Zaha Hadid


The Baghdad-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid is one of the most important contemporary exponents of sculptural architecture. This term—which became prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century—is most often applied to asymmetrical, freestanding, and labyrinthine structures whose plan and layout cannot be reconstructed from a single frontal viewpoint. Rather, the viewer has to walk around and through the building to comprehend it. Sculptural architecture is thus the corollary to sculpture “in the round”: It is predicated o n movement and activity.

The organizers of Hadid’s ICA retrospective—like most commentators on her work—stress that she has shown “an uncompromising commitment to modernism.” Yet these models, drawings, and paintings are a fascinating mixture of ancient, modern, and archetypal. They variously suggest Islamic calligraphy, Futurist force lines, Suprematist layering, ducting for cables and pipes, and landscapes. Perhaps because of this idiosyncratic mix of sources, Hadid has had ddficulty getting her designs built, and it is only now, at the age of fifty, that her career is really taking off.

The models, which are made from Perspex or thin sheets of white cardboard that have been shaped and stacked, are beautiful objects in their own right. What distinguishes them from most other modernist and indeed sculptural architecture is their horizontal orientation. Whereas the buildings of, say, Frank Gehry or Daniel Libeskind pay little attention to gravity and can rear up into the sky and plunge down toward the ground almost at random, Hadid’s tend to hug the ground.

Her buildings often suggest speed and flight, but it is fight dong or near the ground rather than in the sky. One thinks of road systems, racetracks, train interchanges, and the rippling lines of contour maps. To be sure, her competition entry (2000) for an extension to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid features an airplanelike shape, but it remains grounded. If this is modernism. it is a version for those who suffer from vertigo.

This predilection for the horizontal may be something that defines Hadid as a specifically British architect. Nikolaus Pevsner, in The Englishness of English Art (1955), claimed that excessive horizontality and length was typical of English architecture, from the naves of medieval cathedrals to the continuous facades of terraced houses. The main component of Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station. at Weil am Rhein (completed in 1993 but not shown here), her 1999 LFone Landesgartenshall, also in Weil am Rhein, and her Contemporary Arts Center in Rome (due for completion in 2005) are stretched almost to breaking point.

Modern British sculptors such as Henry Moore and Anthony Caro have also made famously ground-hugging forms. Hadid’s recent prototypes for lounging furniture, which she calls Z-scapes, resemble sharpened-up versions of Moore’s reclining figures. The interlocking shapes of the architect’s bulky biomorphs derive, according to the show’s catalogue, from “dynamic landscape formations such as glaciers and eroded slopes.” At the outset, a single block of foam or wood is split along its veins, “offering splinters for further sculpting.” These Z-scapes are nice to walk around and would be fun to clamber over, but could one crash out on them? This high-octane sculptural furniture and architecture is for the tireless and the superfit.

James Hall