After Hong Kong's Peak, London's Trafalgar Square, and Berlin's Kurfurstendamm, Cincinnati may seem an unlikely site for the glamorous and very talented Zaha Hadid to finally achieve a complete urban building. Glamorous, Cincinnati is not. It's another post-industrial American city, a pragmatic grid laid out on the banks of the Ohio river; but a grid in which Hadid has located a Utopian convergence of the geometric and the topological. Her radical accommodation of its provocative Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art extends certain conditions already present in Cincinnati to both challenge and be specific to place. This is one of Hadid's most remarkable qualities, her divination of lines and planes of both orientation and organization in each specific context. Harnessing these geometries into spatial form, Hadid's contextualism is concerned therefore not with mimicry or historicist façades but with the unfolding of space and the experience of architecture in unprecedented, mobile ways. Hadid allies local analysis to an exploration of dynamic space, abstracting each site into elements that seem - as at her remarkable Vitra Fire Station in Germany - to emerge from Planet Earth itself.
At this street intersection in Cincinnati, Hadid's building appears as half-a-dozen opaque boxes stacked horizontally and thrusting, like a bundle of deep diving boards, out over the public domain. The lot is an elongated rectangle, and Hadid exaggerates its proportions by striating her plan longitudinally. This generates the block-like shards suspended above the pavement and glazed entryway. Projecting from the party wall on East Sixth Street, the shards also inflect slightly to increase the composition's implied dynamic. Obversely, the Rosenthal Center's shorter façade reveals the chopped, blunt ends of these forms and of a second, staggered set of projections hovering out over Walnut Street.
In theory the pavement from East Sixth Street flows into the new building's foyer to extend beneath the hovering soffits of the parallelepipeds and wrap, in one contiguous curve, up the entire party wall perpendicular to Walnut Street. The metaphor used by the architect herself is Urban Carpet. But, although the pavement-level façades are almost entirely glass, the streets beyond are too controlled by automobiles or insufficiently pedestrianised to allow Hadid's metaphor radically infect the civic realm. However her Strasbourg transportation terminus, Hoenheim North, winner of the 2003 Mies van der Rohe Award, indicates that Hadid's aims do indeed include a rethinking of traffic engineering protocols. Extensive glazing at pavement level is recessed behind a couple of minimal concrete columns that disturb, however slightly, the desired horizontal sweep of space and ground surface. These vectors come especially alive when the interior is illuminated at twilight or, presumably, during a dull winter's day. The foyer has simple strip lighting across its ceiling - electric calligraphy. This envelope of exposed concrete immediately above the entrance is surmounted by a splayed parallelepiped of dark, matte aluminium, topped in turn by another concrete block that is markedly mysterious as its apparent weight floats free against the sky.
The Rosenthal Center resonates in fact from the gaps or voids between these solid elements. Its key space is the vertiginous canyon found between the floating boxes and the metaphorical ground surface as it flows vertically upwards against the Walnut Street party wall. The view into this artificial canyon is truly spectacular with long, gently stepped staircases wrapped in contiguous encasements that serve as both soffits and balustrades. Blending geometric formalism with function, Hadid has privileged the very human acts of strolling and viewing throughout the Rosenthal's galleries.
Conversely, from the very top floor, the various levels reveal themselves in an unprecedented promenade architecturale, a succession of interior terraces and enclosed chambers that will challenge future exhibition curators and offer a kind of spatial context quite distinct from the often anonymous or generic architecture of many recent museums. Hadid has likened her stacked, interlocking spaces to a giant jigsaw puzzle. Orientated by the dizzying trough of the vertical circulation hall, visitors are able to sample constituent rooms of this jigsaw at will. If lazy or unobservant, they may miss some pieces entirely.
From the streets, the Rosenthal Center evokes something of the enigmatic presence of the more monolithic Whitney Museum in New York City, completed by Marcel Breuer in 1966. Its striations share some evolving design strategy with Hadid's upcoming, much bigger and more horizontal MAXXI (National Museum of Art for the XXI Century) in Rome, an attitude less beholden to fragmentation per se and closer to the organic. An organic that is hypermodern and fluid. It is thus disappointing that the upper levels in Cincinnati lack something as emphatic as the Whitney's iconic bug-eye windows to connect more to the outside world. The Members' Room does occupy a prominent position - part eerie, part blind oriel - high above Walnut Street.
A chain of offices, fully glazed onto East Sixth Street, and a boardroom on the third floor extend out onto a stunning corner terrace with the metal-clad belly of the fourth floor hovering above. Some details of construction suffer perhaps from American building practices. This is a country without that intensive sense of craft so essential to Ando's architecture in Japan or Zumthor's in Switzerland. But Hadid's mastery of concrete, elevating concrete literally into the air, may yet be proven at the Science Center due for inauguration in the German city of Wolfsburg in 2005.
In Cincinnati, her Rosenthal Center might beneficially be conceptualized less as monoliths, more as a constellation of components: the former is more "planetary" but the latter allows for many tolerances or gaps between walls, ceiling and floors. Hadid's next project in the United States may well resolve such issues. In Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Hadid now proposes an inhabited earthwork radiating about Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower. Out on the prairie, her boomerang-shaped arts centre should radically re-contextualize this late totemic work by the master of American organic architecture, be uncompromisingly contemporary yet contingent on the historic artefact.
Funny how many of those included in the Museum of Modern Art's Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition in 1988 are now revealed as consummate contextual designers.