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Gold Coast Double Vision: Is Zaha Hadid Running Out of Ideas?

First, it should be noted that I have seen some inspiring work coming from the office of Zaha Hadid Architects in recent months – the Sleuk Rith Institute is a stunning ode to Cambodia’s tragic past, while the firm’s residential masterplan in Monterrey shows glimpses of a fresh approach to housing for Mexico.

Unfortunately though, something about Zaha’s latest project reminded me why this firm’s work polarizes opinions across the board, and brought back some rather less positive memories of previous reviews…

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When images of Hadid’s proposed towers for Australia’s Gold Coast were unveiled this week, one could have been forgiven for feeling a strong sense of architectural déjà vu: It is just 10 months since the firm revealed a trio of high-end residential skyscrapers for Brisbane just a few miles north, and boy do these designs look similar.

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L: Zaha's Gold Coast pair; R: Her Brisbane trio

Firstly, note the external forms of each tower, with their parametric rib cages and those tapered, bottle-shaped silhouettes – is it mere coincidence that ZHA’s 5 glittering glass vases look so similar? Here’s an excerpt from my previous commentary on the first 3 towers:

“The architectural language used for Zaha’s Brisbane debut — entitled Grace on Coronation — is 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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In the case of the Gold Coast towers, the “grass-topped plinths” are replaced by a series of twisting concrete ribbons, flowing over a plaza in which rendered people appear happy to be strolling in the sun – an obligatory Jeff Koons sculpture adorns the space, and shops are tucked under the undulating canopy.

In reality though, will this be a place where people actually choose to linger? Its hard-surfaced quality – together with a complete lack of greenery, water features and seating – lends it a clinical aesthetic akin to the windswept plaza in front of Toronto’s City Hall. Further to this there is a high-speed, multi-lane highway in close proximity – the road skirts uncomfortably close to the development, completely cutting off natural pedestrian routes to ZHA’s proposed hang out spot in the shadow of these 2 fluted monuments to luxury living.

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Make no mistake, Zaha Hadid should be applauded for introducing new ideas and experimenting with different techniques in the high-rise sector – she is a pioneer, and pioneers are essential in pushing our profession forwards. That said, it is not just the success of such pioneers that we can all learn from, but also their failures – and ZHA’s pair of projects in Australia appear in great danger of replicating the failures seen throughout so many high-rise developments in Europe in the 1960s and 70s.

Expensive specifications and a privileged clientele may ultimately save these projects from the fate befallen towering masterplans in London, Glasgow and Liverpool, to name just a few: this is the Gold Coast rather than the estates of Kirby, after all. However, the treatment of this typology at ground level remains a major issue, no matter what the wider context may be – food for thought for Zaha and the rest of us to boot.

Yours duplicated,

The Angry Architect

Images via Dezeen and the Skyscraper Page