Zaha Hadid (1950–2016)

Zaha Hadid, 2012. Photo: Yvette Wohn.

I AM IMMENSELY SAD about the loss of my friend and long-term collaborator Zaha Hadid, who was a trustee of the Serpentine Galleries for twenty years. Her contribution to architecture cannot be overstated. She once told me “there should be no end to experimentation,” and it’s this principle that drove her buildings to make a significant impact on cities all around the world.

I am honored to have collaborated with Hadid on numerous occasions. When I visited her for the first time, at the end of the 1990s, I was still living in Paris. A typical London cab picked me up from the airport and brought me to her (at that time, quite small) studio, in which, supported by her young team, there was an atmosphere permeated by futurism. It must have been the same among the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of the ’20s, when they not only started to reshape art, but also society. Three months later I visited her again, since I was working intensely on a project at the French Academy in Rome with an installation by Hadid in the garden of Villa Medici. I realized that the same cab driver picked me up. When, some time afterward, I saw him for the third time at the wheel, I asked about this strange coincidence. He explained to me that Hadid had bought herself a cab that was only there for herself and her guests.

Hadid’s work was so far apart from all artistic and architectural conventions and norms that it took some time for her to find the recognition she deserved. Her first building in London, where she had been living for years, was the pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in 2000 commissioned by Julia Peyton-Jones, which launched the Serpentine’s tradition of having a temporary structure built by an architect each year in Kensington Gardens. It was followed by a second pavilion, Lilas, in 2007. In 2013, she completed the dramatic extension for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, one of Zaha Hadid Architects’ first permanent buildings in central London. She also participated in the Serpentine’s Interview Marathon in 2006 and 89Plus Marathon in 2013.

Zaha Hadid Architects, The Peak site plan, 1982-1983, Hong Kong. Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.

Hadid was not only a great architect, but also a great artist, and she leaves behind an extraordinary body of work. A glowing admirer of Russian Constructivism, she made paintings influenced by Malevich, Tatlin, and Rodchenko. Among the many lesser known facets of her work are the free calligraphy drawings in which she often explored the ideas that would later be transformed into architecture. Drawing was at the very heart of her practice, and these projects contained all the lightness and weightlessness of her buildings, which seem to float, then to land on the ground. Once she told me that she put all of her creative energy into the attempt to override nature’s principles of gravity and death.

In 2011, when Hadid’s Chanel Pavilion of 2007 was relocated to the Institut de Monde Arab in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld asked me to conceive an opening event. I decided to make it a celebration of poetry and invited three poets each to write an ode to Zaha. These were Adam Zagajewski, Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), and Etel Adnan. What follows is an excerpt of what Adnan wrote.

Model of Chanel Contemporary Art Container. Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.

ZAHA HADID’s ENTIRE OEUVRE is an invitation to take a trip. One might think of Baudelaire’s “L’Invitation au voyage.” Hadid is a poet of forms and of the materials that give presence to these forms; one must admire them close up and from afar to discover, in this woman who built on solid rock, a permanent nostalgia for departure. Everything she made seems to always be the day before a departure, a permanent invitation to the imagination, and to the imaginary.

In this way, there is something magical and at the same time absolutely right about the fact that it is the Institut du Monde Arabe that shelters the first work by Hadid in Paris, not only because of her Iraqi origins, but because of the thinking that gave rise to that structure.

What surprised me most in Hadid’s pavilion is its very unexpected intimate character, arriving as if in counterweight: She created a place you want to enter. First, from the outside, a site that is not only visual, but tactile: You want to touch it, caress it, you feel it very spontaneously connects with all your senses, those that have a name and those that do not have one. Once you have entered, you find yourself inside of a secret, a thing to be discovered, a temptation, a promise of adventure. You are in an architecture of great and subtle seduction.

Zaha Hadid, Chanel Contemporary Art Container, 2008, New York. Photo: John Linden.

The prototype of this adventurous construction was a mobile creation, a structure that could be dismantled and was destined to be put, if one so desired, in different places: a roof, a terrace, an empty lot, a field. We are indeed at the beginning of a movable architecture, a revolution in the concept of an art considered historically to be the apogee of stable permanence, but also a reminder of encampments and nomadic tents.

The Arab world contains the oldest cities in the world, but its culture, or cultures, are essentially nomadic. And Hadid’s architecture is in the process of becoming “nomadic”—in spirit, first and foremost, and sooner and sooner in fact. That “object” that you see might be a shell that the waves will carry and place elsewhere, just as it might very well be a modified tent, a vessel.

But let us be careful: I am not saying that that wonderful construction will, by the stroke of a magic wand out of One Thousand and One Nights, fly away into the air, disappear! It is made of steel. It will last. But it has a poetry, a spirituality, such that in sheltering us, it makes us dream, it sets us off on a journey.

Etel Adnan is an artist and writer based in Paris.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.

For additional coverage of Zaha Hadid, see the upcoming Summer issue of Artforum magazine.