PRINT Summer 2016


Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid in front of her Phaeno Science Center, 2005, Wolfsburg, Germany, November 23, 2005. Photo: Jochen Luebke/AFP/Getty Images.

I remember when I first started doing the interpretation of Malevich’s Tektoniks. I was ill—I had bronchitis and I was in bed for three months. I saw Elia once or twice but really evolved that project on my own. . . . All these things added to my confidence, which is very important. You have to be confident to pursue certain things.

—Zaha Hadid, 1983

ZAHA HADID unsettled the field of architecture. Her gift was to provoke a kind of immune response, an inflammation that never subsided. Indeed, architecture unwittingly reshaped itself in trying to resist her challenge to the defaults of the discipline. In a sense, this resistance, a collaboration with its own complexity and history, became the true site of her work. The art of the impactful architect lies in feeding an instability, continually provoking an allergic reaction before it can harden into a new orthodoxy. But how do you talk about this impact without diminishing it—even, or especially, when celebrating it? The ultimate indignity for such an architect is to greet his or her death with a chorus of synchronized praise that tries to suddenly cool the lava heated up over a lifetime. Fortunately, the challenges laid down by the strongest figures survive this final test and get picked up by future generations.

Hadid’s work was incubated in a unique combination of extreme praise and extreme prejudice from the moment she emerged in the late 1970s from the relative safety of the laboratory of Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas within the school of the Architectural Association in London. The combination of woman plus Arab plus experimental plus confident inflamed colleagues and critics, revealing the ugliness of architectural practice and stretching the period of incubation long after the completion of her first building, the razor-sharp fire station for the Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany, in 1993. The resistance clearly failed. If anything, it intensified and magnified the overall project. The final galaxy of major buildings is a remarkable testament, a vision bristling with intelligence. Yet the most crucial part of her legacy remains the first extended phase of experimental research, carried out in the one-room studio she set up in a Victorian school in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of London, where the work relentlessly gained force, primarily through a series of competition entries in the early ’80s. The increasingly obvious strength of these projects fed nervous attempts to restrict her, which in turn fed her resolve and endless retesting of the work. This tight feedback loop between provocation and defensive reaction became an architectural engine, a turbine that gained ever more momentum and eventually flung the experiments out of the laboratory and onto building sites around the world. That one-room studio shared with a couple of assistants grew to take over the whole building with an office of four hundred people.

Learning from Zenghelis and Koolhaas, then working alongside them when they launched the original Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Zoe Zenghelis and Madelon Vriesendorp, then practicing independently, Hadid devoted her entire career to picking up the challenge posed by the Russian avant-garde. It is as if she simply started adding pages to the end of Malevich’s highly crafted account of the evolution of Suprematism. But these new pages soon took on a life of their own. Hadid gave color to the snow-white crystalline forms originally carved in the Russian winter and took them on vacation to the tropical warmth of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazil or Morris Lapidus’s Miami, creating a kind of poolside architecture that starts when labor stops. Malevich had famously pursued painting to its endgame, beginning with the massive reduction of the Black Square of 1915 and passing through the even more radical breakthrough of the Suprematist Composition: White on White of 1918 to the ultimate antigesture of his polemically blank canvases of 1920, where the unmarked surface was seen to contain the whole cosmos. Painting defused itself to access infinite space. It was not by chance that Malevich immediately headed past the ruin of that medium into a new kind of architectural space, producing an extended series of three-dimensional “architektons” through the next decade. These unambiguously architectural forms could be airplanes, houses, buildings, or cities—hovering as “sputniks” anywhere “between the earth and the moon” as Malevich called for in his late 1920 booklet Suprematism: 34 Drawings. Hadid reverse-engineered his experiment, moving back toward painting but injecting his forms with functional specificity, starting with her AA thesis project, Malevich’s Tektonik, in 1976–77, which filled the artist’s Alpha Architekton of 1923 with the program of a fourteen-level hotel with a club organized around a pool. Malevich’s long, thin white bar, encrusted with linear outcrops like the bridge of an intergalactic tanker, was given this sensuous hotel as its engine and the huge form was expertly landed on the Hungerford Bridge so that it spanned the Thames. In a sense, the project was a revival of a revival, Hadid echoing Ivan Leonidov’s own 1927 student thesis in Moscow, which likewise expanded the Suprematist project by winding it back to the intersection of painting and architecture and refusing any gap between form and functional program.

Hadid’s huge paintings were crucial in liberating her work from the orthogonal expectations of traditional architectural drawings such as plans, section, and elevation. She was tired of conventional distinctions between inside and outside or up and down. Her paintings collapsed all elements of a building into a single plane and, in reverse, endowed each surface with a multidimensional capacity—not in the Cubist manner of revealing an object simultaneously from different viewpoints but in the more Futurist sense of invoking an object that is never singular or static. Likewise, the paintings refused any typical hierarchies of scale, abandoning distinctions between furniture, buildings, cities, and landscape. Even the ground hovers, after all, it is just the outer layer of another mobile form. It was only a matter of time before all of Hadid’s early projects would float into one another, in a single painting titled The World (89 Degrees) of 1983, with the designs becoming tectonic plates forming a single torqued plane, like the wrinkled crust of a new planet spinning off of its axis in the blackness of outer space—a new sense of escape from gravity that she called “Planetary Architecture.”

Hadid’s pivotal work—both in putting her onto the global stage and in the radicalism of the design—was her winning entry into the international competition for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong, which was held in 1982–83 and attracted more than six hundred entries. Poised halfway between her utopian student projects and the built Vitra Fire Station, it made the point that a truly planetary architecture does not simply float over the ground. On the contrary, it presents a new kind of earthwork, a “Suprematist geology.” The design begins with a deep gash cut into the mountainside site above Hong Kong. Two huge floating beams containing studio apartments slide in, one over the other, at the base of the cavity and extend out past the edge of the steep slope. Another two huge beams containing larger penthouse apartments are floated into the top of the cavity on slender angled columns and elevator shafts. The vertical space between the two sets of beams, nearly fifty feet high, becomes the site of a crucial experiment in omnidirectional freedom. Hadid’s key mission was to construct this void at the heart of the project, where all the elements of the hotel’s club would be suspended, a sleek swimming pool once again at the center.

In the only image among the hundreds of drawings and paintings that Hadid made in her lifetime to feature human figures, two slender divers arc down through the air toward the Peak’s swimming pool. One has already straightened out to enter the water. The other remains folded over as if wrapped around two dimensions. But they have not jumped from some poolside diving board; they seem to have leaped off the building itself, or even into the building from somewhere else. Hadid pointedly described all the program elements suspended in the void as conceptual “diving boards.” This architecture is a manifesto, entirely devoted to constructing the sense of leaping into the void. Indeed, even when built, Hadid’s architecture is never simply a space in which people move around as if in a container—it’s a vortex in which the occupant is reinvented.

Having won the Peak competition with an entry set of just six drawings, Hadid continued to draw, model, and paint the project for a number of years, dissecting its layers, exploding its elements, and further blurring the relationship between building, landscape, and city. She used a computer for the first time to visualize the complex spatial experience, but painting remained the most precise test. As with Malevich and his fellow Suprematists, this centrality of painting implies a gallery, even if the paintings were for Hadid a form of self-analysis integral to thinking and working rather than a representation of a completed design. A logic of exhibition is built into the work. The remarkable “Planetary Architecture Two”—which wrapped the floors and walls of the Members’ Room of the Architectural Association at the end of 1983 with swirling images from the Peak and several other projects, including her unrealized designs for a town house at 59 Eaton Place in London (1981–82) and a Dublin residence for the Irish prime minister (1979–80), and her entry into the competition for the Parc de la Villette in Paris (1982–83)—was crucial, planting the works back into the domestic laboratory of the school from which they had emerged to reboot and intensify the investigation. The Peak competition entry reappeared more publicly in architectural galleries in Berlin in 1984 and Tokyo in 1985, but it was probably when it was exhibited in the 1988 “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—with a new metal model literally bursting through the walls of the museum—that the fuse of Hadid’s explosive cocktail of attention, momentum, and resistance was finally lit.

The Vitra Fire Station was commissioned shortly afterward. When it was completed in 1993, painting had become building. But in a kind of hazing ritual that is permanently embarrassing to all involved, Hadid still had to pass through two years of undisguised sexism and racism as local politicians and undignified dignitaries in Cardiff, UK, collaborated with a national funding institution, the Millennium Commission in London, to deny her the project for the Cardiff Bay Opera House that she had won in 1994. Her design first triumphed over 268 fellow entrants, then again over four architectural heavyweights who were clumsily slid into the second stage of the competition, then yet again over two underwhelming efforts by some less than collegial senior colleagues. But this resistance had now fueled the work to such an extent that it unwittingly enabled Hadid to take advantage of an imminent historical shift in architectural production—she produced antibodies to the antibodies and defeated the immune response.

Hadid’s unique project was almost accidentally accelerated by the arrival of computational processes of design, representation, and fabrication. The very depth of the utopian experimentation that she carried out through her dreamlike paintings paradoxically enabled her to become a kind of extreme realist. In a contemporary world increasingly shaped by the ubiquitous mobility and hyperconnectivity of digital technology, her vision of a floating architecture escaping gravity and orthogonal geometry started to seem less like Suprematist science fiction and more like a new form of practicality. The unbuildable paper architect now wielded the mechanics of reason in a digital economy.

The resulting exponential expansion of Hadid’s studio paralleled an evolution in her design from dissonant clusters of forms and activities at odds with the norms of building to fluid, all-encompassing curved surfaces that embodied the new digital realities of the construction industry. The lozenge-shaped curves that occasionally appeared in the early projects become dominant players. The sudden ability to resolve all forces and the corresponding irrelevance of scale fed a seamless aesthetic that ran the risk of smoothing over the tensions driving the earlier work, as if softening the threat in response to the market. But what remained from the first projects was the otherworldly quality, the palpable sense of some spaceship hovering between landing and takeoff in a teasing of gravity that had been so crucial to the early-twentieth-century experiments that Hadid relentlessly studied.

As her original laboratory research dramatically morphed into major institutional buildings across the globe and was relentlessly circulated in professional, art, design, commercial, fashion, social, and popular media, the figure of Hadid herself became an integral part of the project, a swirling work of design in its own right that was continuously developed in a massive collaborative effort with innumerable channels—a captivating, dramatic image, even if one largely devoid of the deep tenderness and laughter known by all those lucky to have been close to her.

Like the projects, this media figure aroused equal measures of admiration and irritation. The crucial double standard was to treat the usual symptoms of strength as a sensation. Prominent architects are typically highly intelligent, manipulative creatures who are prone to tantrums and strategic forgetfulness. Architecture has long been treated as a branch of opera, and Hadid was another member of the cast. The simple fact of her membership, the very presence of an Arab woman on the biggest stage, seemed to incite a constant oscillation between admiration and thinly disguised resentment. Yet in the end it was the extreme statement made by the work itself that provoked the most intense reaction—which is the ultimate compliment. To speak of any work by an architect is never straightforward. At the very least, it is to talk about the design, the complex, nested work of producing, protecting, and projecting a proposition into multiple worlds through countless performances that produce many kinds of impact.

To speak of the career of an architect is even riskier, as if there were but one beginning and one end, and as if each design contributed directly to the thinking of the next in an evolutionary chain that constituted a single lifelong project. While ideas incubated within a studio do pass virally from project to project in successive mutations, the thinking of the best studios is riddled with precious enigmas, contradictions, backtracks, dead ends, gaps, jumps, and falls. The work itself is never explained by the thinking leading up to it, nor are its effects ever singular or fully understood. The polemical smoothness of Hadid’s architecture—the very quality that allowed it to break free of the restraints of conventional space by blending everything into a single seamless, sensuous object of total design—only increases our blindness to its complexity. The confidence she developed in the bout of bronchitis when first engaging with Malevich had more impact on the field than was ever acknowledged until the sad last bout just before her death. Hopefully, her challenge to the discipline’s immune system will eventually be picked up again and turned into projects that irritate the complacencies of architecture. For now, we are depleted.

Mark Wigley is Professor and Dean Emeritus at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.