beautiful heap" before going on to say that Vitra's first urban building was a stunning success. His take was shared by many. Still one of the centerpieces of the Vitra campus, which has added scores of projects by other top-flight architects, the Fire Station earned Hadid scores of commissions that would, 11 years later, help her win the Pritzker Prize.
Famous Future Works:
Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art (Cincinnati: 2003), BMW Central Building (Leipzig: 2005), Maggie's Centre Fife (Kirkcaldy: 2006), Guangzhou Opera House (Guangzhou: 2010), Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre (Baku: 2012), Vienna University of Economics and Business Library (Vienna: 2013)
The bold, prismatic station left an imprint, but its track record as far as fire suppression is concerned is mixed. Name aside, the building and its unorthodox geometry wasn't an ideal fit for an active station, and when Vitra entrusted duties to the professionals a few years later, Hadid's creation was turned into an event space and gallery.