Zaha Hadid's latest building has just opened in Montpellier, France. It's 200m long, weighs 80,000 tonnes, and resembles the superstructure of a vast, avant-garde cruise liner. The building took a million man-hours to build and cost more than €140m. But what's really interesting about it are the words that made it happen. And the fact that this new building, originally designed in 2004, looks automatically dated, compared to the much more organic designs that Hadid (inset) is now pursuing.
The new building is called Pierresvives, which jams together the French words for "stones" and "living". Those words were chosen by André Vezinhet, the socialist president of the Herault regional council in the south of France. He was inspired by a famous one-liner by the 16th-century humanist writer, François Rabelais, who said: "I build only living stones – men."
In political terms, the building is a slogan, a living stone that is part of the rebranding of Montpellier as a city of culture and sport for all, whose population is said by officials to be growing by 1,000 a month. "This is a humanist project in an inner city area," declared Vezinhet at a press conference the day before the opening of Pierresvives. "Is it wrong to build a beautiful thing in an inner-city area?"
The building, he added, would serve "every part of your inner being". It might, but it's more likely to serve what it was designed to do: to bring together in one building the regional archives, department of sport, and a multimedia library. The archives, with 60km of shelving, were highly problematic: this segment of the building had to cope with floor pressures of 1.5 tons per square metre, and this caused unexpected construction problems.
There are no problems with the rebranding of Montpellier, which is very much a case of tout va bien. It's the only French destination among 45 others listed in the 2012 New York Times Go To list, though it appears well below "Space" (that's right, outer space) and "Birmingham". Hadid's new building is not the only architectural show in town, incidentally: the veering, glinting blancmange that is the Georges-Freches School of Hotel Management, designed by the legendary Massimiliano Fuksas, opened almost simultaneously with Pierresvives.
Hadid's early sketches were almost wild, a sinuous calligraphy of wavy and spiky lines. And they, in turn, produced a form with jagged outriggers that suggested a futuristic airport terminal designed by a Russian Suprematist architect in the 1920s.
Hadid describes her design in two rather conflicting ways: as a horizontal tree trunk, and as two crevices in a landscape. But her organic language has not produced an organic-looking building. Pierresvives is nowhere near as beautifully dynamic as her MAXXI Museum in Rome. That building has a flowing, plastic quality of great visual and spatial complexity that Pierresvives clearly lacks.
Hadid speaks of the composition of the building as a series of cookies and voids, words that have been staples in her design descriptions for years. But they may not be wheeled out so much in the future. The design of Pierresvives has little to do with Hadid's latest exquisite experimental forms, currently on show at the Venice Biennale. These have been created by algorithmic geometry to generate forms that look like growth patterns from nature.
And we can clearly see this new direction in Hadid's Galaxy Soho project in Beijing, and the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku. The zigs, zags and jags that made Hadid's early designs famous appear to have been consigned to the been-there-done-that file.
There is no doubt, though, that Pierresvives possesses an extraordinary physical presence that isn't just about its size. As always with Hadid's buildings, there is a powerful sculpting of form, and heavily expressed streamlining effects. The 1,000 sections of precast concrete that compose the façades are almost seamlessly smooth, giving the architecture an almost overwhelming hi-def graphic quality. The building could almost be a 300dpi CGI of André Vezinhet's living stone: a vast slab of concrete riven with chicanes of dark green glass, black and gold louvers, and projecting segments.
Amazingly, for a Hadid building, there is only one showpiece wow-moment: the approach to the main entrance, overhung by a the deep cantilever of its projecting auditorium, and a seriously big reception area with swerves upwards into the first floor's central hub space like a snow-boarders ramp. It was ideal for the female modern dance troupe at the opening, who performed in black bras to Ravel's "Bolero".
"I always love these projects a lot," says Hadid. "This one combines landscape, the aggregation of programmes, the idea of lines when they bifurcate. And the idea of rocks, a tree of knowledge and the erosion of rocks – and dealing with these lives here."