By Edwin Heathcote
The description of any vaguely futuristic architecture as sci-fi is overused, but occasionally there is just no other way to describe it. Zaha Hadid, who died two years ago, was the paragon of this approach to construction as a glimpse into an otherworldly, dreamlike field of potential. And the only private house she realised during her career is perhaps the most strangely sci-fi of all.
The late architect Zaha Hadid
Situated in the Barvikha forest outside Moscow, the Capital Hill Residence is utterly unlike anything else outside a film. The master bedroom rises on a stalk, lifting it above the canopy of the trees, and the whole structure seems to be streamlined for some kind of supersonic travel, as if it had motion somehow embedded in its form.
The house was commissioned by property magnate Vladislav Doronin, chief executive and owner of Aman Resorts and Capital Group. Initially he had commissioned Hadid to design an apartment building in Moscow which didn’t go ahead. “But,” he says, “I still wanted to build with her because she was so unique and talented — I wouldn’t give up.”
The two became friends and when Doronin acquired this plot in the forest, he went back to Hadid. “We had lunch at the Wolseley in London and I asked her to build my house. I said I want to wake up in the morning and not see anybody, just to look over the top of the trees. She drew a sketch on the napkin and I said, ‘You’re hired’.”
Remarkably, what was built was very close to the seemingly impossible structure outlined in those early sketches. “She wanted this skinny leg,” recalls Doronin. “The contractors and engineers said, ‘We can’t do this’ — but she was right.” They could. And they did.
The dominant image of the building is of the spaceship-like bridge poking above the trees, but in fact a huge house lies beneath. It is reputed to have cost $140m and comprises 36,000 sq ft of accommodation. The capsule hovering above the forest is the tip of the iceberg, with most of the structure embedded in the ground, half-buried into the sloping site.
“I have a 20-metre pool, a spa and a nightclub down there,” Doronin says. There is also, of course, a gym, a Japanese garden and the other necessities for a house this eye-wateringly expensive.
In a strange way, it is the jacking-up of the tower that reduces the visual impact of the house. Suspending the tripartite shell on three slender, 30m-high concrete columns — between two of which is a glassed-in lift shaft — draws the eye up from the vast mass on the forest floor. In breaking up all the forms into seemingly self-contained, yet completely connected, volumes, this huge house is shattered into a shower of fragments half-submerged into the wooded ground as if they had crashed into the earth following a cosmic explosion.
There is a precedent here: Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam in Germany. Completed in 1922, this was one of the earliest landmarks of expressionist architecture and an attempt to embody Albert Einstein’s ideas about space and time in built form: a streamlined, strange tower with an observatory at its top like a huge brain.
Hadid, with her maths degree and profound interest in science, must surely have been thinking of this other piece of cosmological architecture, located amid the greenery of a park outside Berlin, when conceiving the Capital Hill Residence. Only now, the technology has moved on so that Mendelsohn’s organic forms — which had been conceived for reinforced concrete but were eventually constructed in a compromise of stuccoed brick — can now be refined and realised to dramatic effect.
The Capital Hill Residence is, in a way, a celebration of early visionary modernism, from expressionism through constructivism and the visual dematerialisation of architecture, making it appear as something fast-moving and organic, rather than fixed and static.
Patrik Schumacher, Hadid’s former business partner and now head of her eponymous architecture studio, says of the house: “It has Zaha’s signature features of organic intricacy, complexity, of spatial arrangements, a lot of surprises, a lot of craftiness and beauty in the honing of the shape and forms.” But even more than that, it is, in the words of both architect and client, a “dream house” — as much fantasy as reality, an idea of architecture that still seems somehow impossible.
Photographs: courtesy of OKOGroup.com; Mary McCartney