Zaha Hadid's projects are remarkable not only for her innovative way of handling tangible materials but also for her imagination regarding the medium of light. Her theories of fragmentation and fluidity are now well-known design techniques which enabled her form-finding. However, her advances in using light to render her architecture have often been neglected—even though they became an essential element in revealing and interpreting her architecture. The three-decade transition from minimal light lines at her early Vitra Fire Station to the world's tallest atrium at the Leeza SOHO skyscraper, which collects an abundance of daylight, shows the remarkable development of Zaha Hadid’s luminous legacy.
Light closes the gap between architecture and our perception. We sense forms and materials with our eyes not directly but through the reflected light. Zaha Hadid's use of light might appear graphical at first sight with her light lines. Nevertheless, the grand dame operated very skillfully to enhance her architectural imagination. Luminous lines—either as luminaires or windows—characterize her early work, whereas luminous fields and a play of brilliance emerged later.
Deconstructive Lines of Light
Decisive non-parallel lines mark the explosive energy of her first building: The Vitra Fire Station (Weil am Rhein, 1993)—a lucid expression of tensions with in-situ concrete walls. Light lines in the ceiling, or between wall and ground or between the wall and the flying roof reinforce the linear architecture with sharp edges. In the interior, the light gaps between the wall and ceiling deconstruct conventional building structures as well. Even the design of the distinctive sun blinds intensify the linear pattern language. The precise light lines emerge as built manifestations of her suprematist paintings. Although the edges of the interior luminaires echo the sharp concrete lines, the soft, diffuse inside and outside illumination in a way counteracts the energy of the building's forms.
Transforming Urban Lines into Luminous Strips
Zaha Hadid's explorations with abstract paintings have led to several graphical interpretations of lighting and luminaires. In order to interweave the surrounding landscape with her new structures, Hadid analyzed abstracted urban transport patterns and transformed them into luminaire patterns. At Strasbourg's Hoenheim-Nord Terminus and Car Park (2001), she became fascinated by the white road markings and converted them into white linear diffuse luminaires—either integrated as strips in the concrete roof or as tilted poles for the car parking spaces.
Coherent Forms Flow From Windows to Ceiling
The Phaeno Science Centre (Wolfsburg, 2005) was a decisive turning point in Hadid's lighting imagination. The windows and luminaires in the building's surface share the same form, creating a holistic design approach and thus moving on from Hadid's earlier period of lines and sharp corners. The elevated concrete structure generates a large shaded area, with the view to daylight on one side intensifies the impression of a dark void. As a counterpoint, diffuse ceiling luminaires intervene in the dim atmosphere. The diagonal building structure has been translated into rhombus-shaped windows for the façade. In contrast to earlier projects with sharp edges, Hadid's forms here took on curved shapes, marking a transition to fluid designs. In order to form a coherent exterior surface, the rhombus contour has also been applied to the underside of the elevated museum. Thereby the visitors perceive a holistic formal approach encompassing both daylight and artificial lighting.
Introducing Shining Landscape Reflections
The Nordpark Railway Station (Innsbruck, 2007) initiated a new period of light and fluidity in Hadid's oeuvre. Here, light is not absorbed by concrete but is instead reflected by glass. Inspired by local glacial moraines and ice formations, Hadid has significantly increased the reflectance of her surfaces for stunning mirror images. Therefore the structure does not stand isolated in the landscape but has features of the local landscape embedded in it. While moving toward and around the station, complex mirror images stimulate the viewer's perception. Illuminated at night, the station radiates an energetic glow. Years later, the glossy surfaces at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (London, 2013) are reminiscent of the floating ice structure in Innsbruck.
Enhancing Fluidity With Daylight and Lighting
While Hadid generally applied her virtuous flowing forms mainly to the exterior of buildings, the interior of the MAXXI, the Museum of XXI Century Arts (Rome, 2009) surpassed the spatial energy of its façade. She developed a characteristic feeling of unison between fluid forms, daylight, and lighting at the Italian Museum. Linear louvers follow the conceptual grid and filter the sunlight—ensuring a soft light for the structural curves. Electrical lighting is concealed wherever possible. The black stairways create an intense contrast with their white luminous underside. Diffuse light flows through the building and builds a calm counterpoint to the dynamic lines and the black and white material contrast.
Golden Glamor and a Splendid Starry Sky
After a period of raw, cool, concrete buildings, Hadid turns for the first time to a warm, golden and glossy atmosphere with the Guangzhou Opera House (China, 2010). The design of the auditorium is driven by fluidity and seamlessness. Thousands of light pixels in the ceiling remind the audience of a dream-like starry sky. Light patterns on the cascaded balconies evoke the impression of reflections in waterfalls. These waves stand in a clear contrast to the crystalline exterior with the triangular façade pattern.
Maintaining Fluidity by Day and Night
Striving for homogeneity at the Heydar Aliyev Centre (Baku, 2012) led to a softer graduation of light and shadow. During the day, the volume reflects the light and the overall shadow pattern of the sun dominates, with no sub-textures interfering in the smooth surfaces. The flat glass facades mirror the surrounding environment. At night, the interior light flows onto the exterior surfaces and exterior floodlights enhance the building geometry. Consequently, the fluid lines in the auditorium reveal soft brightness graduations as well. In opposition to the starry-sky luminaire arrangement at the Guangzhou Opera House, the lighting in Baku is subtly integrated into the wooden ceiling and walls—almost out of view of the audience. Additional cove lighting underlines the diffuse play of light on the fluid forms. However, in the lobby, the scattered light lines irritate with their strict edges when compared with the continuous flows of the rest of the structure.
The recent Nanjing International Youth Cultural Centre (Nanjing, 2016) demonstrates not homogeneity like the Heydar Aliyev Centre, but instead a dynamic transition from vertical glass towers to a horizontal concrete podium. Rhomboid panels—reminding us once again of the patterns at the Phaeno Science Centre—gradually transform from transparent glass to fiber-concrete panels. The interior presents another advancement of fluid luminosity. In contrast to the grand halls at the Heydar Aliyev Center and Guangzhou Opera House, where the illumination was discretely integrated into the ceiling or looked liked a starry sky, the Nanjing Centre shows an almost offensively luminous surface. Hundreds of small holes in undulating lines follow the dynamic interior geometry for illumination. The dotted ceiling in the grand hall signifies a distinct luminous pixel aesthetic, in which the star ceiling at Guangzhou turns into luminous discs in Nanjing. Quite obviously the relationship of solid to luminescent surfaces have shifted towards the side of light here.
Sparkling Facets Break the Volume
While Hadid has worked with glass-enclosed buildings before, like in the fluid language of the Nordpark Railway Station, her newer Port House (Antwerp, 2016) introduces a fragmented interpretation of a floating glass volume. Most of the triangular facets on the building extension are transparent, with just a few being opaque. In combination with its rippling surface, the façade conveys a very vibrant image—changing dramatically in different daylight situations. From her matt in-situ concrete walls at the Vitra fire station, in Antwerp Hadid has arrived at a sparkling appearance for the façade. Still she breaks the volume with fragmentation, but this time not only by means of form but also by reflection.
Looking back at the career of Zaha Hadid, we can identify a decisive turning point regarding her design strategy, manifest in the Nordpark Railway Station, where continuity and fluidity pushed her deconstructivism and fragmentation aside. This step was also translated into a new language of light. Matt façade surfaces were then supplemented or replaced by reflections and the architecture started to mirror its surroundings. Similarly, her interiors changed from raw concrete, via a purist white to glamorous gold for key spaces. Deep-rooted in the visual language of suprematist paintings, Hadid often converted geometrical lines into diffuse luminous light lines and respectively curves. Thus, her earlier lighting looked more like an expression of graphic design than an exploitation of the full potential of light to interpret architecture. Meanwhile, her diffuse illumination created a soft atmosphere, in which the energy of the space stems from the fluid forms. But she did not use dramatic grazing light to render forms or texture more vibrantly.
It is worth mentioning that she withstood the temptation to use luminaire design to heighten visual effects and rather concentrated on the light itself as an important dimension of architecture. While some of her contemporaries have investigated dynamic forms and reached out to media facades to explore new types of dynamic urban scenario, Hadid constrained her design parameters to form and reflectance. Surprisingly, while pushing numerous formal and technical boundaries, Hadid hardly ever translated the movement of her paintings into dynamic lighting for her architecture. Her temporary installation Parametric Space (Copenhagen, 2013) represents a dreamy exception in which light patterns react to the flexible movement of a membrane and are embedded in her parametric architectural language. But although many of her buildings played with solid volumes, her late Leeza SOHO skyscraper in Beijing visualizes an opposite strategy. In this project, the desire for natural light will lead to the world's tallest atrium. The translucent chasm between the two building halves aims for a life with daylight all around. Through this, and all of her previous projects, she has traced a remarkable path from fragmented light lines to a luminous fluidity by day and night.
Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Dr. Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting and works as an editor for the lighting company ERCO. He has published numerous articles and co-authored the books “Light Perspectives” and “SuperLux”. For more information check www.erco.com, www.arclighting.de or follow him @arcspaces.