Zaha Hadid Piques Preservationist Anger in Beijing and Belgrade

Zaha Hadid Piques Preservationist Anger in Beijing and Belgrade
Rendering of the Beko Masterplan
(© Zaha Hadid Architects)

Patrik Schumacher, a principal designer at Zaha Hadid Architects and the chief ideologue of parametric design, should have been on point when he remarked at this year's Belgrade Design Week: “All of our buildings respond to specific site.” Historic preservation activists and citizens in Beijing and Belgrade wish Schumacher’s words rang true.

Unfortunately, Schumacher’s paean to site-specificity rings hollow when compared to the architecture he and Hadid are erecting in Beijing and Belgrade. In both cities, the firm has recently incurred the wrath of preservationists and urban denizens alike, all of whom express outrage at the consequences of having Hadid’s uniformly monumental design imposed on the specific character of old neighborhoods.

Hadid and her firm have taken on a variety of projects throughout historic cities like Beijing and Belgrade, each time vowing to pay homage to the ancient character of the urban space in question by referencing the essential traits that determine that city’s generation-spanning identity. In Beijing, Hadid’s website states that her intent was to “reinterpret the traditional urban fabric and contemporary living patterns into a seamless urban landscape.” The end result — the 2012 Galaxy Soho high-end mall — is meant to be “a reflection of traditional Chinese architecture where courtyards create an internal world of continuous open spaces.” Meanwhile in Belgrade, Hadid’s firm claims that it set out to honor “the region’s strong modernist traditions” in its design of the Beko masterplan for an expansive multiuse residential complex and luxury hotel, which will soon begin construction.

Questions of historic preservation and site specificity were brought to the fore this past week, when the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center wrote a castigating open letter to the Royal Institute of British Architects for having last month shortlisted Hadid’s Galaxy Soho for its prestigious Lubetkin Prize, a building they referred to as a “welcome democratization” of the architect’s work for being her first commercial complex. The 3.6-million-foot mall, what the Guardian called “a sinuous white arc, jacked 60m into the air, that loops and twists, connecting a cluster of vast egg-shaped buildings in an improbably acrobatic leap” over a sprawling array of upscale shops, restaurants, and offices, had also, according to Beijing’s preservationists, irreversibly altered a neighborhood previously home to stone gateways and winding alleys — in ways that also set an unwelcome precedent. Noting that the mall had “caused great damage to the preservation of old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional Hutong and courtyard houses,” the preservationists also stated a concern of how this would encourage “greedy developers,” adding: “We strongly believe this award by your institution will encourage the developers and authorities to continue to commit the wrongs they have done and will increase the difficulties of cultural heritage preservation in China.” Which is no small issue to this city’s preservation watchdog, considering the difficulties it faces in monitoring corruption amongst those who systematically neglect Chinese preservation laws.

Meanwhile in Serbia, Hadid’s architecture is sparking a similar controversy. Construction is slated to begin shortly on her Beko complex in Belgrade, yet another mixed-use luxury development to spring from the Pritzker winner’s imagination. Planned as a hotel, apartment complex, and commercial hub, the site features an undulating, colossal loop punctuated by a riverfront entrance and a rectangular peripheral structure. The entire complex is situated just below the walls of the ancient Kalemegdan Fortress, the historic center of the Serbian capital that overlooks the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. Hadid’s futuristic design clashes starkly with the limestone brick of the fortress walls, blocking the iconic view of converging rivers visitors have relished since the fortress was first built in the third century BCE. While the site is cleared for building, opposition mounts amongst the citizens of Belgrade to Hadid’s impending incursion into the city center.  Online commentators have called for an “Occupy Kalemegdan” movement to stop construction preparations, chastising Hadid. One Belgrade native, an architecture student, writes: “It is shameful to let such a gigantic, overpriced project take place.” In a country where older architecture often falls into disrepair for want of renovation funds, the 200 million euros Lambda Development Corporation is pouring into the Beko project are an affront to the nation’s architectural patrimony. Hadid's firm has stated that the project pays tribute to “the region’s strong modernist traditions,” while emphasizing “the subtle monumentality of the Kalemegdan Castle.” However, for most Belgraders, it is Hadid’s Beko complex that suffers for lack of subtlety.

Hadid is not the only one to blame — infuriated citizens would do well to direct ire toward the developers and corrupt politicians who must also be held accountable for their disrespect of historic sites in the name of financial gain. However, Hadid’s lack of aesthetic innovation — and disregard for the surrounding urban fabric — has made her recent architecture in Beijing and Belgrade programmatic and expected. Worse yet, the firm’s demonstrated inability to adjust its design tenets to fit a site’s scale and historic context impose upon the peculiar character of the ancient cities in which Hadid is building. For Beijing and Belgrade to be architecturally progressive, a balance — not a power play — must be achieved between contemporary and historic buildings.