New York

Zaha Hadid

Artists Space Exhibitions

Architects who skirt the line between art and architecture generally insist on having things both ways: Artists (and art critics) are supposed to recognize them as architects and allow them certain liberties, while architects (and architectural critics) must do the same, on opposite grounds. The difference between a good architectural rendering and a bad watercolor often ends up a question of semantics. That said, Zaha Hadid is one contemporary architect whose graphic oeuvre deserves to be called an artistic achievement.

Hadid’s graphic style is actually fairly straightforward, in the sense that its elements have remained remarkably consistent over the course of a twenty-five-year career. The basic components are the plane and the vector. The drawings tend to be white line on a black or dark background, and color usually defines and is confined within an implied surface. In almost all of Hadid’s drawings the act of constructing and deconstructing perspective becomes the equivalent of constructing and deconstructing architecture. While this lends the drawings a tremendous dynamism and movement, it obscures their tectonic intent; it’s difficult to imagine exactly what her finished buildings might look like.

This is no longer an academic matter. Although often thought of as a “paper architect,” Hadid has been awarded a number of significant architectural commissions over the past five years, which are now coming to fruition. The Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati has recently opened to the public, her small exhibition pavilion in Weil am Rhein, Germany, is complete, the enormous Wolfsburg Science Center, also in Germany, is currently under construction, and her design for the Center for Contemporary Art of the XXI Century in Rome is scheduled to be complete by 2005. Drawings and animations elaborating all these projects and more were on view at Artists Space last summer.

The exhibition, designed by Hadid’s office in London, was dense and difficult. Light panels and boards, covered with drawings and hanging from the ceiling, cut through the space at oblique angles to create a maze of images and projects. Two screens at the periphery showed continuous video, mostly computer animation, related to recent projects. Although there were many hand-rendered images on display, Hadid has clearly embraced the digital revolution in architecture, and it is no small achievement to have successfully translated her unique graphic approach into three-dimensional computer graphics. On the other hand, perhaps she was predisposed to it—the plane, the vector, and the virtual camera are the fundamental elements of most modeling software.

The animation work (done in collaboration with Neutral, a British video-production team) was impressive, despite the requisite Music for Airports–style sound track. It was instructive to see a Hadid drawing of a project like the Price Tower Arts Center (planned around the base of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower in Oklahoma) generate itself like a bastard Mandelbrot fractal in the implied space of the projection. Although the animation does not impart a sense of how the structure might appear in daylight or what it’s made of—these things remain mysterious, presumably, until the buildings are finished—it does make clear Hadid’s interest in movement, both through space and of the architecture itself. It’s no surprise that her latest project, yet another satellite Guggenheim (this one in Taichung, Taiwan), is planned to have large moving sections that will, presumably, allow the building to reconfigure itself for different events.

Clearly, it’s crunch time for Hadid. If her buildings live up to the promise of her drawings, she’ll find herself in a very unusual position. Architects who have successfully negotiated the transition from avant-gardist bomb thrower to master builder (Renzo Piano is one) are few and far between.

Kevin Pratt