BY Irene Cheng in Reviews | 01 OCT 06
Featured in
Issue 102

Zaha Hadid

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

BY Irene Cheng in Reviews | 01 OCT 06

Zaha Hadid may be the most talented architect of her generation – which is different from calling her the most intelligent or the most important. The overwhelming impression one gets from her retrospective at the Guggenheim New York, on view until 25 October 2006, is of a precociously fecund mind. Ideas seem to flow out of Hadid’s cranium and fingertips as fluidly as her sinuous buildings infest urban landscapes. The sheer quantity of material crammed into Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral ramps is breathtaking: paintings, photographs, videos, models and furniture fill every nook of the galleries; in some areas Hadid has added undulating ribbon walls, multiplying the surface to accommodate her office’s voluminous output.

Yet it is not just the quantity but also the consistent elegance, freshness and inventiveness of Hadid’s work that are striking. Over the last 30 years the architect’s vocabulary and tools have morphed from the explosive angles of her early Suprematist- and Constructivist-influenced paintings to the elastic sculptural forms of recent buildings such as the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany. Yet she has managed to stay always ahead of the curve, literally and figuratively. Remarkably, little here looks dated.

Some have attributed Hadid’s potency to her long incubation period. Although she founded her practice in 1979, her first major building – the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany – was not constructed until 1994. Her emergence as an architect was delayed in part by the ascendancy in the 1970s and ’80s of Postmodern architecture, premised on the pastiche of historical styles. Dissidents of the dominant trend such as Hadid and her contemporaries Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi and Daniel Libeskind received few commissions during this period; instead, they honed their formal and conceptual skills through experimental drawings and paintings.

The Guggenheim show is arranged roughly chronologically, so that the first few turns up the ramp mainly feature early paintings and furniture pieces. Like Koolhaas and Tschumi, Hadid drew on the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde for inspiration. But it is clear that her principal inheritance from her muse Kazimir Malevich is not just a formal language – she quickly moved beyond the Russian’s elemental rectilinear vocabulary – but also a sensibility for dynamism, transgression and uncanny timeliness. Whereas Malevich famously sought to manifest and to promulgate the ‘metallic culture’ and ‘restless movement’ of his age through his taut geometrical arrangements, Hadid captures the speed and flux of contemporary global culture in her paintings and designs.

In studies for The Peak project, Hong Kong (1982–3), for example, she manages to mirror the city’s (soon-to-be post- or neo-) colonial dissonances in her fractured images. Not only her proposed building but also the fabric and geology of the entire city are rendered as exploded, sharp and transient. This is architecture that demands to be read not as a singular object but as a lens for seeing the entire city – or even the world.

It is fitting that Hadid first achieved prominence with her project in Hong Kong. After all, she is the cosmopolitan global architect par excellence: she was born in Baghdad, educated in Switzerland and England, and is now based in London. At the Guggenheim the final turns up the ramp are frenetically wallpapered with her firm’s current projects; the captions read like a Where’s Where of global metropolises: London, Beijing, Moscow, Dubai, Milan, Rome and Singapore whirl by, sweeping one into the conviction that Hadid-esque ribbons, folds, fields and warped surfaces will soon cover the planet.

Indeed, the promise embedded in the early paintings – that the entire world may be reshaped through Hadid’s magmatic optic – seems even more likely once we reach the final galleries, which feature recent designs for everything from a car to a light fitting to a kitchen. At this point the exhibition inspires a moment of trepidation: for what seems visionary at the scale of a building strikes one as slightly trivial when distilled into a vehicle that looks as though it would fit well in the movie Tron (1982), a futuristic vision of a flatland universe gone three-dimensional that has not aged so well. Applied to teapots and forks, techniques of liquefaction and morphing somehow appear less as revolutionary re-shapings of everyday life than as stylized products to propagate the architect’s brand. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. It’s just that if the appeal of Hadid’s earlier work is that of an architect swimming against the tide, the latter projects – whether consumer objects or architecture – seem to be those of a surfer atop a crest. They’ve lost the jarring quality of a Constructivist call to arms and now seem like lubricants – albeit beautiful ones – for the desires and contradictions of contemporary global culture.

Irene Cheng is a writer living in New York.