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Somewhere better than this place, CAC Louis & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art by Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid has been a celebrated name in the world of avant-garde architecture since 20 years, not to a small extent due to the exposure she has received in the established art institutions of the United States. Ironically, the following that her visionary work on paper has created might also have obscured the fact that, although an indispensable tool for her spatial and conceptual experimentation, these were only means to an end – architecture. To see her work now completed for the first time in America in the Center of Contemporary Art in Cincinnati comes almost as a shock, a confrontation with a spatial virtuosity that finds little comparison in recent architectural production.

Although the CAC appears from the exterior to be one of Hadid’s most contained and cubic projects, (she herself compares it to the image of Magritte’s floating rock), the difference to its context is radical. Huge interlocking volumes of concrete and glass shear and overlap as if frozen in a tectonic shift, articulating two distinct facades, a layered elevation along 6th Street and a deep cross section along Walnut Street, all floating above a transparent lobby.

Like a widely traveled visitor from the metropolis in his designer clothes, the building is self-confidently overdressed for the provincial occasion. A radical crease in the urban fabric that intends to unfold “the dormant routes within the neighboring context”, as Hadid puts it.

And there is much to awake. Downtown Cincinnati is the prototype of a provincial American “drive-in” city. An anonymous patchwork of office and hotel towers, parking garages and vacant lots, choked by multi-lane highways, sports arenas and a decaying urban ghetto. Of the 2 million inhabitants of Cincinnati, only 5,000 live in this area of roughly 40 city blocks. Pedestrian traffic has been minimized or exiled into a system of elevated “skywalks” and interior malls, leaving the ground plane a welcome territory for panhandlers and homeless. The CAC itself was no stranger to this agoraphobia. Although it had been a forum for contemporary art for over 60 years, it was until now housed in a second floor commercial space above a Wall Mart store, accessible by escalator.

Time for a change. The choice of architect fell on Zaha Hadid not least because it was assumed that her design would have the maximum urban impact and manage to engage the neighborhood in a dramatically different way. She consequently declared the “Urban Carpet” as the mediator between museum and city. The streetscape now enters the building through a fully glazed and publicly accessible lobby and continues in a smooth transition as a backdrop of the vertical circulation.

This “Vertical Street” is clearly more than its earthbound counterpart could claim to have inspired. If the visitor chooses to ignore the comfort of the elevator he is gently pulled into the circulation void by a system of floating ramps, which extend in shifting locations throughout the upper floors. Sometimes sliding by, sometimes crossing the exhibition spaces, these black bars become the visual stitching of the spatial sequence, their stark contrast against the sky-lit atrium walls making them both background for the art and sculptures in themselves. Each turn of direction along the path of travel reveals partial views of the exterior and anchors the movement back into the city.

The galleries vary in size, proportion and shape from several story high halls to dead-end corridor appendices. Hadid describes this as a result of the open-endedness of the program (the CAC has no permanent collection) and the diversity of spatial requirements of Contemporary Art in general. The aim was to create the largest possible variety of extra-ordinary spaces instead of the flexible open plan the client had originally suggested. Although still roughly organized by levels, the exhibition spaces are clustered within and across floor levels, lending them an intentionally labyrinthine quality. The overlaps and fissures between the volumes allow for partial glimpses back and forth in the route, thus creating a sense of anticipation and suspense but also of spatial continuity.

The gallery interiors are more hermetic than the exterior massing suggests, with the most prominent exposures reserved for the staff offices and the boardroom. This visual silence is clearly beneficial for the displayed artwork and a visit to the “Un-museum” shows how disruptive too much panoramic view can be, especially in this less than inspiring top floor exhibition space. Leave that to Marcel Breuer.

As in all of Hadid’s work, the animated spatial event is the generating force or even the “raison d’etre” of the building and much has been written about her cinematic approach to design. No doubt, the building displays a masterly control of space and time but it is the surprisingly subtle interaction with the exhibited artwork and the openness toward the visitors’ appropriation that helps to “eliminate the barrier between art and real life outside”, as a CAC’s was hoping.

The first exhibition in the new building is adequately titled “Somewhere better than this place”, and might as well be the motto of the museum itself. Like her drawings that start in the dark space of the black canvas and solidify into spatial ciphers, Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center is a becoming of space, a realization of what can be.

It seems that the cowboys like their new designer boots. The architect’s next commission is the extension of Frank Lloyd Wrights Price Tower Arts Center in Oklahoma, and the first models and drawings of the building indicate that she is doing just fine in this sublime company.

Posted July 13th, 2009 by Justin at 9:19 AM |