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Concrete monstrosity or work of beauty?

The design aims to bring old and new together

Dubbed queen of the curve, following her death on Thursday, world renowned architect Zaha Hadid did not live to see the completion of her controversial design for Nicosia’s Eleftheria square, a project that is still causing waves as it edges towards completion.

Architecture critic Rowan Moore wrote in The Observer in 2013 that ten years ago she was the architect who couldn’t get anything built. Now, her buildings are everywhere. But she divided opinion: some said she was a genius, while others suggested she had lost touch with her original ideas.

Hadid gained a reputation across the world for her trail-blazing theoretical works, including The Peak in Hong Kong, the Kurfurstendamm office building in Berlin and the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales.

Her list of designs includes famous buildings such as the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games, the Maxxi Museum in Italy, the Guangzhou Opera House in China and the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Azerbaijan.

But a large number of her early designs remained unbuilt. However, prize money, a coterie of adoring interns, her stalwart practice partner Patrik Schumacher and her determination kept her going and she tackled projects that traditional architects would have frowned upon, including a stage set for Pet Shop Boys and the Mind Zone in the Millennium Dome.

Eventually, as the software was developed that could turn a complex curve on a computer screen into a laser-cut metal panel, the bigger commissions came her way.

Born in Baghdad in 1950, she studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut before starting her design journey in 1972 at the Architectural Association in London.

More than 40 years later, the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) announced Dame Zaha as the recipient of its prestigious 2016 Royal Gold Medal, approved personally by the Queen.

The Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany
The Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany

She was the first woman to be awarded the honour in her own right.

She won acclaim in Scotland for designing the popular Riverside Museum in Glasgow, known for its distinctive roof structure.

Her first major built commission was the Vitra Fire Station in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, in 1993.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. She has twice won the UK’s most prestigious architecture award, the Riba Stirling Prize – in 2010 for the Maxxi Museum in Rome, and in 2011 for the Evelyn Grace Academy in London.

Other awards include the Republic of France’s Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale.

In 2012, Hadid was honoured in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for services to architecture.

But what is wonderful for some is an eyesore for others.

Nicosia Mayor Constantinos Yiorkadjis expressed sorrow for Hadid’s death.

“We are saddened by the fact that she will not be able to see the Eleftheria Square project completed,” he said. “But she leaves behind a significant legacy with all the wonderful projects she has designed around the world, including Eleftheria Square, at the centre of the capital of Cyprus.”

From the moment it was unveiled, almost a decade ago, the plan for Nicosia’s Eleftheria Square sparked controversy, which still rages on as the project nears completion after many delays.

Some describe it as a work of art, others say it is just a concrete slab that would probably end up full of graffiti.

Hadid defended the plan in 2008, saying it would do more than just connect places, but also people.

The opening up of the moat and its redesign would provide a space in the city for people to move freely, she said, adding that the evolution of a place didn’t just depend on its design, but on the people too.

Having lived in Beirut, the architect highlighted the importance of reflecting the “layers of history” in a place, rather than letting them disappear.

She noted the “stunning light” of the Mediterranean would have a great impact on the project, even in the shaded area of the park under the new bridge.

The Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku Azerbaijan
The Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku Azerbaijan

Asked why she did not visit Cyprus before designing the project, Hadid said there was no fixed rule on this and that it depended on the project.

“Sometimes it’s better when I don’t see it first, and when I start the project quite abstract. If I go, I might change my mind and start again,” she quipped, noting that she was known in her circles as the “Option Girl”.

“I want 20 options because I think there’s always a better solution.”

Hadid said she could respond well to the project because of her team’s enhanced repertoire, and the years of research, observations, and ideas on architectural designs, as well as her associates’ continuous visits to the site and their local knowledge.

She praised the two Cypriots in her office who played an integral role in the new design, Christos Passas, the Project Architect, and Saffet Bekiroglu.

Passas noted that the moat had been neglected, divided and unused to date. The new project will reunify all its parts and create access “for people to see where they want to go and just go”.

The design’s fluidity and the cool, shaded areas under the bridge will allow for 10-20 different types of users, as well as the traditional open public events, gatherings and concerts, he said.

Former Nicosia mayoral candidate and archaeologist Anna Marangou, who led a lobby group entitled ‘Nicosia Citizens against the Transformation of Eleftheria Square’, had sent letters to various European institutions and UNESCO objecting to the plans.

Marangou had labelled the project an “imposing concrete monstrosity”.

“The Venetian Wall is an unparallel monument and it’s being drowned by a sea of cement thrown casually in front of it. That’s completely unacceptable. They are mimicking similar projects done in Dubai but forget that Cyprus has neither sand nor the financial capability to match Dubai,” Marangou said.

It was something Hadid had heard before.

“I’m expected to want everything to be nice, and to be nice myself,” she told Evening Standard architecture critic Robert Bevan. “I don’t design nice buildings,” she added. “I don’t like them”.

The project’s supporters argued the material used would ensure that the country’s hot weather would not be a problem, highlighting the large open yet shaded spaces created by the bridge over the park.

Eleftheria Square was not part of the original construction of the Venetian walls and first took the form of a bridge constructed during the British colonial era, erected in 1882.

Hadid’s architectural concept to redesign the square beat another 46 designs in a Europe-wide competition in May 2005.

When the first contracts were signed, back in December 2011 – when Eleni Mavrou was mayor – it was triumphantly announced that the project will be finished by March 2013.

When the fanfare died down and the confetti disappeared, it became evident that completing the project in 2013 would not require just diggers and manual labour.

The contractor who won the tender in 2011, Miltiades Neofytou Civil Engineering Contractors & Developers Ltd, finally gave up on the job after repeated delays drove building costs up and led to a legal dispute with the municipality.

The reasons for the delays were numerous, including work carried out by the Antiquities Department on the Venetian wall.

But the most serious dispute was between the contractor, the municipality and Hadid.

Architect and contractor disagreed often on the project with the most widely reported example being that they had argued for nine months over the colour of the concrete to be used in the erection of the bridge’s support structures.

Following a public disagreement, the contractor finally abandoned the project in 2014. The company had previously requested a 522-day extension and €3mln in compensation

Faced with the possibility of not finishing the project on time and losing the EU funds, the municipality settled with the contractor, paying the company €530,000.

The municipality went to new tenders and work started anew in January 2015, with the completion deadline set at 18 months.

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