A Park Lane hotel is the setting of the launch for investors in Zaha Hadid's latest project, the Opus development. It's a gorgeous May afternoon and the hotel is buzzing with activity way before Hadid has even arrived. We all feel like we are waiting for the arrival of a queen from a distant land. She is only coming from her office in Clerkenwell. But that doesn't matter to the media circus that has descended on the hotel; to them Hadid is architectural royalty.
Hadid finally arrives in a black BMW limo. It's all too much for some onlookers as a member of the client team knocks a model of the Opus project off its perch. Cue red faces from the Opus's developer, Omniyat Properties, but not a flicker from Hadid and her project designer, Christos Passas. Wearing an electric fuschia-coloured silk jacket, she just looks slightly bemused. It is regal, a little intimidating and a delight to watch.
When Hadid is introduced following a long welcome from Mehdi Amjad, CEO of Omniyat Properties, the throng automatically burst into spirited applause.
"What struck me," she begins, "was that it would be interesting to do something other than a high rise in Dubai." Surrounded completely by men, mainly expensively tailored Middle Eastern investors, Hadid is holding court. The screen behind her shows sketches of the project, but not the über-slick computer-generated images her firm is known for – all moody blues and blacks. Hadid tells us this is to tease us until the official launch, breezily calling it the 'delayed ecstasy factor.' We can't get enough.
It is difficult to get away from the feeling of glamour surrounding the development. Opus is one of several high-profile projects commissioned in the UAE and is the Iraqi-born architect's second project here; in January 2007 Hadid was commissioned to build Saadiyat's Performing Arts Centre in Abu Dhabi. She joins an extraordinary list of architects working in the UAE, which is fast becoming a playground where architects can let their imaginations (and their clients' budgets) run wild.
Attention is focused on the cultural projects on Saadiyat Island. Frank Gehry is designing the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Jean Nouvel is designing the Louvre Museum, while Tadao Ando is working on the Maritime Museum.
It's a busy time for the Pritzker Prize-winning architect; her latest commissions add up to around 18 designs. Aside from the Opus, Hadid is working on masterplans in Singapore and Istanbul, a skyscraper in Marseille, a museum of modern art in Rome and the Aquatic Centre for the 2012 London Olympics.
In 2006 she completed two substantial projects in Germany: a car factory for BMW and the Phaeno Science Centre, for which she was shortlisted for the 2006 RIBA Stirling Prize and won the 2006 LEAF Best Structural Design Award.
Hadid is also the subject of exhibitions. Following on from a retrospective of her work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year, the Design Museum in London is currently showing the first full-scale show of her work in the UK.
Despite being a design for an office, the Opus project has all the surreal characteristics of Hadid's best works. "The whole idea started with breaking an existing language of form through the idea of fragmentation," explains Hadid. "I think we have come full circle today in how you can actually manipulate form and the city." When completed, Opus will appear as a cube-like structure hovering above the ground.
"We wanted to do something unexpected and have the primitive form of a cube," she explains, "but not leave it like that and instead have it eroded and carved away. For a long time we have been working on an idea of carving, of carving the world, carving the mass and looking at topography and landscape, but this was done always on ground projects. What is interesting now is that we are now doing it with high-rise."
Landscape is something that really inspires Hadid. She once said that she wanted to create buildings that would "sparkle like isolated jewels." Hadid wants her buildings to have a raw, earthy quality that connects, flows together and interacts with cities and citizens. Opus is no exception.
Located in the Business Bay district near the World Trade Centre and fringed by the Burj Dubai development, the 22-storey development will consist of three separate towers designed to appear as a single cube-shaped structure.
A major feature will be the hole through its centre, dubbed 'the void', which will be clad in reflective curved glass. "The idea was to create carves and openings with a view to the city and landmark buildings that are adjacent," adds Hadid.
The separate buildings are conceived as a solid, unified mass, which takes the form of a cube appearing to hover off the ground. The cube is carved or eroded by a freeform void and is structured by a conventional system of slabs stacked vertically and serviced by central cores, allowing for the areas near the facade to be occupied on all eight sides.
Within the 1.7 million square foot development, there will be a retail area on the ground, first and second floors, while the top floor will feature a 'tranquillity zone', beach deck and reflective pool.
The void, which is treated as a volume in its own right, is totally fluid, cutting through the edges of the cube and seeming to extend beyond the immediate boundaries of the cube. The interior of the void is clad in tinted double-glazing, allowing for views into this space. "I wanted it to be a very large window to the city," explains Hadid. "This is where the idea of the void became a critical factor."
Hadid's design incorporates reflexive fritting patterns in the form of pixilated striatons which will be applied onto the glass facade to provide a degree of reflectivity and materiality to the cube while reducing solar gains inside the building. These striations dematerialize the building's mass, while the surface appears to capture images of both the outside and inside worlds.
What seems certain is that, once completed, Opus will look like no office ever seen before. "I am interested in new kinds of geometry," Hadid says. Her singular vision and unique sense of space will guarantee that 9–5 will never be quite the same again. Hail the Queen.
The Opus project will be officially launched at the Cityscape property exhibition in Dubai in October 2007.