The Resurrection of Zaha Hadid
Five years ago, our region botched the chance to build a bold structure designed by one of the world’s greatest architects. Now she’s gone. Let’s bring her spirit back.
In the pre-recession days of 2006, Elk Grove was flying high, ranked by the U.S. Census Bureau as the fastest-growing city in America. And for a time, its civic ambitions seemed to match its prodigious growth rate. The city decided to convert 78 acres of undeveloped land into a $159 million civic center, complete with amenities as diverse as a library, an aquatic center, soccer fields and even a performing arts center.
And no other action spoke more powerfully to its lofty goals than the city’s shockingly bold decision to hire one of the most cutting-edge architects in the world, the Baghdad-born, London-based Zaha Hadid, to fashion the project’s master plan—deciding where each component would go and how all the pieces would fit together.
It appeared, at the time, that Elk Grove fostered hopes of becoming an international destination by commissioning Hadid’s firm—first to do the master plan and then perhaps the actual design—to create a structure that would likely catapult the Sacramento suburb into the world’s spotlight, à la Bilbao, Spain, whose Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry turned the city into a global mecca for art and architecture enthusiasts.
Alas, Elk Grove’s unbridled ambition did not survive the recession.
When the economy nosedived, the project was indefinitely tabled. But by 2010, as the long, slow recovery began, discussions with Hadid’s firm resumed.
Frankly, it was an extraordinary coup for the city to even catch Hadid’s discerning eye. Among her projects: the aquatic center for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the much-heralded Cincinnati Art Museum, the Guangzhou Opera House in China, and a new stadium in Qatar that in 2022 will host the largest professional sporting event on the planet—the FIFA World Cup.
By early 2011, however, as a fresh round of renderings for the Elk Grove civic center emerged, Elk Grove’s political structure had changed. The then-new mayor, Steven Detrick, and most of the newly elected City Council—along with a smattering of citizens who showed up to the final council presentation by Hadid’s project architect Bozana Komljenovic—openly mocked the design as resembling a “squid” or “starfish” or “spaceship,” seemingly unaware of the avant-garde biomorphic style that marked the work of the first female architect to win the Pritzker Prize.
The project, it seemed, was doomed. Mayor Detrick vowed to fight the participation of Hadid’s firm, and the relationship came to an abrupt end.
That was five years ago.
And on March 31 of this year, Hadid died of a heart attack at age 65.
Suddenly, her civic center proposal for Elk Grove has taken on new meaning. It is now one of a finite number of designs created or overseen by one of our generation’s greatest creative minds.
So, let’s build it.
Naturally, it would make sense at the site for which it was designed. But the city of Elk Grove is moving quickly towards a scaled-down vision for the project, which now also includes a senior center with bocce ball courts, that it hopes the city council will approve in July, with the first phase set to break ground next year.
But it makes even more sense in Sacramento, building on the momentum and modern designs of the Kings arena and surrounding developments.
The most obvious choice of location, given the project’s scale, is the railyards, whose urban design footprint is not yet set in stone. Among the structure’s potential uses: A convention center, a university, residential space, retail space, or perhaps even a new intermodal transportation hub where high-speed rail will eventually link Sacramento to the rest of the state. What better home for 21st-century travel than this futuristic design?
Or perhaps West Sacramento might add it to its riverfront’s burgeoning architectural menagerie that now includes the distinctive Ziggurat building and the spectacular new curvilinear Barn structure.
If you think moving a design from one site to another is unusual, think again. Plenty of celebrated architects have created a design for one site or city and then reimagined it elsewhere. In 1929, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a 19-story tower for a client in New York City. Unable to get financing during the Depression, the building, now known as the Price Tower, was eventually built in Bartlesville, Okla. In the 1950s, architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius designed a performing arts center for Tallahassee, Fla. When the city rejected it, it reemerged in a slightly altered form in, of all places, Baghdad.
In fact, such a transplant almost happened right here in Sacramento in 2005 when architect Daniel Libeskind, who had designed towers for the World Trade Center site in New York that were never realized, tweaked the details of one of the towers—basically adding balconies—for a high-rise condo project here. The revised version of the skyscraper was almost developed at 6th and Capitol as the 39-story Aura condo tower, but fell victim to the same recession that scuttled Hadid’s Elk Grove project.
Hadid’s international reputation rivals that of history’s greatest architects. In 2003, The New York Times’ then-architecture critic Herbert Muschamp called Hadid’s Cincinnati museum “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War.” Think about it—what if we found out that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a building for the Sacramento region, but it was never constructed? We’d be absolutely crazy not to resurrect it.
Here’s the reality: Sacramento has an extraordinary dearth of boldly designed buildings—the kind of landmarks that lend a city its identity. Most of our finest large structures, in fact, were constructed between the 1860s (the State Capitol) and the 1920s (like the Elks Tower and Memorial Auditorium). There are certainly some exceptions, but they are few and far between.
This is an opportunity for California’s capital city to construct an instant architectural icon (and tourist attraction), and become one of a select few cities to be graced by the aesthetic influence of one of the world’s most celebrated architects.
If 2016 Sacramento can’t bring itself to think as big and as bold as 2006 Elk Grove, well, then I guess we deserve all the bocce ball courts that we get.