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Architecture ‘as pure and sexy as Marilyn's blown skirt.’

The Heydar Aliyev Center.
The Heydar Aliyev Center.
Photo: Iwan Baan.

An architect wins a top prize from London’s Design Museum and it’s hard to understand why.

Zaha Hadid’s plan for the Heydar Aliyev Center, a museum in Baku, Azerbaijan (Caspian Sea region), looks like a building collapsing on itself or maybe a headless white whale with a large gaping hole exposing its insides. Ugh.

According to reports the jury “argued heatedly for and against” before it came to a unanimous decision that “this architecture should make us talk for years to come.”

It certainly will be talked about if people see how jury member Piers Gough, CZWG Architects LLP sees Hadid’s design – “as pure and sexy as Marilyn's blown skirt” (a reference to a famed photo of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway air vent that shoots her skirt up during the filming of the 1954 “The Seven Year Itch”).

Jury member Ben Terrett, Government Digital Service, had a better reason to vote for Hadid’s design: “Too often with this type of design it's a facade of something interesting put on top of the usual box. This is different.”

His thought echoes mine in 2010 when this column talked about new art museum architecture that appeared to take its cue from Wal-Mart big box stores. To distinguish themselves, they sport add-ons, like the glass blob oozing over the empty face of Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

Then came a variant of the big box look - the grossly misshapen box. Firstsite, a visual art center in Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town, looks like architect Rafael Vinoly ran out of building material to hold one end up.

Hadid is known for spinning buildings out of shape. Her design for London’s Evelyn Grace Academy features a dizzying zigzag of steel and glass that earned her Britain’s coveted 2011 Stirling Prize for architecture.

Never mind that a zigzag configuration is out of place for a place of learning and more fitting for an amusement park on the order of, say, Wonderworks museum in Orlando, Florida.

Now that I think of it, jury architect Piers Gough has it right. Better than comparing Hadid’s newest project to a collapsing building or a beached whale is likening Hadid’s newest project to “Marilyn's blown skirt.”

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