words Justin McGuirk
What does this new monograph tell us about Zaha? That the first thing that needs exploding is her image.
There are actually two Big Bang theories: one for the universe and one for Zaha Hadid. Her new monograph is full of exploding space and exploded axonometry. In fact, it is four books – what Greg Lynn, in his foreword, calls an “exploded monograph”. The point of splintering off the essays and project details isn’t just to be different or to make some gimmicky metaphor, it’s to prioritise her visual language. The pictures get the big book. Which is a relief, because the paintings, graphics and photography are one thing and her essayists’ theorised proofs of her radicality are something else.
Zaha’s drawings and paintings have been the seedbed of one of the most distinctive outputs in contemporary architecture. So it seems odd in a way that she should owe so much to an early modernist. Malevich’s blocky suprematism was instrumental in Zaha’s development. In drawing on his language of abstraction you could say that she was bringing architecture up to date with early 20th-century art and ridding it of the burden of representation. In fact, there are claims in this book that she has brought about the first major development in architectural drawing since the Renaissance.
Of course, lots of architects, from Piranesi to Libeskind, have used drawing as something other than an attempt to capture a finished building. What Zaha does is to leave her drawings open to possibilities – components hover as if waiting for gravity to decide their final position.
But architecture is about decisions; the drawings and paintings, I think, are about trying to make masses flow. One of the essayists thinks they redefine architecture as energy rather than matter. But then Zaha’s work breeds its own intellectual discourse. The Strasbourg terminus is about “magnetic field”, the Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati is about “urban carpet” while the museum under way in Rome is about “urban graft”. Zaha herself, a doyenne of the lecture circuit, doesn’t bother trying to talk about her buildings in layman’s terms. Her audiences don’t know what she’s talking about but they don’t mind because her graphics are so eloquent.
You get the impression that Zaha’s language, her paintings and even the photographers she uses are all conspiring to cloak her in complexity. This “exploded” monograph is just another stitch in that fabric. The CCA in Cincinnati is in fact far clearer and more approachable than all the spiel and illegible rendering would lead you to believe.
Cincinnati’s facade is a suprematist painting, and the Malevich connection points to the obvious. What Zaha is is a prodigious form-maker picking up where modernism left off. Her language is not, as the Russian artist thought his was, a rational system for the future. It is neither utopian nor anything like as radical. Where Gehry “swoops”, Zaha “whooshes”. Less playful than Gehry, less wilfully intellectual and more versatile than Libeskind, she is in a sense a purist, someone inclined to make the brief fit her creative needs.
In his introduction, Peter Cook hints at a competitive edge between Zaha and her early collaborator Rem Koolhaas. And it would be tempting to make Zaha’s formalism and Rem’s so-called “programme” into the two opposing strains of contemporary architecture. Her partner, Patrik Schumacher, more or less does so in his essay, but he is slightly defensive. Having said that Zaha has defined “a new type of space”, he starts assuring us that “formal innovation deserves respect”, that it isn’t trivial. The argument is that new levels of formal complexity are devised not for their own sake but to promote new patterns of behaviour. You feel like saying, “Stop worrying – let her be what she is.”
Zaha Hadid: Complete Works, Thames & Hudson, £75