Wednesday, May 29, 2013

92. Zaha & Josephine: A tale of two celebrity women and a notion of evolution

Josephine Baker Multidimensional Celebrity

Do you know what I love best about Josephine Baker? Have you ever read her biography? if you did you would love the same thing I love about her. I love the way she developed as a person. She was human and made her fair share of mistakes, but throughout her life you can see a wiser more mature person developing and it showed in her work on and off the stage. What inspires me about her was not just that she is a brilliant performer on many levels, but also her genius as an image and career strategist. Imagine being a black female performer in the American South in the 1920's. That's a pretty rough spot to be in. Now you can say she was very lucky, but then if you read my post on luck you will realize that she was just an optimist who drank her half full glass of water. It takes a special person to really see the opportunity in a situation like that and make it work for you.

The genius of Baker is that she was able to take all the racist and sexist stereotypes that were prevalent about blacks and women at the time and used them to her advantage. She performed topless, mimicking African dance styles while wearing a skirt made of bananas. Her caricature combined all the sexual fantasies that western males had about an exotic African woman and the 1920s notion of what a sexy woman should look like. Additionally, she amplified it all while fulfilling expectations of how American Negro music and dance should be like. Instead of fighting against these images she played up to the expectations and fed it back to them: In essence she used their own prejudices as a tool for creating her image and career. It was brilliant!

As she became more and more famous, Baker not only became a performer, she became a symbol/ambassador for her entire race (and to a certain extent, her gender). Now I am sure there were many black women at that time and even today who take issue with how she portrayed herself and in turn black women in particular. I can certainly understand that since portraying herself that way helped to reinforce some of those very stereotypes that black women have fought so long to refute. However, if you look at her performance in the big picture; meaning how she performed off stage in the public realm, you will see that she was not just a caricature. Oh she was so much more!

When she moved to France and became a citizen there, she used her celebrity status as a tool to help the French resistance during World War II: She helped by smuggling classified information written in invisible ink on her music sheets, entertain the Allied troops, and assisted people who were in danger of being persecuted by the Nazis to get visas to get out of the country. She later went on to support the civil rights movement in the US; being one of the first celebrities to insist on integrated audiences wherever she performed. Before the end of her career, she had done wonders in the way of positively changing the negative perception western society had of black women and women in general.
After the war, for her underground activity, Baker received the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle
I could go on, and on, but I am not here to write a biography about her. I just wanted to point out how three dimensional she was as a celebrity and how she was able to evolve and transcend stereotypes. Not only that, but because she was perhaps one of the most famous black woman at the time she lived, she became a symbol of her race and gender.  That was a responsibility that was placed on her whether she wanted it or not, but she took it and did outstandingly well.

The Munch Museum Fiasco: 

I was in Oslo a few years ago; this was in time for an exhibition of the entries of the Munch Museum Competition. The competition was by invitation only (or pre-qualified, I am not quite sure), and the roster of invited architects were a star-architect studded constellation: Diller +Scofidio, Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma, Foreign Office, REX, Toyo Ito, David Chipperfield, and some local stars. If you were lucky enough to make the roster you would be paid to develop your proposal regardless if you came in first or last. The winner of course would get the commission to develop the project and oversee its realization. The panels for the entries were displayed anonymously for public view at a gallery in the city center.

When I got there to see it, there was a list on the wall saying who were invited, but there were no labels on the panels to say who did what. However, as I walked around to see them, it was painfully obvious as to who did what. It seem as though most of the stars priorities was first and foremost to stamp their signature style on the project. Diller, Scofidio+Renfero’s graphic style was unmistakable, they proposed a building that kind of cropped up out of the water with some cool moments, but looked way out of budget. Their project seemed to say "Hey, this is a really awesome proposal, I know you don't have the money for it, but if you quadrupled your budget wouldn't it be cool to have this. Anyway, fuck you! pay me!"

Ando did pretty much the same thing: "Hey, my project says this was made by Tadao Ando, it would be very expensive, here is a little token bit about solving the program you provided in the brief. Anyway, fuck you! pay me!"

All in all they were all saying the same thing. For the most part it was a beauty contest with token gestures at addressing the issues proposed in the brief. Aside from the obligatory set of plans and sections, most of the entries had models, exploded axons, captions that explain their arguments here and there, and illustrator diagrams explaining the program distribution, circulation, connectivity, alternative uses, etc. to explain their concepts and ideas to the public.

The most shocking one for me was Zaha Hadid's entry. She made a less than an half-assed attempt to solve or explain any of the problems outlined in the brief. Besides a bewildering text (see translation here), there was no attempt to explain to the public what the project was about or how it worked; no axons, no diagrams, no additional helping text, no nothing; just an almost abstracted set of plans and sections with sleek renderings and a model. A diva move if you will. It was basically a centerfold spread of sexy curvaceous forms laid out over several black background panels. It seemed to say: look at me I am a sexy playboy centerfold aint I cute. Feast your eyes on this. Anyway, fuck you! pay me!

The argument Zaha uses here is not all that different from a playboy magazine. Think about it! Buy me not because I am going to solve your problems, not because I am going to save you money, not because I have considered your situation and have some serious ideas about how to help you improve your condition, no! choose me because I am pretty and delicious.

Here we have a situation of mostly male star-architects who are given a fantastic problem to solve. Most of them do a terrible job of trying to solve it, but they tried anyway. The one female star-architect largely ignores the problem altogether and instead offers a pretty object. This to me embodies and just reinforces the dumb-chick stereotype of the cute girl that sits in the back of the class that doesn't do her homework, but flirts with the teacher to make the grade. I am not suggesting that Zaha is flirting with anyone, but the arguments behind her projects almost always come down to the dumb chick/playboy argument: choose my project because it is pretty. The client presents a legitimate list of programmatic concerns and challenges and you basically ignore them and present a pretty object and say - here you go!

It is what I call the dumbing down of architecture.

What she presented at the Munch Museum Competition was the most spectacular and most ill-conceived project in the room.

Perhaps it was the most sincere entry from all the star-architects entries, since it did the least in addressing any of the program, it just acknowledged quite bluntly that she was not there to win or produce an entry that stands a chance of winning. It said: I am submitting an entry because you were dumb enough to ask me and you are paying me to do it. I will use this as an opportunity to make a ton of cash by having unsupervised interns develop the competition entry, pay them some pocket change and keep the rest.

In the end, the jury selected the least spectacular entry that was done by an unknown (to me at least) Spanish architecture firm Herreros Arquitectos. They were one of the few that addressed the site and context in an appropriate manner. This site is located across from the much celebrated and freshly completed Opera House by Snøhetta in the mostly cold and dark Norwegian climate. The Opera house is a building that the Norwegians are very proud of; it is on all their tourist brochures and I believe it has even graced their postage stamps. Herreros’ strategy was not to overshadow or out do it, but rather to complement it by making a quality building that communicated with the form and color of the Opera house. It was a translucent glass mass that resembled a glacier with an oblique angle at the top echoing the slant of the opera house. It picked up on the glacier expression that the Opera House was playing on and made their own interpretation of it. The project also brought to the table some innovative proposals on how to organize the gallery spaces, addressed issues of sustainability, and so on. To be honest, it is not the kind of building that made me thrilled with excitement, but it was the most appropriate and I agreed with the jury's choice given what they had to choose from.
This is what the Herreros Arquitectos’ entry looks like. 
You can see the back side of the Oslo Opera house across on the right.

If buildings could speak this is what I imagine these pairs would say to each other.
The lesson here is that stars tend to end up doing what they do best: Perform and dazzle! So if you give them a problem they will tend to make a theatrical spectacle out of it whether it is appropriate or not. In this case, what was appropriate was a modest complement to the opera house, but it would be demeaning for one starchitect to design a building that played a supporting role to another starchitect's building. No way! it has to be bigger, and more spectacular or nothing else. Star-architects are rather like expensive cats that instinctively need to pee everywhere they go; to mark territory and claim dominance. So I guess Oslo learned this lesson the hard and expensive way.


Zaha Hadid the Public Face of Female Architecture

Earlier this year I tweeted the following statement:
…and followed on Facebook with the following statement:
Imagine that we lived in an alternate universe where it were female architects that won all the Pritzkers and were dominating the profession and Daniel Libeskind was THE token male starachitect. His empty pointy prikly forms sticking up in the air, signifying nothing is what the rest of the world looks at when they talk about male architecture. As a male architect you go out and talk to people and you say, "Hi, I am an architect" and they say "oh cool, I know the great male architect Daniel Libeskind, his forms are realy nice"

would that not be hell?

This is how I think it would feel to be a female architect today.

It has reached a point that just looking at her work irritates me. This is also because I think of her career as having the potential to follow Josephine Baker's arc. Zaha has come so far, and she could be so much more. She is settling for good when she could be great. Now I am using the word good in a very specific way here and perhaps I should explain myself . When I say she is a good architect, I am taking into account the total architect not just her “work” or building projects, but I am including Zaha the business person/CEO, Zaha the self promoter, etc, etc. In this point of view, she has done quite a remarkable job. It’s extremely hard to take a career to where she has taken hers so far and she deserves a lot of credit for that. Notwithstanding that, it's is tough being a woman in a man's profession. So even though I am irritated by the sight of what she makes and calls architecture, I maintain she is a good architect, even dare I say it “ a very good one”, in the broader view.

By achieving this success, she has been unwittingly placed in the position of being the face of female architecture. She did not ask for it. I know, it’s unfair, who wants that pressure of representing your who gender, race or whatever? Judging by what she produces, and what she does (and most important what she does not do) outside of architecture time and time again, it seems quite evident that she does not want to be in this position, and she does not want to accept this challenge.

Instead of using the status that she has to somehow debunk some of the negative tropes about women, she seems to be reinforcing them. I know! I know! There is a paradox here. On the one hand she is making a positive change simply by being a female starchitect since stereotypically women are not supposed to be architects, let a lone starchitects. On the other hand, she is using the spotlight to reinforce a slew of other negative stereotypes. In my view, the net result is a negative.

Firstly, as I have just shown you, she is reinforcing the dumb-chick stereotype when she comes up with entries like the Munch Museum which by and large skips over the clients problems and just makes pretty curvy stuff that leaves you wondering:
Why make the dumbest entry in a contest of starchitects?

Secondly, she cultivates a diva image, feeding another negative trope about women: When you give women power they will become difficult temperamental bitches. Here is an urban dictionary definition of Diva:
A bitchy woman that must have her way exactly or no way at all. often rude and belittles people, believes that everyone is beneath her and thinks that she is so much more loved than what she really is; selfish, spoiled, and overly dramatic.
You just need to ask people who work in her office and you will find this definition well substantiated. It is perhaps unfair to single her out in this way, because her male counterparts are no different, but when a woman in power does so she gets this label. However what I am discussing here is how she is carrying the burden of representing her gender and changing perceptions. This is unfair, I know, I have said this several times now, but that’s life. Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player to play in the American major league. He was called names, harassed, embarrassed and insulted, and had every right to punch someone in the face in retaliation, but if he expressed anger he know very well it would reinforce the negative trope of the angry black man. He knew that he was carrying the burden of his race and so he sucked it up held his head high and carried on. Believe me; Zaha does not have to play Diva!
Why cultivate the image of Diva?

In an interview on Charlie Rose with Pritzker Prize Winners Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano and herself (see video for yourself: link here: ) Zaha makes the following statement:
I mean...I think... if we all go into a know...we know, one of us would know...unless it is very unfair or it is very political and so on...aaaahm... you is acceptable.
What she does here is basically insulate herself from self-criticism. If she believes what she is actually saying here, then she will never be able to come to terms with the horrible failures and shortcomings blatantly apparent in the catastrophe that she submitted for the Munch Museum. She will never acknowledge the merits of Herrero's proposal. She will never understand why she lost and they won because the only reason in her mind is because it was “unfair and political and so on”.

This is the typical behavior and rationalizations of a diva: If you criticize her, then you must be either sexist (if you are male) or jealous (if you are female). No criticism is valid! She is just fantastic!

With this attitude how can you learn or improve on the next competition? If you don’t accept criticism then you how can you grow?

Finally, she reinforces the prettiness-obsessed-female stereotype (similar to the dumb-chick trope) where women are supposedly obsessed with prettiness; Not beauty, but outward appeal that is the domain of fashion, fads, makeup, perfume, jewelry, lipstick etc: Things that are pleasing or attractive to the eye, skin deep and ornamental.

Zaha is branching out into this domain; it is the domain of Paris Hilton: The dumb diva female appropriating the prettiness-obsessed-female stereotype. I do not for one second doubt the intelligence or tenacity of Ms Hadid or of Paris Hilton for that matter. However, I think by clinging to the curvy, “pretty” forms, and branching out into the stereotypical female markets (fashion, perfume, handbags, shoes, etc) she reinforces this stereotype; A stereotype that the feminists movement have fought long and hard to extinguish since before the 60s and 70s.

Why design high heeled shoes, perfume bottles and cosmetic jewelry?

I can understand Zaha and Hilton using the strategy of empowering the negative trope in a positive way to launch their careers as Josephine Baker did. However, after a while Baker gave it up and transformed into a much more interesting person. She evolved! She used her celebrity status to take on a political and humanitarian stance and became a force for the ideas she believed in. She became useful to society beyond just accumulating wealth, status and personal gain.

I am not suggesting that Zaha should become an activist; I just think that she is squandering a golden opportunity to be a gender leader for women. She doesn't have to be an activist like Baker was, but she could at least set an example like Jackie Robinson by being aware of her position as a symbol of female architecture and so avoid reinforcing any negative stereotypes.

This shtick of using the same tired curvy female eye-candy form on every single project, on every single site no matter what the program, size, or location has run its course and now its just plain silly. Her work has become somewhat of a one trick poney caricature; There are no surprises.

Evolution: Branding Form vs Branding Ideas: 

Great artists (I am expanding the definition here to include architects) evolve and are more than just a shtick. If you think of Pablo Picasso, he is the opposite of Zaha in this sense, because once he perfects something, he realizes it's time to move on and then goes on to another thing. This is why we can now talk about Picasso’s blue period, or his cubist period, or this period or that period and so on. The same for Frank Lloyd Wright, he started out with the prairie houses and by the end of his career you see something like Falling Water, or the Guggenheim. These kinds of evolution suggest a critical mind, a curiosity, a willingness to question your-self and develop. This trait is largely missing in Hadid’s work. If you compare her early works with her latest works there are no substantive differences (The formal jump from angular to curvy is not of any significance as far as I am concerned). Where is her critical mind?

If you look at the portfolio of an architecture firm’s work you will often notice a certain quality or set of characteristics that is always present. This idiosyncrasy is what primarily defines the brand of that firm. In some cases this is shaped by a set of ideas, principles, or a method of designing for eg. Zumthor argues that his work is about“atmospheres”, for Bjarke Ingels it is “architectural alchemy”. These are examples of an idea based brand. On the opposite side are Form Based Brands where it is a certain form or shape that is present throughout most of the architect’s work. Here the work is easily recognizable as belonging to this or that architect. Great examples are Frank Gehry’s curves and Daniel Libeskind pointy angular forms. No architect is purely form based or purely idea based; there is always a ratio. In this diagram I have placed a few current star-architects along the scale. As you can see, Zaha Hadid, along with Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, are (in the red zone) almost off the scale on the form-base branding side
The problem starts with how she built her brand. A decent architect builds his or her brand around a set of core ideas which are tested, sculpted, shaped, questioned, worked-on and reworked over a lifetime-career. Zaha, like Libeskind and Gehry, however have built her branding around a formal quality: A form fetish if you will. Building a brand or career on a formal quality is problematic on so many levels I don't even know where to begin. On the first level, it is wrong because it always forces you conform to that formal quality whether it is appropriate or not: No matter what the demand of the site, or the condition of the program that you are working with, you are always forced to apply that same rigid formal condition to it. If the form is your brand, it inevitably has to become your ending point. So what do you do? You make a sculptural form that fits your formal trope and then you are left with an uphill task of forcing the program and the problematics of the site and all the other challenges you are faced with to fit nicely into your sculpture. Alternatively, you can work out the problematics of the program and then plaster on the formal condition on to its exterior like shrink wrap and hope that it works with the site and context. Either way, to me this is an aberration!

It’s like having a dressmaking business that makes everything only in polka-dots in a world where consumers come in all different shapes, colors, sizes and preferences. Your daily challenge then is to constantly confront the fact that not everybody looks good in polka-dots. The question with every customer that walks through your door becomes then:
How can we make him or her look good in polka-dots?
What is the clothes that work best for this customer? or makes this customer feel most comfortable, or what is right for this customer?
If your brand was based less on a form and more on an idea instead (for example a kind of quality, or the idea of organic like Wright, or about timelessness and the immeasurable as with Kahn, or about Atmospheres as with Zumthor, etc ) then it opens up potentials and possibilities to solve problems more effectively. If we go back to the dressmaker example, and lets say this time your brand is about an idea (take the idea of quality for instance). In this case, when a customer walks through your door the first question then becomes:
What kind of clothes suits this customer best? Lets find out what will make this customer satisfied?
...and if that customer values quality in the same way that you do then the next logical question should be:
How can I make what this customer wants in a “quality” way?
Idea based branding also opens up the potential for development and growth; things like quality, and organic, timelessness, atmospheres, etc are subjective and therefore subject to change. As a young architect starting out you could have a certain idea of what quality is and over the course of your career you most likely will have experiences, and realizations, discoveries, and so on that will allow you to see things in a different way: It can be developed on; someone can argue with you and change your mind. It is something that is partly logical and intuitive, so at the end of your career you could come away with an opinion of quality that is much more informed than when you started out. And that is a wonderful thing.

Think about it! if your brand is based on a formal trope your argument almost always comes down to “I am for this formal trope because I like it and I think it is cool”. However, if you ask Zaha what is the principal ideas behind her work, she will probably spit out some fancy words and phrases with some of the usual key terms that she or nobody else really understands; like morphologies, shapes derived from processes, distortion, concave-convex configurations, fluidity, mathematical constraints, concealed nature interwoven with strands of culture and fluidity within the constraints of traditional geometry.

Below is the text for her Munch Museum design proposal that I mentioned earlier ( The text on the left is taken directly from her website and on the right is my translation ). As you read this, keep in mind that it was displayed for public view in Oslo, Norway whose inhabitants first language is Norwegian and second language is mainly English:

To this day, I absolutely can not keep a straight face while reading this:

What was she thinking?

Mathematical constraint? MATHEMATICAL CONSTRAINT!!!?

"Our proposal was based on superimposing a mathematical constraint onto a new city vision"?

Did she just use the term mathematical constraint to mean a cool new curvy form?

Where do people come up with this stuff? the landscape urbanism bullshit generator?

Zaha Hadid uses this kind of language of course to make herself sound very sophisticated, and because the architecture world frowns on simple honest language, but when all the fancy words are deciphered, what it all comes down to mean is “I am for this formal trope because I like it and I think it is cool”
There is nothing wrong with that except that it is purely based on your taste and no one can argue with you about it. That’s just the way it is and that’s that. What's worse is that you yourself can’t question it or reason with it. It’s like your favorite color: I like blue, and no argument in the world is going to change that. My favorite color was blue when I was 5, it is still blue now and for all I know it will still be blue when I am 90. So there is not much potential for growth or change in that, is there?

Zaha likes her curvy forms because she likes them and she hires people who likes them and she attracts clients who likes them. There is no argument that can change that; her forms, are not something one can reason with, either you like it or you don't. End of story.

The positive aspect of this model is that clients know exactly what their building or end product is going to look like if they choose Zaha as their architect. There will be no surprises, it is safe, and you are guaranteed to be satisfied if you like that kind of stuff. This is the mark of a good brand. Its the McDonalds model in fact; no matter where you go in the world, a big mac will taste like a big-mac whether you get one at a Mickey dee’s in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Canada, or the one directly across from the Pantheon in Rome. This model builds strong brand identity, guarantees you a steady customer supply and stable income. If you have that, then why in sweet Jesus’ name would you want to change it?

A future with Zaha Hadid as your Gender Leader?

So if you are a female architect who is waiting for Zaha to somehow evolve into the Josephine Baker of architecture and transform into a champion of women rights or be the kind of perception changing icon that Baker was, then I am afraid you will be in for a disappointment. Zaha isn't coming to save you!

Zaha sits on the Pritzker prize jury at a critical moment in the history of the Prize for women. As a world famous architect with high name recognition value, sitting on that jury she has a lot of power. If she wanted to, she could wield that power to support her fellow women in a major way. She was silent when her very own jury awarded Wang Shu the Pritzker and snubbed his wife and design partner Lu Wenyu. If I were her, I would not want my name to be associated with that decision. I would have simply resigned from the jury in protest. If she had simply done that, then a lot of fucking heat would be on the remaining male jurors. Wouldn’t it? So her silence here equals guilt or complicity as far as I am concerned.

When Denise Scott Brown asked to be retrospectively recognized by the Pritzker Organization for her contribution to the work that her husband and design partner Robert Venturi got the award alone, Zaha didn't do much either. As a sitting member of the Pritzker jury, her protest came in the form of signing a petition that any old Joe can do. An editorial in a major newspaper voicing her disgust for what happened and her support for Brown is the least that I think she could do?

So I will say this again: Zaha isn't coming to save you! For all I know she did not stand up for Lu when her jury dissed her, she is not doing much more to stand up for Denise Scott Brown, and for all I know she won’t be standing up for you. So if you are a female architect under Zaha’s reign and looking at her as a role model then “shut up and make pretty” is going to be your motto for the next few decades. Say cheeez!

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007