Zaha Hadid passed away unexpectedly today, suffering a heart attack in a Miami hospital where she was being treated for bronchitis. She was 65.
It would be disingenuous for me to claim I was an admirer of Hadid’s oeuvre. Doubtless she was an important figure within contemporary architecture, and in many ways a pioneer. As an Iraqi-born woman working in a field dominated by white men, Hadid overcame numerous obstacles to achieve rare prominence among her peers. Other women had enjoyed moderate success as builders, like the urban planner Catherine Bauer and the architect Eileen Gray, but never won the accolades Hadid did in her lifetime. Non-Western architects have likewise made only modest headway in the modern period. Gabriel Guévrékian, of Persian-Armenian origin, was one of the founders of CIAM in 1928, while the Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei perhaps alone can claim to rival Hadid’s accomplishments.
To be perfectly honest, I was much more torn up about the 2012 death of Lebbeus Woods. But he’d been sick for a long time. Woods was something of a mentor to Hadid when she was first starting out in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her early architectural delineations — or “paintings,” as she called them — were often quite impressive on a formal level. She worked in much the same speculative vein as Woods or Daniel Libeskind. Incidentally, before he died, Woods devoted a short essay split up into three posts on his blog, all of which analyzed Hadid’s drawings:
Hadid’s work of the eighties was paradoxical. From one perspective, it seemed to be a postmodern effort to strike out in a new direction by appropriating the tectonic languages of an earlier epoch — notably Russian avant-garde at the time of the Revolution — but in a purely visual, imagistic way: the political and social baggage had been discarded. This gave her work an uncanny effect. The drawings and architecture they depicted were powerfully asserting something, but just what the something was, in traditional terms, was unclear. However, from another perspective this work seemed strongly rooted in modernist ideals: its obvious mission was to reform the world through architecture. Such an all-encompassing vision had not been seen since the 1920s. Zaha alluded to this when she spoke about “the unfinished project” of modernism that she clearly saw her work carrying forward. With this attitude she fell into the anti-postmodern (hardly popular) camp championed by Jürgen Habermas. Understandably, people were confused about what to think, but one thing was certain: what they saw looked amazing, fresh and original, and was an instant sensation.
Studying the drawings from this period, we find that fragmentation is the key. Animated bits and pieces of buildings and landscapes fly through the air. The world is changing. It breaks up, scatters, and reassembles in unexpectedly new, yet uncannily familiar forms. These are the forms of buildings, of cities, places we are meant to inhabit, clearly in some new ways, though we are never told how. We must be clever enough, or inventive enough, to figure it out for ourselves — the architect gives no explicit instructions, except in the drawings. Maybe we, too, must psychically fragment, scatter, and reassemble in unexpected new configurations of thinking and living. Or, maybe the world, in its turbulence and unpredictability, has already pushed us in this direction.
Like Libeskind, but unlike Woods, Hadid eventually transitioned from paper architecture to the realm of built objects. Receiving major commissions around the world, she began to cultivate a complex, curvilinear, and organic style. Patrik Schumacher, her theoretical spokesperson, called it “parametricism.” Aided by new digital programs, which could calculate the area of contoured surfaces, Hadid developed a biomorphic expressionism that became her trademark. My opinion of these later structures is considerably lower than it is of her earlier, more suprematist-inflected buildings. I quite like the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, as well as the Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati. Essentially I agree with Woods here: “In one sense, [computer-aided design] liberated Zaha, enabling her to create the unprecedented forms that have, by the present day, become her signature. In another, it brought an end to a certain intimacy and feel of tentative, almost hesitant expectancy, in her drawings and designs, that was part of the intense excitement they generated.”
Below I am appending some extremely hi-res images of Zaha’s drawings. Longish essays by Hal Foster and Gevork Hartoonian, both insightful and making similar points about the prioritization of image and spectacle over building and tectonics, also follow.
Neo avant-garde gestures
In the last decade, Zaha Hadid has advanced from a vanguard figure in architecture schools to a celebrity architect with credibility enough in boardrooms to have several big buildings completed and several other projects launched. This upswing began in 2003 when her Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, her first structure in the United States, opened to wide acclaim, and it was confirmed in 2005 when her BMW plant center in Leipzig, which proved her ability to design for industry, was completed. In 2004 Hadid won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize — the first woman to be so honored — and in 2006 she received a retrospective of thirty years of her work (paintings as well as designs) at the Guggenheim Museum. More recently, her Museum of XXI Arts (MAXXI) in Rome appeared to warm reviews in 2009, and there are other large commissions in the works, including office buildings and cultural complexes in the Middle East, an opera house in Guangzhou, and an aquatic center for the 2012 Olympics in London. Hadid can no longer be dismissed, as her critics were once wont to do, as a woman who stood out in a male profession on account of her brassy personality and exotic background (she was born in Baghdad in 1950). Indeed, for her proponents Hadid has done more than any of her peers to rethink old representational modes of architecture and to exploit its new digital technologies. It is this view I consider here, with special attention to her recourse to select moments in modernist art and architecture.
For several years after her 1977 graduation from the Architectural Association (AA) in London, Hadid had little work of her own. In this lull she turned to modernist painting, in particular the Suprematist abstraction of Kasimir Malevich. Hadid explored this work in painting of her own, which she regarded primarily as a way not only to develop an abstract language for her architectural practice, but also to render the standard conventions of architectural imaging (plan, elevation, perspective, and axonometric projection) more dynamic than they usually appear. Already in her AA thesis, an unlikely scheme for a hotel complex on a hypothetical Thames bridge, Hadid adapted the idiom of the Malevich “Arkhitektons,” plaster models, built up in geometric blocks, that he proposed in the middle 1920s for a monumental architecture in the young Soviet Union. This was only an initial gesture, but it was not an auspicious one, for, however enlivened with Suprematist red and black, the Arkhitekton blocks remain static in her adaptation. Nevertheless, her project was shaped: “I felt we must reinvestigate the aborted and untested experiments of modernism,” Hadid wrote in retrospect, “not to resurrect them but to unveil new fields of building.”1 Continue reading