Zaha Hadid’s Desert Think Tank: Environmental Beauty and Efficiency

Zaha Hadid’s Desert Think Tank: Environmental Beauty and Efficiency

A small, jewel-perfect mosque at the desert end terminates the long, central courtyard, its ceiling covered by a filigreed, computer-generated pattern that recalls traditional arabesque motifs. The mosque is among the few anywhere designed by a woman.

A talent at least equal to her male competitors and a feminist role model for women, especially in the Arab world, Hadid represented a progressive wing of Arab culture. In a country where most women wear the veil and abaya in public, Hadid was more partial, actually, to fashions by Issey Miyake and Yoshii Yamamoto. Her victory in the competition dovetailed with the agenda of a king who, in 2009, founded the coed King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah, where men and women mixed freely on an environmentally green campus, attending classes together.

Susan Kearton, a research center spokeswoman, said the center’s mission to find the most productive use of energy for economic and social progress aligns with “Vision 2030,” which the kingdom’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recently put forward to diversify and develop the economy away from oil.


A central courtyard view, with the entrance in the distance.


The research center was Hadid’s first design to be entirely driven on the basis of sustainability, but she did not surrender her design passport when she entered the competition. In a culture where architectural traditions can separate the sexes, Hadid used her characteristically fluid spaces to break down barriers and encourage social mixing. During Design Week last fall, women and men, students and princes mingled freely, sharing food and conversation in common spaces. Veils were optional.

When the project started in 2009, King Abdullah was already 85 and ailing, and there was strong pressure to complete the project in his lifetime. The research center leased a floor in an office building in central London, where at peak production 50 architects, 80 engineers and 20 members of the center’s staff worked together. The engineers crunched numbers as everyone produced thousands of drawings.

“Decisions were made very quickly,” Mr. Kang said. “We’d generate a system and give the design to engineers to simulate wind flows and sun penetration in many feedback iterations. The design was shaped as much by the environment as by the basic will of the designer.”

The King Abdullah Petroleum and Research Center was conceived as a legacy project for the king, but, sadly, it proved to be a double legacy, the king’s and Hadid’s. If the building achieves the stature King Abdullah wanted, it was not just another trophy in Hadid’s gallery of triumphs. Always open to change, she had moved on from her successes into new territories. In Riyadh, already in her 60s, she changed direction, becoming an architect she had never quite been, creating a design she had never quite done. Architectural beauty and sustainability were not mutually exclusive. Like her building, she adapted.

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