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Diva Down Under: Zaha Hadid Architects Designs a Trio of Gleaming Champagne Flutes for Brisbane

Is there any stopping Zaha Hadid Architects? Having conquered vast swathes of Europe, the Middle East, and China, the firm’s brand of parametric exhibitionism is now set to land on the riverfront of Australia’s capital of Queensland, Brisbane. Zaha Hadid’s stoic adherence to sensual, sweeping forms appears undiminished, demonstrated by the curvaceous cages of concrete encasing this trio of towers — but where might this project ultimately rank in the firm’s galleria of 21st Century work?


ZHA has been grappling with the high-rise residential typology for some time now. The practice was complicit in a triple crown of towering banality, along with a certain Mr Libeskind and Isozaki, for the master planning of Citylife Milano in Italy. A project of unprecedented glitz but with little in the way of stylistic cohesion, the trio’s piecemeal collaboration resulted in a set of executive paperweights —monoliths with little connection to the public realm at ground level, or to each other for that matter.


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The architectural language used for Zaha’s Brisbane debut — entitled Grace on Coronation — is more consistent, to say the least. Each tower is identical, forming a series of gleaming champagne flutes wrapped in spindly white exoskeletons — the architect herself said of the skyscraper’s distinct forms: “the design tapers each structure to minimize their footprint and open the riverfront to the public; creating a vibrant civic space for Toowong within a new riverside park.”

If one was to be cynical (and I have a well-known penchant for cynicism), the idea that the tapering minimizes the buildings’ footprint could be read as a complete misnomer. In fact, the opposite maybe true, in that the buildings are bloated as they rise up — designed to maximize the developer’s return on the upper apartments. The creation of a "vibrant civic space" must also be brought into question, given the incorporation of irregular, grass-topped plinths at ground level. Will these spaces really be utilized in the way ZHA intends, or will they suffer from the same issues besetting almost every Le Corbusier-inspired complex of towers in the park?

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History indicates that the public will typically search out specific types of open space that offer enclosure and a distinct sense of place — courtyard cafes, covered arcades, steps in front of libraries and museums, a riverfront coffee shop. It is possible that they can also be convinced to enjoy a break on incidental wedges of manicured parkland, especially in beautiful climates like that of Australia’s eastern coast — but lawns of this kind must be easily accessible from those aforementioned spaces.

On the contrary, the plinths designed by ZHA isolate these green wedges, encircling them with 15-foot walls of pale concrete and restricting access to the park from the street, particularly on the side furthest from the riverfront. Presumably these plinths are designed to conceal car parking, the age-old bane of any urban high-rise design and a necessary evil — nonetheless, the negative impact at street level is undeniable. The firm proposed a similar master plan for residential towers in Bratislava’s Culenova City Center, but in that case the plinths were pushed downwards at the edges to form multiple linkages between the street and public spaces within the development. The proposed plinths in Brisbane do not share this quality — get ready for a warm hike up a series of pristine concrete ramps or steps to reach that hallowed slice of amenity space to enjoy your lunch!

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The tower’s cage-like external appearance is reminiscent of another of ZHA’s high-rise residential proposals set for construction imminently, the One Thousand Museum Tower in Miami, Florida. The curves on display exemplify Hadid’s propensity towards the formulaic notion that a sensual form trumps structural function when attempting to sell an image of luxury to prospective tenants. The language that has served her so well on the horizontal is stretched skywards, less concerned with efficient engineering, and more preoccupied with displaying the firm’s signature parametric style on the largest billboard possible — three towers at over twenty-five stories each should do the job nicely (particularly when there are absolutely no existing high-rise blocks anywhere in the vicinity).

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Further assessments of the project’s prospective success or failure will rest upon the release of more images — interiors, floor plans, and details of the spaces at plinth level. Regardless of any misgivings about the principles behind the design — particularly those pertaining to the public realm — the fact remains that ZHA are likely to have answered the brief bestowed upon them with customary aplomb.

Developers who appoint this unique firm know precisely what they are going to get, and they also know exactly what sells — high-end tenants will buy these luxury apartments for a hefty fee, unconcerned by any criticisms leveled at the buildings by architects and armchair critics on Dezeen, Design Boom, and, of course, Architizer. While the market is there, Zaha Hadid and her clients will succeed financially — and in this business, that means the firm’s aspirations on world domination will continue unabated.

Which country will be next? Stay tuned to find out …

Yours formulaically,

The Angry Architect