Judging from the photographs I’ve seen, Zaha Hadid’s new opera house in Guangzhou, China, is a stunning tour de force of design and construction, a masterpiece by a gifted architect at the height of her creative powers. It is difficult to imagine that she or anyone else could top this building in its invention of monumental yet elegant forms. That said—and it is quite a lot—this work raises vexing questions.

The first question occurred to me when I received an emailed invitation to the grand opening of the opera house.

The invitation was accompanied by four photographs of the completed building. At least I assumed they were photographs, because I assumed Zaha Hadid Architects would want to proudly show nothing less than the authentic building and certainly not computer renderings. There was not a single human figure in any of the images, nor any trace at all of a human presence—a scratch on the wall, a seat folded back in the grand seating area of the theater itself, tire-marks or footprints in what seemed to be a driveway, a small, overlooked scrap of paper on the floor. I found this uncanny and, after looking over the ‘photos’ decided that they were, after all, and even considering the inappropriateness of this for a grand opening invitation, very skillful computer renderings.

Everything about them was just too perfect, down to the reflections in shiny metal panels in the skylight structure. Shaking my head a bit, I filed the invitation and ‘photos’ in a folder called ZAHA: HER WAY, and put it out of my mind. I had neither the desire nor the ability to jump on a jet and fly to the other side of the plant to attend what was sure to be a very swank party sponsored by Moet Chandon and Hennessy. Much as I like their products, I long ago lost my taste for mingling with glittering crowds being nonchalant and making polite chit-chat. It wasn’t until a week or so later that a close colleague of mine stopped by and between some very impolite chit-chat asked me about the opera house. I opened the folder and the building ‘photos,’ stating my conviction that they were computer renderings. No, no, he said, explaining that he had seen the same images online credited to the photographer Christian Richters. Besides, he said, this was the look Zaha and a few other top-of-the-heap architects wanted, a kind of pure architecture. What followed was an hour-long discussion of why an architect would want to build buildings that look like computer renderings.

My conclusion was less about pure architecture and architecture-for-architecture’s-sake, than a utopian hubris, a belief that architecture is the most important thing in the world, because it can tame the infernal machine and turn it to the perfection of human thought, feeling, and activity. This was the fiercely promoted viewpoint of utopians such as Kasimir Malevich and Bruno Taut and to some extent Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, and in the early days of Modernism in its varied forms, it can seem to us innocent and admirable, but no longer so. Aware of the history of the past hundred years and the turbulent character of the present, such an attitude can only seem arrogant and self-indulgent. This appraisal is not simply about images, but about buildings, even masterpieces of architecture regarded as an extension of an architectural history of masterpieces, that are utterly oblivious to the uncertain and conflicted human condition of today, which is unprecedented in history.

What is urgently needed now is the very antithesis of utopian purity: masterpieces of imperfection.


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