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Saturday, 3 September 2011

A Meditation on the Beauty of Zaha Hadid's Door Handle

Hadid's design issues a challenge: define beauty by lyrically playing with illusion.

By Norman Weinstein
October 28, 2010

“Beauty is the most difficult of all things.” – Aubrey Beardsley to W.B. Yeats

Beauty must be the most difficult of all things to analyze architecturally. And that might explain the term’s long banishment from the halls of architecture schools. “I was heckled at Harvard by a critic for saying that it was beauty that I’m always going for,” Victoria Meyers, a founding partner of New York City-based hanrahanMeyers architects, recently wrote to me. And on the other hand, neo-conservatives aesthetes like Roger Scruton and John Silber want to own their cozy corner of beauty with impunity, rigid as a steel beam in “knowing” absolutely what they mean by beauty in design, neo-Palladianism with clotted cream, so who’s to doubt?

Adding to the carnivalesque verbiage about architectural beauty, I stumbled across this description of a door handle (for Valli & Valli) by Zaha Hadid that warrants attention:

“A door handle that captures the seamless beauty which is synonymous with the work of Zaha Hadid. It was designed expressly for the communal spaces and the rooms of the floor she created for the Puerta America Hotel in Madrid, characterized by a dynamic and strongly customized architecture.

“The coldness of the material fuses effortlessly with the sensual fluidity of the design. The spatial formation defies a beginning and an end. Pure lines merge organically into a harmonious link creating a spatial journey of beauty and intricacy. On the occasion of the forthcoming marketing launch of this series, the rose has been specially designed as an irregular form characterized by symmetrical lines that unequivocally recall the grip’s pattern.”

The marketing hype language is too easy a target to critique. So let’s delve under the heated hyped copy and consider the implicit description of beauty in design by Hadid’s spokesperson(s), assuming it has her blessing, or might possess the tang of her talking directly:

The handle is seamless, as most handles thankfully have been for millennia, so functionality is assured. The explicit reference to “beauty” occurs in “Pure lines merge organically into a harmonious link creating a spatial journey of beauty and intricacy.” Although much of the copy avoids elucidation – the handle is beautiful because ultimately it is described in terms saying so – there’s food for thought in “spatial journey” as an attractively evolving definition of design beauty. Spatial journey harks back to Le Corbusier who emphasized the beauty of a building surfacing only as an observer walked past it, a kinetic aesthetic experience bypassed by virtual “walk-throughs” since we’re sitting stock still in front of a computer monitor supposedly experiencing a walk-through in the age of high-tech BIM-bling.

Now if Hadid’s handle is a spatial journey, hence beautiful, then it follows that the door handle is a microcosm of the equally beautiful Puerta American Hotel. In fact, to get a handle on this, the door handle, literally and symbolically, begins the journey toward architectural beauty, as Z’s zig-zag.

Rather than beauty being a thing, a quality an architectural design encodes, embodies, materializes with finality, then architectural beauty is perpetually a journey toward what multi-dimensional, multi-sensory pleasures emerge during the architecture’s lifespan. So any attempt to discuss architectural beauty might need to treat it as a time-released energy flow. If John Silber wants to deal with his “architecture of absurdity,” he should examine his fixed images of immortal architecture floating in some Platonic realm far from Boston. Absurdity indeed. Real architecture ages without the miracle of Botox. It even becomes dated, even for Stalinist preservationists in rare instances, its beauty finally faded beyond redemption.

But back to the description of Hadid’s handle: note the reference to thermal delight: “The coldness of the material fuses effortlessly with the sensual fluidity of the design.” Can design beauty ever materialize effortlessly? My guess is that’s her marketer’s rhetoric. But the implication of a dialectical play between warmth and iciness in her vision could be Hadid talking. So might the Zen-koan-ness of “The spatial formation defies a beginning and an end.” Of course it doesn’t literally. It’s a bloody door handle for a hotel conference room, not a handle bigger than the earth. But I love the futuristic ambitiousness and lyrical play with illusion, the poetics of beauty, that would make any door handle the stuff of an Oz-world defying conventional beginning or end.

Here’s a challenge for students currently working in the studio. Spend a day or week meditating on Hadid’s handle. Design your own home that would seamlessly integrate her handle. Make it as beautiful as the handle. Make a model of your domicile with Hadid handles. Defend your design at a crit beginning with “Beauty is the most difficult of all things.” Just don’t blame me if you find yourself in the future driving a cab for a living instead of designing for the stars. Defending beautiful architecture in front of certain academic personalities can’t be any less difficult than creating it.

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at

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