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Zaha Hadid @ Manchester International Festival, past, present, future …

Last year I watched a programme illustrating the shortlisted buildings for the “architectural Baftas” aka The Stirling Prize.   One entry that stood out for me was the elegant and fluid Nord Park Cable Railway built in Austria by Bagdad-born Zaha Hadid.  I read up a little on the architect and the more I delved, the more I liked her, and realized her projects had  seeped closer to me than I had imagined.

zaha_nordpark

Zaha seems to relish tackling different practical and creative challenges and she is not averse to mixing her genres.  She designed one of the better elements of the Millenium Dome “The Mind Zone” and has set-designed for the Pet Shop Boys and the Belgium Charleroi Dance Company.  Earlier this year she was guest editor on the Radio Four “Today Show”.  She has a mathematical aptitude, she studied for her Mathematics degree in Beirut and moved to England following her graduation.  In Sept 2008, Zaha guest edited “Wallpaper” magazine and designed the award-winning die-cut front cover.

Her London-based architectural practice grew in size and reputation during the 1990’s and she is now world-renowned for her innovation and organic sensual style.  Awards started winging her way,  judging by her current work, it seems she has gained an appetite for them.

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The scene is now set.  It is a cold, windy late winter day and I get my first chance to pick up the newly-pressed Manchester International Brochure for 2009.   I admire the design, the graphics and printstock.  I then open up the pages and I’m very excited to discover Zaha Hadid will be working on something here in Manchester for the Festival.

“Zaha Hadid Architects have created a unique chamber music hall specially designed to house solo performances of the exquisite music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  A voluminous ribbon swirls within the room, carving out a spatial and visual response to the intricate relationships of Bach’s harmonies. As the ribbon careens above the performer, cascades into the ground and wraps around the audience, the original room as a box is sculpted into fluid spaces swelling, merging, and slipping through one another.”

zaha_mif_bach
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Tickets sold out fast for all the evening performances but free tickets were available for lunchtime concerts featuring students from Chethams School of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, two highly prestigious Manchester-based music schools.  It soon became clear that one could not just stroll down ten minutes prior to the concert as demand was huge for these 1pm sessions.  After a thwarted first attempt, I was still not certain I would get in when I went down to the Art Gallery for a second time the following week.  I had to go onto a waiting list for returns, and as I was number 13 on the list I was non-too hopeful, but the luck Gods were shining on me and I was given a late entry.  Hallelujah.

So, alongside 191 other lucky punters of all ages, sizes shapes and colours, I took my seat and felt quite special within the cocoon-like protection of the Music Hall Sound Pod.  The simple colour scheme of black and white belies quite a complex construction and the months of acoustic research the aim of which is to create a magical listening experience.  There was certainly an expectant crowd, our noises bounced around and created an excitable hubbub.  Our entertainment for the next 24 miutes entered quietly through a neat side archway, stepping onto the stage came Christian Elliott a talented cellist from the RNCM.  The Bach piece chosen was “Cello Suite No 3 in C major”.

Though a massive fan of music, my knowledge of classical is extremely limited, nevertheless the whole experience was entrancing.  The connection between performer and audience was instant.  The designed space fostered a sense of intimacy and many of the performers have spoken of feeling relaxed and protected within this womb-like aural grotto.  Delicate moments on the cello were crisp and easy to hear, silence was broken with a slight background hum (maybe air conditioning?) and the rich sweeping notes which tumbled out from the stage were moving, filled with warmth and fullness.

This was a bold and exciting use of a fairly standard boring gallery room and fantastic to see the Manchester International Festival pushing on with their remit to bring new work and collaborations to a wider audience.  I also applaud the blending of pricing options so those on a tighter budget can get to experience some of the work on offer.  It would be nice to see this remain a key policy for future years.  I bet that Manchester Art Gallery’s collections and visiting exhibitions have benefitted from a vastly expanded footfall too.

If you can, I urge you to take half an hour out on your next trip into town and pay the Zaha Hadid ‘ribboned wonder’ a visit.  The live lunchtime concerts have now finished, (but maybe with demand so high it would be a welcome decision to have them continue?) however, music is piped through to allow visitors to gain a sense of the sound experience.  It is worth a trip just to examine and walk through this beautiful temporary creation.  Opening hours are Tuesday – Sunday (and Bank Holiday Mon) 10am – 5pm exhibiting until 31st August 2009.

One wonders whether the design could be pushed even further?  Imagine an all-weather self-supporting version which could travel the world and bring gifted performers from all musical leanings to remote audiences, but within a sound arena of such exquisite quality.

Future UK build plans for Zaha Hadid include the Transport Museum in Glasgow and the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

UPDATE : Zaha Hadid´s pavilion for the Burnham Centennial recently opened at the Millennium Park in Chicago (updated 25 Aug 09).

UPDATE: First images of Zaha Hadid’s new Contemporary Arts Centre in Rome, Italy, which opens today (updated 13 Nov 09).

UPDATE: A further in-depth look at MAXXI museum in Rome, Italy with some fab photographs by Iwan Baan. (updated 18 Dec 09).

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