November 4th, 2018

The paper architect

For a long time, Zaha Hadid was known as "the paper architect', someone whose grand designs never left the page to become real buildings. But in recent years her buildings have sprouted up like mushrooms all over the world: the Guangzhou Opera House in China, a car factory in Germany, a contemporary art museum in Rome, a transport museum in Scotland , and the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics in London.
Hadid is now one of the most sought after architects of our age. She is also one of the few women to have made it in a profession still dominated by men. In Britain, where Hadid lies (she was born in Iraq in 1950), less that 15% of practising architects are women. A lot more than that enter the profession, but either because of difficulty in getting recognised or because of the deep conservatism surrounding most British architecture, over half of them leave. But being 'a woman in a man's world' seems to have given Hadid extra strength. At times she felt she was banging her head against a wall trying to get her designs accepted, but she persevered. Famous for her fierce independence, one of her former tutors called her 'a planet in her own orbit'.
Pinning down her individual style is difficult. Certainly she has been influenced by the modern trend in architecture that likes to play with the traditional shape of buildings and fragment them, creating unpredictable angles and surfaces. Working in this way, she and her fellow architects have produced arious rather off the wall spaceship-like structures that seem to defy the normal laws of engineering, but which have intrigued and excited the public.
So the visual impact of her designs from the outside is clearly important to her, but Hadid maintains that the key consideration when she creates an architectural design is people's well-being. In other words, how they will feel inside the spaces she creates. This has drawn her increasingly to become interested in public projects, such as housing, schools and hospitals. Recently she won the RIBA Stirling Prize for her design of a school complex in Brixton, south London.
Shaped as a zig-zag, the steel and glass structure of Eelyn Grace Academy takes up only 1.4 hectares compared to eight hectares for a typical secondary school. To compensate for the lack of internal space, Hadid designed a building with lots of natural light and dramatic angles, so that students view the activity of other students from each different perspective within the structure. The masterstroke is the insertion of a 100m running track right in the middle of the site between buildings to celebrate the school's emphasis on sports.
This idea of offering the viewer multiple perspectives from within the building is a theme that runs through Hadid's work. Her most famous building, MAXXI - a museum for the 21st century - in Rome, is a great example. It is a complex and spectacular structure of interlocking concrete shapes. Inside spaces interconnect 'like winding streets compressed into one single site in the building', so that the visitor is surprised and charmed at each turn. The Rosenthal Center in Cincinattiproduces a similar effect. Like an extension of the street it sits on, it draws you in, with walkways directing you this way and that, and windows inviting you to sample the view. 'It's about promenading,' says Hadid, 'being able to pause, to look out, look above, look sideways.'
So what inspires someone like Hadid to produce such radically different buildings? She speaks in complimentary terms about the work of her contemporaries. She also cites the natural landscape and organic geological patterns as an influence. But it is not a question that she seems too concerned with and nor perhaps should we be. Hadid is an artist, sharing with us her vision of what buildings should be like and always, as she does so, trying to keep human interests - our interests as users and viewers - at heart. Perhaps we could do with more architects like her.

The story of the Aral Sea

A message form Life co-author Helen Stephenson

I remember reading about the Aral Sea a long time ago. I think it was one of the first environmental stories that had an impact on me. Since I first read about it, there have been twists and turns in the story, which these three short news items from the National Geographic news page explain.
April 2010. One sunday afternoon in Kazakhstan last August, three dozen fishermen met near the shore of the North Aral Sea. They brought food to eat and they had races and throwing contests. Afterwards, they relaxed telling stories and singing songs about the Aral Sea and fishing and how much they loved both of these things. For many years before this, there had been no reason to celebrate. The Aral Sea in Central Asia, once the fourth largest lake in the world, had shrunk because of irrigation and drought. Then in 2005, the Kazakh government and the World Bank constructed a dam that separated the northern and southern parts of the sea, allowing the northern part of the Aral Sea to start recover. There are fish in the water again and for the past four years, fishermen have come here to celebrate. {hili[ Micklin is a scientist who has been studying the sea since the 1980s. 'Nature can come back.' he says.

October 2014. Satellite images released this week show that the eastern part of the Aral Sea is completely dry. 'It is likely the first time it has completely dried up in 600 years,' said expert Philip Micklin. The Aral Sea once recovered 67,300 square kilometres. It's actually a freshwater lake, not a saltwater sea. since two of Central Asia's biggest rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, flow into it. The Aral Sea used to be a busy place. It provided work for 40,000 people and supplied the Soviet Union with a sixth of its fish. As the lake dried up, it separated into several small lakes which together were only a tenth of the lake's original size. The eastern part nearly dried up in 2009, but it recovered in 2010 after substantial rainfall. Now, it's completely dry.

June 2015. Yusup Kamalov, a scientist from Uzbekistan, is my guide. We're standing looking at a vast desert. Except that it's not like any other desert - there are abandoned fishing boats lying on the sand. Fifty years ago, the southern shore of the Aral Sea was right where we stand. Now it is 80 kilometres away to the northwest and we set off to drive to the water's edge. On the way, we pass oil and natural gas rigs standing on the sand. 'Each year a few more are put up,' says Kamalov. 'Can you imagine,' he says, 'that 40 years ago the water was 30 metres deep right here? Eventually, we see a silver line sparkling on the horizon. We reach the water and I try to swim - but the water is so salty I just float on the surface. And with 110 grams of salt per litre of water (compared to about 35 grams in the world's oceans), no fish are able to survive here. 'This is what the end of the world looks like,' says Kamalov.

Sea gypsies of Myanmar

We had bbeen travelling for a few hours when on the horizon we spotted the group of small hand-built boats, called kabang. The Moken are wary of strangers, so as we approached, I called out some reassuring words in their language. The family elder, Gatcha, was at first reluctant to stop. Outsiders have been harassing the Moken througout their history and his instinct told him to keep his distance. But after hearing that I had been researching the Moken way of life since 1982, in the end he accepted us into his 'home'.

Home for this nomadic sea people are the kabang, on which they live, eat and sleep for eight months of the year. In these light craft, they traverse the Mergui Archipelago, 800 islands dotted across the Andaman Sea, off Myanmar, collecting what they need to survive and moving on. They get by only on what they take from the sea and beaches each day - fish, molluscs and sandworms to eat; shells and oysters to trade with Malay and Chinese merchants. They accumulate little and live on land only during the monsoons. But the world is closing in on the Moken way of life.

As divers and beachcombers, they pose no threat to others who share these waters. In spite of this, the authorities are always pressuring them to settle in one place. Ten years ago, 2,500 Moken were still leading a traditional seafaring life, but that population is slowly declining and now stands at around 1,000. If they cease to be sea gypsies, it is feared that their unique understanding of the sea will disappear also. Moken people can dive down 20 metres without breathing equipment and have developed extraordinary underwater vision. They are experts at reading changes in the sea and it is even said they can anticipate a tsunami.

A day spent fishing and gathering was followed by a night of eating and ritual. The following morning Gatcha and his family pushed out to sea to continue their journey. The dry season was nearing its end and soon they would be setting up a temporary camp on kand. But just as the rains come and go, I wonder if the Moken still be living here when I next return.

Living free?

The Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania live a life that has not changed much in over ten thousand years. They have no crops, no livestock, no permanent shelters. In spite of long exposure to agriculturalist groups around them, who have domesticated both plants and animals, the Hadza have maintained their foraging lifestyle.
The story of the spread of agriculture is the story of growing population density. Villages formed, then cities, then nations. And in a relatively brief period, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was extinguished in all but a few places. Africulture's rise, however, came with a price. It introduced infectious disease epidemics, social stratification, intermittent famines and large-scale war. Professor Jared Diamond of UCLA has called the adoption of agriculture 'the worst mistake in human history' - a mistake from which we have never recovered.Collapse )