…a bathroom@Roca Gallery by Zaha Hadid Architects in Chelsea

Visiting the Roca Gallery was a truly unexpected experience. Coming across it advertised in a website with architectural and art events, I thought I was going to a regular art gallery. Naturally another reason to go there was that it was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects that -needless to say- is currently one of the most famous archi-star practices in the world. Anyone who is associated with her brand-name gets immediate publicity. However not being familiar with the Roca brand, I was not prepared for what I was about to encounter. Right after my exit from the train I recognized Zaha’s signature-design-style as Roca gallery is exactly opposite the station. Getting closer to the place though, I started to realise that the gallery is actually a shop and on its windows were toilets, sinks and bathtubs on display. Briefly I felt intimidated to walk in and start taking pictures but it turned out the employees were really happy -or used to- seeing people taking interest in the shop. Possibly because that was the reason the company associated its name with Zaha Hadid architects. The intense advertisement of the architectural practice’s involvement with Roca was also the reason I did not realise that it was a bathroom company in the first place.  The ‘gallery’s’ home page hardly mentions the products as apparently all the information one needs to know about the place is that Zaha designed it. Have a look here.
Obviously this is not a regular shop, it is a showroom with a large number of products on display and an equal number of tables for business meetings among them. Strangely, there was an art exhibition going on in the midst of all that which confused me even more. Particularly the fact that there were toilets placed right next to tables that looked like regular dinner tables brought to my mind this clip from a Louis Bunuel’s film, ‘Le fantôme de la liberté. Of course Bunuel’s surreality attempts to make an acidic comment on society’s absurd habits and taboos that may potentially turn against it. Regardless of the fact that Roca gallery is not really relevant to the film’s context, its environment seemed similarly surreal to me. Not to mention that among all those meeting rooms that are laced with toilet bowls, one also comes across random works of art. There really is too much going on in that space and it left me wondering if one enters it to get informed on bathrooms, to consume, to admire Zaha’s work or to look at contemporary art?
Regardless of all the above, attempting to review the place strictly from a design point of view, if I were to describe it with a couple of words I would choose ‘luxuriously cavernous’. The show-room literally is a series of carefully sculptured caves. One ‘room’ flows into the other linked with oddly shaped doors and windows and every niche and corner is perfectly designed and finished. Being intrigued to explore an interior due to its design is definitely positive, especially for a shop or show room. As I mentioned before the space is detailed to perfection, meaning that everything has been constructed in order to meet a very high standard which of course is expected from an office that aspires to be one of the best ones in the world.
As far as aesthetics are concerned, the materials and overall style, are taken from the usual Zaha palette that has a futuristic glossy feeling to it. However it is supposed to have been inspired by water since the employer is a bathroom company. The colours are mostly white, off-white and grey-ish and the shapes are curved and rather aerodynamic. The feeling of being there also brought to mind another film, Kubrick’s Odyssey 2001.
I do not consider a bad thing that Roca Gallery transferred me to imaginary realms by reminding me of these films. After all I am equally open to tactile pragmatic architecture that has a more traditional feel to it, as I am to futuristic design and unconventional architectural programs that aspire to introduce new ways of dwelling. Actually I used to immensely enjoy the sculptural free forms that Zaha became famous for back in the day. Especially at the beginning of her career she was a true rebel and she really did think out of the box. However lately the office has somehow established a very specific design style and it is getting to be rather predictable in its products. From one point of view the office has successfully achieved what is broadly known as branding. The whole branding business is a very prominent subject in culture the last decades. In every sector of the arts is seems that cornering a specific characteristic that one gets to be known for is the recipe for success. It is a very long discussion whether branding actually compromises architecture. I actually believe it does. Anyhow regardless if it is one’s cup of tea or not the truth is that Zaha’s office has reached this style’s maximum potential and truly knows how to use the ‘vocabulary’ eloquently. Still one has to wonder if this design style is relevant any more.

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