Chez Zaha Hadid

On the last day at NGW (Recurse Center) last May, I got the idea to prepare a little impromptu extracurricular presentation. However, by the time I’d put something together, there weren’t many people left in the space. So I am blogging it instead.

This is a broad overview of the firm Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), and more particularly why, from what I’ve been able to observe, this architecture firm is becoming a bit of a startup hub. Below is a link to the slides, and further down, my comment on each slide. Those can also be found in the speaker notes of the slides document.


1) Title

2) Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), one of the major architects of our time, until her sudden death a couple of years ago. She was at the top of her game. Her firm ZHA is based in Clerkenwell, London.

The majority of the slides (3-16) were meant at a cursive look at my selection the studio’s major works :

3) London Olympics Aquatics Centre

4) Tour CGA/CGM, Marseille

5) Detail

6) BMW Central Building, Leipzig

7-8) Detail, showing how assembly line runs through office space

9) Heydar Aliyev cultural centre, Baku

10) Hotel Fereshteh Pasargad, Tehran (under construction)

11) 520W 28th St (on the Highline)

12) Sheikh Zayed Bridge, Abu Dhabi

13) Wangjing SOHO, Beijing

14) Tokyo Olympic Stadium (cancelled)

15) Kind Abdullah Petrouleum Studies and Research Centre (KAPSARC), Riyadh Designed as “a compressed configuration of lattice cells”

16) One Thousand Museum condo tower, Miami (under construction)

17-18) Here, a quick look at some CAD tools that architects use : the old and trusted AutoCAD, as well as newer tools such as Rhino3D, which is particularly good at designing and modelling curved surfaces.

19) Some groups within ZHA I was interested in : “ZHA CoDe” which researches computational architectural design. “ZHA VR Group” which sounds interesting as well.

20) Let’s now look at a couple of ZHA spinout startups, also based in London. Automata Technologies is a startup that wants to make affordable robotic arms. Its founders Suryansh Chandra and Mostafa Elsayed are former ZHA architects. I once had a chat with Mostafa for a possible job. They sounded enthusiastic and capable jacks-of-all-trades, but still in the process of learning tech startup culture.

21) AI Build is also a startup founded by two ZHA architects, Daghan Cam and Michail Desyllas. Their product also looks a bit like a robotic arm, but with a different objective : bringing manufacturing techniques to the world of large-scale construction.

22) This is Patrik Schumacher, the new director of Zaha Hadid Architects. He introduced the concept cum style of “parametricism” (manifesto), which is to say, in a nutshell, that ideally, any design should be continuously parametrable. In other words “all elements of the design become independent and parametrically variable”.

“While in the past, there was a strong allegiance for rigid geometrical figures, now, a conceptual definition of parametricism shows that ‘the new primitives are animate, dynamic, and interactive entities—splines, nurbs, and subdivs—that act as building blocks for dynamic systems.’”

See also :

23-26) To illustrate the kind of technical problems starchitect firms have to deal with, I picked as example the Wangjing SOHO buildings (Beijing, 2015) The curved cladding panels are each individually defined in CAD, from the building’s global dimention parameters. Should this be generated with the simplest algorithm, it would result in doubly curved panels (slide 26), so as to accurately match the shape of the building. Unfortunately, doubly curved sheet metal panels are much costlier and more difficult to make, as compared to singly curved panels.

To resolve this, the architect wrote a VBScript within Rhino3D to generate suitable singly curved panels for the project. Some quoted text on the slide explains this further. (It is extracted from

What was the point of this presentation ?

I wanted to show that these days, architects often deal with problems that are only solvable in code.

From this fact, one starts to understand how some architect firms may become a “mini startup hub”. As the culture of tech startups further spreads into society, more and more architects will consider of a spinout startup as good career option. Not only are they obviously quite familiar with the problems in their field of architecture and construction (AEC), but some have build up fairly solid and/or wide coding and tech skills. On the other hand, very few CS graduates have a deep understanding of the current challenges of AEC.