Two weeks ago I read the article written by John Seabrook for The New Yorker about architect Zaha Hadid. Up until now I’ve watched her international success with a curiosity and respect, but with a certain detachment. Her work doesn’t exhibit the aesthetic sensibilities that are more in line with my own—Shiguri Ban, Kenzo Tange, Steven Holl, Elizabeth Scofidio, Rem Koolhaas, to name a few.
But Seabrook made Hadid enchanting to me. As is often the case with New Yorker profiles, eyes have been opened at the back of my head and I’m looking at things very differently.
For example, this passage captures some of that magic:
The twisty geometry of an ordinary potato chip, to say nothing of the curves in modern cars and phones,is a reminder of how few buildings look as if they belonged in the digital world. Hadid is devoted to helping architecture catch up. In her buildings, walls are never quite vertical, floors seldom remain flat for long, and the twain meet not in ninety-degree angles but, rather, in the kinds of curves one finds in skateboard parks. (“There are three hundred and fifty-nine other degrees,” Hadid likes to say. “Why limit yourself to one?”) Few repeating forms—columns, windows, doorframes—guide you through her spaces, which may be why some people, on entering a Zaha Hadid building for the first time, are reminded of childhood experiences in large structures: You’re disoriented. You can’t say, “I’ll be in the back,” because there is no back. There’s no front, either.
Thus the title of the article: The Abstractionist: Zaha Hadid’s unfettered invention.
The part of Hadid’s story that is most compelling to me has to do with her early years at the Architectural Association, the oldest independent school of architecture in the U.K. While still a student she encountered painter Kazimir Malevich’s 1926 manifesto, “The Non-Objective World.” In that document Malevich claimed that “the new art of Suprematism, which has produced new forms and form relationships by giving external expression to pictorial feeling, will become a new architecture: it will transfer those forms from the surface of canvas to space.” Malevich produced abstract models for buildings that he referred to as “architektons” but was unable to pursue his ideas once Stalinism determined that abstract art was bourgeois and banned from exhibition.
But Hadid saw something in Malevich’s architektons, something no one else had seen before, and she made it her project to complete his work. In other words, she wanted to create a truly abstract building.
In the beginning, not many understood what she was doing. But she was relentless, working night and day, until “the two dimensional solids in the Malevich paintings started to give way, and they began floating like transparent volumes, layered in space.”
Soon others began to get was she was doing. She ended up winning the Diploma Prize for her portfolio which contained the design for a fourteen-story hotel. Although never built, she described the project this way: “The structure’s fourteen levels systematically adhere to the tektonik, turning all conceivable constraints into new possibilities for space.”
According to one critic, Aaron Betsky, this was a watershed piece of work:
You can’t underestimate the impact that her project had. It really was one of those very rare moments when a fissure opens up in architecture, and a different way of seeing emerges. We no longer have to be bound by gravity. We don’t have to accept reality—she will unfold her own reality.
There is something gnawing at me about this story, this relentless drive to get to the bottom of something. Maybe that gnawing sense I am feeling is similar to the way Hadid just had to dig into Malevich’s Supremacist manifesto, forcefully getting it to make sense for her, her work, her vision. It is an ancient archetype, one that is common in most cultural traditions. In Western culture we have Noah and the Ark and other mad visionaries who are misunderstood but end up breaking through what everyone else imagined was impenetrable.
One of my friend recently told me of a rich and deeply meaningful dream image. The phrase she used was clear cement. She was very insistent that the substance was not lucite, glass bricks or any of the other transparent building material. It was cement, she said, and it was clear.
Somehow that feels like a perfect metaphor for Hadid’s breakthrough, and one that I am still chewing on with satisfaction, curiosity and awe.