Editorial: Zaha’s Unbuilt Canadian Projects

A view of Zaha Hadid’s 2000 competition proposal for the Grande Bibliothèque de Québec in Montreal. Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.
A view of Zaha Hadid’s 2000 competition proposal for the Grande Bibliothèque de Québec in Montreal. Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.

Zaha Hadid’s unexpected death at the end of March sent shockwaves through the global architectural community. Only 65 and at the head of a thriving global practice, Hadid suffered a heart attack while being treated for bronchitis at a Miami hospital.

On two occasions, Canada came close to having a Hadid design—she was on the shortlist for the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec in Montreal (2000) and the Edmonton Art Gallery (2005).

For the Montreal Library, Hadid and Quebec City firm Boutin Ramoisy Tremblay proposed a series of sculptural, swooping forms that traced pathways through the interior. Horizontal aluminum slats would have clad the glazed façades, bringing the sense of dynamism from inside to out. The linear, layered drawings strongly recall Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome, designed around the same time.

Hadid’s entry received an honourable mention from the jury. They wrote that they were “particularly impressed by Hadid’s work in opening new ways of understanding a library, proposing pathways of knowledge that become an invitation to an adventurous journey and the discovery of new spaces.” They added, “The model reveals a dimensionally rich urban sculpture composed of original forms, with a strong metaphoric character, fluidity and lush interior spaces.”

“The ‘Bilbao Effect’ was in the air,” recalls Phyllis Lambert. “Hopes hung on Zaha Hadid and Christian de Portzamparc [another of the four finalists]. However, ambition bowed to pragmatism: the librarian members of the 2000 competition jury, more familiar with North American literalness than with European conceptualization, could not understand the plans, and with a tight money economy, the client was fearful of cost overruns.”

For the competition to expand the Edmonton Art Gallery (since renamed the Art Gallery of Alberta), Hadid teamed with Kasian Architecture to produce a proposal that was selected by the architects on the jury. However, in a political twist, their decision was overturned by local representatives, including the gallery director and board chair, who named Los
Angeles-based Randall Stout as the winner.
In part, it seems that Hadid had insulted Prairie hospitality by being the only finalist not to show up in Edmonton for the competition presentation.

In Hadid’s scheme, the gallery’s existing Brutalist orthogonal volume holds the street corner, and is topped by a controlled series of trapezoidal volumes, which Hadid referred to as “three totemic figures.” These frame a skylit gallery at the upper level.

“Zaha Hadid’s design for the Art Gallery of Alberta shows her at the height of her powers, shortly after her Pritzker win,” says architecture critic Trevor Boddy, FRAIC. “The heart of Don Bittorf’s original gallery was a gracious winding stair that rose up to skylights—her design builds on this spatial logic with new gallery spaces stacked above, but expressed in her own idiom. It is a huge architectural loss to my hometown that they chose not to build this masterpiece of a powerful but respectful addition to a Brutalist gem on the Prairies.”

These two near-misses recall the adage that the second place in competitions often goes to the most innovative project, while the first place goes to a more familiar solution.

Zaha Hadid’s designs were challenging, and she didn’t feel the need to simplify them for the sake of a non-architect jury. Her renderings were evocative, but could be hard to understand, even for trained architects. She didn’t care to play the glad-handing game to garner favour—the quality of the work itself was what counted.

Clearly, at least some of the jurors for both of these competitions saw the spark of genius in Zaha Hadid’s entries. Had they taken a leap of faith with the exuberant renderings and models, would Canada have struck architectural gold? Sadly, we’ll never know.