"We don’t work from an ingenious sketch. It’s not a flash of genius. We work from a form-finding process. It’s a methodology that teases out a final form, like an organic creature that evolves within a set of opportunities and constraints."
When Patrik Schumacher discusses how Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) approaches design, the conversation quickly turns to computer programs and the numerous ways they shape and inform the creation and conception of a building. Dame Hadid began her career as a paper architect, renowned for her imaginative, Constructivist-inspired sketches filled with seemingly impossible grids of lines and planes. These drawings served as early showcases of the creativity that earned Hadid acclaim throughout her career, and informed the work her and Schumacher would do together for nearly three decades.
But by the time she tragically passed away earlier this spring, her firm had fully embraced the organic and digital, integrating sweeping curves and abstract forms, as well as a belief in parametric design and computer-aided creation. Schumacher sees it as a natural progression, taking advantage of the information-rich environment allowed by today’s technology. These sketches have long since made way for fully realized computer models of buildings. With dozens on projects in the works, the firm's use of this technology has become as much a requirement as a choice, both in terms of project management and pragmatic problem solving.
"We want to show the structure, and not hide it," says Schumacher, the most senior director at ZHA. "We’re not looking for just feasibility through structure, but expression and identity."
Schumacher has been a leading proponent of integrating technology into the design process, and as he tells Curbed, shifts in digital technology have made it easier for the built environment to appear more fluid and adaptive to complex social requirements. Architecture has moved past the modernist prerogative of boxes and regular forms, so the firm, in turn, has moved past the standard relationship between architects and engineers.
"We’re not just designing something and hoping for engineers to make sense of it," he says. "We’re looking for that congenial coincidence between technical performance and architectural expression. There’s been a major computation upgrade in architecture and engineering, which has lead to a new type of architectural expression."
Curbed spoke to Schumacher about how Zaha Hadid Architects has evolved its creative and design processes, and how his former partner made such a large impact on the interplay between architecture and engineering.
How has technological change influenced your creative and design processes at Zaha Hadid Architects?
"There has long been an interplay, but we’ve also been alert to adapting and seizing new opportunities. We had started a museum project in Rome, MAXXI, that was very structure based, with long span walls, a concrete cone, and waffle slabs. There was an increase in complexity and structural sophistication that was quite adaptive and irregular, each member, if you will, was sized differently. So there had to be a parallel process of development between architecture and engineering, where we challenged our engineers to look at new capacities and concepts. We want to allow engineers to come into the creative process early on, and not have the attitude that we design something, and then they come in later. We want interaction. We start with a very broad sketch of what might be the intention, and then have engineering imprint an identity on the project. Then we refine further. We want stronger creative impact from engineers."
Is the Heydar Aliyev Center a good example?
"Heydar was still at a point where we were creating a symphony of space and forms, and engineering came into the process at a later stage. What I’m talking about is more recent work, like how we worked on the Tokyo Olympic Stadium. In that project, you found a very strong engineering input in the forms of the stadium. There’s an element of so-called form-finding through engineering optimization. That’s the new philosophy. We’re still interested in continuity, complexity, and fluidity. What’s new is that there are more interesting interactions, and the integration of formative engineering concepts, which we’re actively pursuing. We’re working with prototypes and installations alongside engineers. It’s a new stage of work, and gives the work more maturity and character. It’s still a part of the paradigm of parametricism, but there’s a chance to give more unique identity to each project."
So this new stage in the process allows you to adapt more to the environment?
"Environmental adaptation is one thing, but it’s also the search for structural logic, to come in and stamp that character onto the project. Surface structures, like shells and tensile structures, lend themselves to this kind of work. It's the same with the idea of skeletons. The structural morphology will imprint itself on the structure. For instance, our towers, such as the Miami tower, One Thousand Museum; it’s not just a curtain wall that you design, and then an engineer puts columns on the inside. Our approach is very different. We have a very strong structural silhouette and a skeleton that becomes visible and gives identity to the tower. It has an engineering rationality. Rather than hiding structure, we use structure to give identity and iconic presence. There is engineering logic which we orchestrate."
It’s sound very organic, creationist even. Here’s the skeleton, then the decoration fits around that, as opposed to working from the outside in.
"The design becomes less willful, if you like, and more form-finding. This is a phrase that comes from Frei Otto, somebody that we very much respect as a basis for our philosophy."
So, when you look at these changes and your process, what is Zaha Hadid’s influence on engineering?
"It’s will to form, and the will to meaningful and organic form. I think we have a built-in aesthetic sensibility, one that reads and understands structural integrity, balance, poise, and the idea of a dynamic, fluid, and organic conception of architecture. That has a big influence on engineering, and also makes the engineering contribution more exciting. The end result is something much more compelling, that has a feeling of necessity."
How does this new process you’re talking about work for a structure such as the Tokyo Olympic Stadium project?"
"That’s a great example. We had a very sophisticated 3D model where all the parameters are interdependent so we could optimize for views, seating numbers, access. The structure was also very particular. It had unique arches that allowed for column-free views. There was also a skeletal shell, if you like, that was optimized, with a subtle curvature that’s not merely a simple arch. It created a very unique, elegant profile and a very efficient structure. We were very happy about the design. It’s designed like you find in nature, or like a car or aircraft. You can see the subtlety of differentiation. That comes out of the logic of differentiating and optimizing a form."
But what are the inputs for creativity? What would you say to someone who says this process sounds like you’re letting the machine do all the work? Where’s the balance?
"The creativity is in the orchestration of all the different values, to tease out the morphologies. You have to understand it’s a creative process that’s trying to replicate the creative process of nature. But there are numerous decisions that need to be made, and lots of opportunities for control. The formal elegance we’re aiming for is often the result of an optimization process, that has to be said. But it can never be a pure engineering project. We need to have an overall aesthetic orchestration of the different engineering projects. They need to be an overall aesthetic experience that makes sense. I call it a compositional stance, which needs to bring things together."
So the role of someone like Zaha Hadid in designing these buildings is akin to being a conductor?
"Yes, that’s very true. The engineering, whether it’s fabrication, structural, materials, or environmental, there are always options that could be optimized and chosen as solutions. The organization and selection of all these potential options is part of the architect’s overall artistic work. In the contemporary world of structures and construction, the technological options are so numerous, that there needs to be this selective composition or clarification. Otherwise, you end up with an indigestible, hodgepodge of a solution. Because of this abundance of possibilities, on the urban scale, you can end up with something I call garbage spill urbanization. There is no longer that overall orchestration. That overabundance of possible solutions, selected independently, generates a sense of visual chaos. Which in the end, results in white noise everywhere. "
A Look at Zaha Hadid's Greatest Hits [Curbed]