Beyond bricks and mortar: Zaha Hadid's latest structure is impressive but already seems dated

 

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."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk