Busting the Box

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Zaha Hadid, once the world's most talked-about architect who hadn't built much, can tell you exactly why she is now a talked-about architect who is building on three continents. "In the past few years," she says, "fantastic visions have become more familiar."

What she means is that the world threw its hat in the air for Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, it said yes to Daniel Libeskind's angular plans for the World Trade Center site, so it is good and ready for her. To be precise, Gehry's museum, the war whoop of new architecture, readied us all for the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art (CAC) in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hadid's first project in the U.S. and one very suavely managed bundle of energy. "There was an idea that these were things that the general public would not want," she explains. "That has been proved wrong."

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As long as we are talking about fantastic visions, let's note for the record Hadid's hennaed hair and the all-black wingspread of her Issey Miyake outfit. Maybe you can't flip your cell phone shut with a sense of occasion, but she can. In a field utterly dominated by men, the Iraqi-born, London-based Hadid happens to be the world's best-known woman architect. Whether that's a good thing depends on how you might feel about a lifetime supply of headlines that call you a diva. Granted, she has been known to sometimes put her foot down and indulge in a fit of temper at the workplace. Then again, so has Donald Rumsfeld. He gets called a lot of things but not diva.

The Contemporary Arts Center, a $35.6 million project, is a personal vindication for Hadid, 52, after years of creating groundbreaking designs that didn't always lead to any literal groundbreaking. Two decades ago, she won an international design competition for a sports club overlooking Hong Kong. Her proposed "horizontal skyscraper," shards thrusting laterally from a hillside, was never built. In 1994 she completed her calling-card project, an angular firehouse, now a museum, on the grounds of a furniture factory in Germany. But a few years later, plans for an opera house in Cardiff, Wales, came to nothing after years of highly publicized fighting.

Next, Hadid built some small but choice projects, including a ski jump — cafe in Innsbruck, Austria, that signs the sky with a swooping slalom. But especially since winning the Cincinnati commission in 1998--in a competition in which she beat out both Libeskind and Bernard Tschumi — Hadid has at last been getting jobs of a size that match her gifts, to say nothing of her press. There's another contemporary art center in Rome, offices and a factory for BMW in Leipzig, Germany, and a master plan for an enormous science city in Singapore. Her next American project is an art center near the base of Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower in Bartlesville, Okla.

Hadid's father was a liberal Iraqi politician. When it came time for college, she studied math in Beirut, then architecture in London with Rem Koolhaas, now the graying eminence of the new. Hadid may have found the perfect client in the Cincinnati art center, a place that will go down in history for taking chances — and not just because of her. Thirteen years ago, when it was still lodged over a Walgreen's drugstore, it presented an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs that got its director arrested on obscenity charges. He was acquitted but not until after a trial that became the center of a national uproar over the boundaries of art.

Charles Desmarais — who likes to call art "the research-and-development wing of the culture"--took over the center in 1995. Very quickly he started pushing to build a new laboratory. What he got, at 87,000 sq. ft., is the size of many substantial museums. The Rosenthal Center may occupy a tight rectangular shape, but so does your average locomotive. This is a building that does not so much sit on its street corner as continuously arrive there. On its longer side, it forms sweeping irregular stacks of white and black concrete and darkened glass, all of them resting on a clear-glass lobby. On its narrow end, it shoots those same interlocking volumes out in irregular square planes. Down below, fiber-optic light strips embedded in the pavement glide under the lobby's plate-glass wall and then across the ground floor in diagonals — lines of force that announce the edgy nerve paths of the place you're about to enter.

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