Zaha Hadid – The Unfinished Story


Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo (MAXXI, Rome).(Image from Another Something & Co.)

During one of her early lectures in London at the Royal Academy round the turn of the millennium, I had my first experience with this strong-willed woman. She exploded in anger in that packed (also hot and stifling) auditorium when some wimp in the back raised his hand and asked why she made such meaningless buildings of nihilism.

I am certain that an informed question would have engaged, rather than enraged her, being the teacher that she was. She was still actively lecturing in major universities like Yale and Columbia despite her overwhelming success and major projects around the world at the time of her untimely death in March. The intense mathematical logic inside her and her love of pushing physical boundaries to find beauty in our earth-bound existence were her driving force. But her unique sense of beauty never strayed far from her humanity: our body-brain. She said to me once, in 2005 when I had asked her what inspired her design: biology.

The Dutch architect and her tutor in London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture in the late 1970s, Rem Koolhaas said of the soaring (but controlled) lines of her buildings as being reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy; and said that as a student she showed a very steady hand in her draftsmanship. (The strength and agility of the wrist figure prominently too in Chinese calligraphic practice). I sensed that signature in the lines of her Guangzhou Opera House which I wrote about here  in 2012.

But the most astonishing part of her architecture design was that it started as abstract paintings. Very few successful architects are also accomplished painters whose work is collected by major museums like MoMA (in 1988 in her case) – especially before they become world famous. That’s because her designs started with lines on a flat surface – lines and shapes that exist in their own right, not depicting anything in the real world – a house or an apple. Her inspiration was the Russian Suprematist artist, Kazimir Malevich (Ukraine, 1879 – 1935) who was a major force behind the avant-garde push to free art from depiction, illustration, and illusion – and the tyranny of the artificial one-point perspective which dictated art and architecture since the Renaissance. She said:

“Abstraction was the best way to capture multiple perspectives in two dimensions and to bring them together in a ‘distortion field’”.*

I was fortunate to have attended the opening of her solo exhibition in Kenny Schachter’s gallery in London’s Kings Cross back in 2005. It included not only her Silver Paintings but also her Aqua Table (some saw in it lines of her aquatic center for the 2012 London Olympics); and her Z-car (a conceptual car in an edition of 12 which you could still order). I also saw her furniture designs in the home department in Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge – the same brave lines that never looked static. Cynics say she was being commercial. I saw that as part of her prolific imagination – with abstraction, one gains total freedom. Nothing is off limits. Buildings and tables are no longer limited to straight lines in relation to the tiny spot of (apparent) flat earth we occupy. She said:

“There are three hundred and fifty-nine other degrees. Why limit yourself to one?”

She was not only challenging the convention of the white cube in a museum or gallery, or the vertical and horizontal as our anchor, but also our body’s ability to adapt – not to mention our brain’s potential to accept new ideas, i.e. learning. As our technology leaders explore space travel and eventual occupation, it is high time we mentally prepare ourselves for freedom from Earth’s gravitational pull.

I wrote here about her Guangzhou Opera House in 2012 after attending a concert there. Her studio’s 2009 holiday card featured MAXXI  (See picture above, the white structure), the contemporary art and architecture center in Rome.The museum opened November of 2009 empty of art – there wasn’t enough at the time. ** But that gave the public an opportunity to appreciate her building – the aerial views are stunning (see image above ) – to the fullest, and in the heart of the country that gave birth to Roman architecture and also the Futurists of the early 20th century, whose motto was energy, speed, motion and lyricism to celebrate technology.

I was able to spend some time in MAXXI in June of 2013.  The architecture made a stronger impression than the art. The photography exhibition on at the time had many small pieces that were hung on free-standing walls, as if the room was an outdoor space. The architecture section of the museum had some interesting, large built-forms, as I remember, that were quite beautiful. The small café/bar was stunning, as was the round reception/information island that greets visitors. Hadid’s other designs, some sofas and chairs scattered about the ground floor. Overall, the museum was not inviting enough for me to want to settle in and look some more – as I am certain there was much more I could have discovered. But that is I think a challenge for the curator.

There are many good writings about Hadid, among them this from the New Yorker in 2009. The celebrated Canadian–American architect Frank Gehry  (born Canada, 1929) was a close friend and was instrumental in securing her first built project in 1993, the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, near the city of Basel in Switzerland. They both share the distinction of being artists first, with architecture following. Their buildings share a sort of daring: full of freedom, energy and movement – a shortage of straight horizontals or verticals. The have both been criticized for being showy and impractical, their buildings not suitable for art displays. But their creations are, to my mind, very different in fundamental ways – I hope to write a piece about that soon. ***

An architect friend once pointed out to me, when I had mentioned the large slope behind her house on the hill: “but sloping space is of no use to us.” Maybe so – but it affords space for our eyes. After all, our body occupies but a space of 2x2x6. It’s our vision that needs, well, vision.

It is truly sad that Hadid did not live to see her vision unroll into the future. Architects often live long, Frank Gehry is 87. I.M. Pei is 99. Born October 31, 1950, she died too soon. I would so much love to have seen how she aged and mellowed, and how her architecture would evolve. But mostly, I will miss her warm friendship (albeit a very peripheral one) – she never failed to stop to chat a little when I used to see her in exhibition openings in Tate gallery in London.

*   The only way to see from multiple perspectives while standing in one spot is to engage imagination – our body-brain – through vision. This idea was explored by Cezanne at the end of the 19th century and inspired Picasso’s Cubism, leading to a new art form that engages the higher analytical functions of our brain, like Conceptual Art. See my recent piece on the important ramifications of this idea.  Incidentally, Malevich’s Suprematism was inspired by Cubism and Futurism.

**    It opened officially to the public after installation of art in May of 2010. But unfortunately that rang in the next few years of mismanagement and financial difficulties.  Its current director, Hou Hanru (since late 2013), the first of the ‘outsider’ directors in Italian museums, appears to have stabilized the situation and is doing a lively program of exhibitions and events.

***  Frank Gehry remembers her fondly here and here, considering her ‘one of the guys’ – and underscoring the many problems that a rule-breaking woman faced in an architecture universe that even males need to conform. 


5/31/2016   MAXXI pays tribute to Zaha Hadid with guided visits: MAXXI as you have never seen it before.  I only wish I was in Rome this weekend. The tour has become a sort of recurring feature at the center since her untimely death. It takes visitor to normally inaccessible areas of the building as well as stories of its construction – from material to technology. Just the problems of the concrete pouring alone is worthy of a documentary film: “…it was poured very slowly and evenly, with the end of the supply hose kept just 150mm below the surface. The huge pours took up to 18 hours to lay… Finally, as the large concrete pours had to cure slowly and evenly without overheating,.. casting was banned if the external temperature was anticipated to rise above 25°C. In Rome’s Mediterranean climate, this meant concrete could only be laid from November to April.” I will hope to write a piece about the engineering  of this project – and the capacity of Hadid’s mind.



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