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About Zaha Hadid's early video explorations. An interview with Tapio Snellman.

Henry Virgin

11:28 min

Henry Virgin: Why was video first used at ZHA?
Tapio Snellman: As I recall, when we (Neutral: Tapio Snellman and Christian Grou) started producing animations, ZHA had not commissioned nor produced in-house any moving image content. I may be wrong, but I think we were the first ones to make 3D animations of ZHA projects although almost simultaneously there were attempts in the office to test the technology on the MAXXI museum project.

In 1999, after I had just launched Neutral with Christian Grou, I attended a lecture by Zaha at the then University of North London. During the lecture I felt that Zaha was quite frustrated with using slides to explain projects and she couldn't make the slide projector change images fast enough, and even said so.

After the lecture my friend Ali Mangera, who later became an associate in the office, introduced me to Zaha. I was completely unprepared for this encounter and all I could blurt out was “I think you need our help.” Amazingly Zaha seemed to appreciate the challenge and told me to fix a date to come to the office to show what I meant.

To prepare for the meeting, myself and Christian produced a 'teaser' [The Test Compilation], including three short animation clips: one of Vitra Basel, another of Holloway Bridge (University of North London) and an abstract one which attempted to turn one of her paintings into a 3D animation. I can't now recall what the painting was...

Zaha didn't say much during our presentation, but it was obvious that she was pleased. The first commissioned and paid animation was for the Grand Hotel in Lugano. Another early one that comes to mind was the JVC Hotel in Guadalajara, possibly the most radical of our animations.

The first one where we composited real footage with 3D animation was the Cincinnati Arts Centre. That animation was said to be crucial for convincing the Board of Trustees to commit to the project. Our Spittelau animation was shown in the Austrian Pavilion at Venice Biennale projected on a relief of that building. As was the Innsbruck Ski Jump animation.

Was video made as a result of designing with 3D software?
I can't say when 3D modelling was first applied in the office but from early on we exchanged 3D models with the team there and converted them to the purpose of animation.

Was video used at ZHA before 3D modelling software – if so – how?
Like I said, I don't think ZHA had commissioned any moving image although clients and others had surely produced video material about Zaha and the office. The big outing as I remember of large scale video projections showing ZHA animations was the ZH ICA exhibition in 2000. Interestingly as part of the exhibition ZHA animations by Neutral as well as clips produce in-house were shown on an enormous LED screen in the corner of the Swiss Centre in Leicester Square. It was vertical and about 10 metres tall.

What was the role of Neutral in video at ZHA?
It’s probably for others to judge, but as I remember we were the first ones to introduce video production to ZHA. On the other hand it was a time of big video revolution in the industry so very early on others, including people in-house, started experimenting with videos and at times copying the style pioneered by us.

Was video used as a tool in the design process (like models, paintings), or as a final presentation tool just to show off the project?
Early on the rendering process was so time consuming that it was impractical to be used as part of the creative process. There were projects though, where e.g. competition designs, were influenced by preview animation sequences. Gradually of course, animation has become a testing tool along with the final presentation.

How do you think Video has benefitted ZHA?
This should be judged by Woody Yao, Jim Heverin, Christos Passas and other ZHA associates. Or by the architects at the office at that time, who were most invested in Neutral's involvement: Markus Dochantschi and Ali Mangera.

I'd like to think that the early animations proved that Zaha had come up with a visual presentation in her paintings which seamlessly translated into the digital simulation, even if that had not been her intention at all. This has nothing to do with parametric computing but is a kind of aesthetic coincidence.

Have any other important thoughts about video at ZHA?
Although in private conversations and reviews Zaha seemed quite dismissive and critical of the animations, she loved showing them in her lectures, exhibitions etc and always credited us if they were made by Neutral. I now wish I would have asked her directly what they meant for her.

NEUTRAL AND ZAHA HADID. Neutral’s engagement with digital 3D imagery was never primarily about predicting a photoreal future nor attempting to visualise the finished architecture. Rather, it was about communicating stories and visualising processes in the 4 dimensions. The use of 3D modeling was still a novelty in architecture until the latter part of the 1990s. And animation as a communication tool was rare within architectural practice. Neutral’s work was initially based on the experimentation Christian Grou conducted as a student of architecture in Stuttgart and during a seminal exchange year at Tokyo University.

The start of a collaboration within the realm of moving image between Grou and Tapio Snellman also coincided with their shared time in Japan. “Seek.01,” their film exploring the intensity of life in Tokyo, was to become the foundation stone of Neutral, their partnership. It was chosen to be part of Cities on the Move, a Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru curated exhibition on Asian urbanity, which was launched at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1997. This single event provided a momentum for Neutral to become established as a creative partnership, with a studio in London’s Shoreditch.

From early on, the animation production at Neutral was based on the values of filmmaking. Architectural animation wasn’t just about moving a virtual camera along a path through space. It was also about storytelling, editing, cutting, sound, rhythm and atmosphere. Typography was as integral to the overall composition – as was sound design. And colours and textures weren’t meant to correspond with the reality of a finished building. Rather they were emphasizing the speed and dynamics of the movement. Although commissioned to advance and market architectural projects, it was an artform in its own right.

While Neutral was eventually commissioned to make animations by many practices worldwide, including Herzog & de Meuron, David Chipperfield, OMA, David Adjaye, Steven Holl, SOM, Foster and Partners among others, it was Zaha Hadid with whom they had the most enduring partnership over many years. The reason for this is obvious: while the main emphasis for most architects was the final appearance and functioning of a building, for Zaha Hadid and her team the starting point was almost always the imaginary morphological dynamics of architectural form. The building was always the seemingly last frame of a frozen movement, a process that could only really be explained through animation.

Neutral’s first attempt to explore Zaha Hadid’s architecture, was a compilation of three short clips created in 1998 as a test. The projects chosen were Vitra Fire Station, at that time the studio’s only permanent realised project, Holloway Bridge, a project won but not realised, and an abstract sequence based on one of Hadid’s acrylic paintings for a project in Berlin. This test revealed how well Zaha Hadid’s visual language adapted to the then new technology of 3D rendered imagery and animation. And crucially, it convinced Zaha Hadid herself that this form of communicating her ideas was the way forward. The first paid commission was the animation for a competition to design an extension to the historic Grand Hotel in Lugano in Switzerland. Years of commissions followed.

Neutral - The Test Compilation

Neutral, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA)

A frozen still frame with a startling aesthetic.

The test compilation contains the Neutral’s initial animation pitch for Zaha Hadid Architects, featuring the Holloway Road Bridge (University of North London), the Vitra Fire Station and an abstract segment in which Zaha Hadid’s paintings were turned into a 3D animation. This is the first installment of the collaboration between Neutral and ZHA, a minute-and-a-half long animation fueled by music and rhythm, that sett the tone for the following ones. It established the ‘Neutral approach’: visualizing the conceptual approach with abstract animations, before introducing the articulated architectural design.

The Holloway Road Bridge - the first-ever project of ZHA in the UK for the University of North London - sees two flows moving towards each other create a shape and direction which the structure follows. The sequence is also an early example of the nascent particle animation which precluded any parametrically defined forms.
An article appeared in 1999 on The Architects' Journal said: “The architect sees the bridge as 'a glowing information highway', with the internal corridor across the road acting as 'a digital newspaper for students with posters, bulletins, and audio display'. The external facade will act as an 'urban newspaper' carrying moving images and projection. There will be 'sky lobbies' at the landing points, incorporating cafes, libraries, and seminar rooms”.

The video for the Vitra Fire Station - conceived as an "endnote" for the Vitra Campus, it was one of Zaha's first realized projects in Weil am Rhein on the Swiss-German border.

As Tapio Snellman of Neutral stated: "the architectural concepts captured a dynamic movement and created a 'frozen still frame' with a startling aesthetic." Therefore "the sequence traces that movement and visualizes how the main elements of the building follow trajectories, fall into place and form the composition of the fire station."

The Vitra Fire Station was designed informed by the project for the Vitra Factory - a building conceived as the key element within a linear landscaped zone, the artificial extension of linear patterns in adjacent fields and vineyards – designed as a connecting unit rather than an isolated object; defining rather than occupying space.

The overall video gives us the sense of this dynamic movement and of startling aesthetic the projects are infused with, but only offers us glimpses of their overall structures, so, as we did for the London project, it might be useful to retrieve Zaha Hadid Architects' description of the fire station:

"The new fire station – long, linear, narrow – emerges as a layered series of tilted and breaking walls, between which program elements are contained within spaces visible only from a perpendicular viewpoint. On passing, brilliant red fire vehicles are glimpsed, their lines of movement inscribed in surrounding asphalt – a visual grammar also used to inscribe the ritualized exercises completed by fire teams. This building is 'movement frozen' – a vivid, lucid expression of the tensions necessary to remain 'alert', to explode into action as required. Walls appear to slide one across the other, main sliding doors form a 'moving' wall."

It is clear how the concept of the buildings and the video is the same: the swiftness, the rhythm to which the structure moves and dances and it is revealed in the video collimate with how the project itself should be experienced - thus, the video gives us, in advance on the real thing, the true feeling, and vibe of its design. The abstract segment, in this sense, is a perfect example of such an approach: it does not present a "real" project, but still gives us the exact feeling of a ZHA project, meaning it captures and, also, form our perception of the signature style of the studio.

(Story by Sara Marzullo, The Architecture Player)


Design: Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher
Mentioned projects: Holloway Road Bridge (1999), Vitra Fire Station (1990-1993)
Project location: London, United Kingdom, Weil am Rhein, Germany

United Kingdom 1999
Duration: 1'07"