Earlier this week, Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, won the design of the year award, given out each year by the Design Museum in London. It was chosen from a shortlist of over 70 nominees, which covered everything from fashion to furniture, transport to digital and graphic to product design. This year marks the first time that the award, now in its seventh year, has been given to an architectural project – and the first time it has been given to a woman.
The building itself is quintessential Hadid. Straight lines and geometry are ditched in favour of sinuous shapes; the cultural centre rises up from the main plaza in one contorted surface that laps up and down. A conference hall, gallery and museum are all housed beneath its waves.
That the Heydar Aliyev Center has won awards is perhaps no surprise. Hadid’s studio is undoubtedly one of the most illustrious and popular in the world today, whether you like it or not. That it has won this award is what is most startling.
Out of all the design and architecture prizes doled out each year – and there are many – the Design Museum’s has always seemed the least focused. One has to wonder what can be learned in comparing a smartphone app to a fashion collection, or indeed a museum in Mexico City to a calendar made of Lego. But that’s not the point. What is the point is pooling together offbeat projects in quiet corners of the world where design has transformed, united or improved life in its own unique way – and then exhibiting them in a summer-long exhibition.
Last year, the British government’s website won the award; the year before it went to the London 2012 Olympic torch; and the year before that, a low-energy light bulb. The jury has never been afraid to be populist; the fact that London-based design studio Barber Osgerby won for an Olympic torch shows that.
But each of the previous winners demonstrated the cause and effect of good design. Beyond the way it looks – and it certainly packs a punch – the Heydar Aliyev Center seems to have done very little to make the world a better place. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s been accused of a dodgy human-rights record, with 250 homes allegedly cleared to make way for it.
Chair of the jury Ekow Eshun said of the winner, “It’s beautiful – it’s inspiring.” That may be the case – but it’s certainly no way near as beautiful in spirit as Tezuka Architects’ child chemotherapy centre in Osaka, nor is it as inspiring as a floating school in Nigeria made of makeshift materials such as offcuts and bamboo (both projects were nominated in the same architecture category).
They may lack the visual authority of this eye-grabbing cultural centre but this award has never been about looks: it’s been about use, function and purpose. These assets are more beautiful and inspiring and should be more award-winning than simply another city buying itself another piece of Zaha to make itself known on the international stage.
Tom Morris is Monocle’s Design editor.