Zaha Hadid has had a good year. The London-based, Baghdad-born, endlessly controversial architect got a running start when she received the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2004, graduating after years behind the scenes into a true art celebrity. Then the commissions started rolling in: the Aquatic Center for the 2012 Olympics in London, the Riverside Museum of Transport in Glasgow, and most recently, the new performing arts center in Abu Dhabi. The accolades have continued as well -- Hadid sat alongside Edward Albee and Sandra Day O'Connor to receive an honorary degree from Yale last spring, and was named early this year as one of seven finalists for the 2007 Mies van der Rohe Award. But 2006 was the year that Zaha Hadid came rocketing into relevance, and her ascent was propelled in no small part by an enormous, career-spanning exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Hadid herself oversaw the installation of the show, which began with a dazzling project from her early days in the public eye, simply entitled "The Peak." To place a so-named work at the bottom of the Guggenheim's six-story ramp is not just ironic; it takes an awful lot of nerve. That same nerve, however, is amply present in the piece itself, a 1982 design for a Hong Kong country club that has much more in common with the rocky mountaintop on which it sits than with the city it overlooks. Composed of platforms and ramps that run along too many different axes to count, the structure looks as if it could have simply burst out of the mountain one day. It is an event more than anobject, an explosion of shards and splinters that juts into space with near-defiant force.
Though it was the winning submission in the competition for which it was designed, and though it remains one of Hadid's most widely-known, highly-regarded works, the Peak was never actually constructed.In the show, it was presented as a collection of paintings and miniatures, arranged in a small room set apart from the main concourse. The most striking and colorful of the numerous canvases showed Hong Kong from a skydiver's view: an aerial spread with a harsh diagonal pitch that skewed the city into a million diamond-shaped streaks, as though the viewer were twisting and tumbling through the air. On the opposite wall, a smaller image depicted two divers brazenly vaulting backwards into a swimming pool on the deck of the club; it was a less chaotic scene than its counterpart, but still displayed the same anarchic disregard for perspective, practicality, and physical law. These details seemed incidental at first -- only later, in the context of everything else there was to see, did the Peak emerge as the show's quintessence, its statement of principle. What ultimately characterizes and even defines the work of Zaha Hadid is the bold rebuke of architectural convention -- for better or worse.
Hadid's work casts a wide net; museums, urban centers, residences, industrial complexes, government buildings, athletic facilities, and even entire cityscapes were represented in the show. Novel side projects were tossed in along the way to keep viewers on their toes: long, lacquered couches that streamed around the room like sluices of water; jagged hunks of foam to be used as the building blocks for custom parlor furniture; a podlike, tri-wheeled car straight out of Minority Report. Patrons who made it to the top of the ramp were treated to a supremely futuristic spectacle: a gleaming, white, hyper-intelligent kitchen with an integrated entertainment system, which read like a blueprint for the Apple corporation to corner the housewares market.
Taking in all six levels of the packed exhibition, though, was exhausting, and not just because of the climb. For a show about architecture, the most stark and substantial of the plastic arts, there was an awful lot of abstraction to deal with, since practically nothing in the sprawling retrospective actually existed. Scattered few and far between on the path to the top were photographs and videos of the handful of projects that Hadid has seen through to completion: a science museum in Wolfsburg, a car factory in Leipzig, a gallery in Cincinnati (her first American venture), and several others. But the rest of it, the other 95 percent, followed the rules of the Peak, presenting Hadid's designs in the form of high-concept paintings, most of them stylized to the limits of intelligibility. Experiencing the show, then, put a bit of a strain on the mind: however intriguing one found the format, it was hard not to feel at least a little disoriented.
What, after all, was one even looking at? Hadid's paintings, allegedly, are stand-ins for the usual appurtenances of architectural planning: floor plans, sections, isometric studies and the like. According to one of the plaques on the museum wall, Hadid has long dismissed such tools as "inadequate," preferring to represent her projects in a way less pragmatic and more theoretical. After twenty or thirty paintings, though, one started to get the feeling that a little pragmatism couldn't hurt. The images give little concrete indication of what a given structure is actually going to look like; their allegiance is much more to the initial vision than to the finished product. It's certainly interesting to see so far inside the artist's head, to bear witness to such raw, unprocessed thought -- that is, at first. But by the time I left the museum, my stamina had long since been drained; I felt rather as though I'd been listening to someone describe a dream for two hours. Hadid refuses to meet her audience in the middle, keeping things as conceptual as possible until it's time to start laying bricks. It would seem that whenever a project of hers is approved for construction, one must take the paintings as they are, miles removed their real-world futures, and simply hope for the best.
Admittedly, the results are sometimes staggering. The Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, a fascinating structure that has stood in central Cincinnatti since 2003, was amongst the stars of the show. It's the first major American museum ever built by a woman, but to look at the thing, you couldn't care less about the details.
On the ground level, the surrounding sidewalk reaches past the glass doors and deep into the building, then curves upward to make a seamless transition from floor to wall. Above that lies an impressive stack of blocks and prisms, massive sections of stone and glass that barely seem connected to one another. Through some inscrutable force of design, the slabs that compose the building almost appear to float in place. Describing the effect is naturally daunting; it's hard enough just looking at the thing. I can scarcely help thinking of the doomsday spaceships from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which loom over the earth and its gaping denizens in the same way, if a bit more menacingly: "Motionless they hung," writes Adams, "huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't."
It's hard not to be impressed by the Rosenthal Center. It is just as hard, however, not to feel even more impressed by the paintings that inspired it -- crisscrossed grids of black and silver that constitute some of Hadid's most visually rewarding work. Compared with these, the building itself seems oppressively heavy, uncomfortable with its three-dimensional form; the illusion feels somehow cheapened. This contrast typifies the dilemma of Hadid's methods, whereby the paintings are so abstract, so airy, so concerned with their own aesthetic value, that their fleshed-out realizations can't keep up. Suddenly, a very queasy question, one that has been lurking in the shadows all along, comes to light: what if these buildings haven't been built because they were never meant to be? Perhaps the biggest part of what makes them so provocative, so strangely intriguing, is the fact that they could never really exist -- at least not in any way that would preserve the magic and whimsy whence they were created.
It's a frustrating conclusion, but it does stand to answer a few nagging side queries. Why, for example, would anyone expend the amount of time and effort that Hadid has clearly put into her paintings if, at the end of the day, no one could ever possibly use them to build anything? The show's existence, let alone its installation at such an auspicious venue as the Guggenheim, presupposes that architecture has a place under the art umbrella; that much is clear. But architecture is still distinguished from the other visual arts in that its primary purpose is a functional one; the boundary has been tested before (see, for example, the Guggenheim itself), but a hierarchy of function over style has for the most part remained intact. So what are we to make of Hadid's massive oeuvre of architectural plans, all of them infinitely more beautiful than useful? What criteria even exist to properly evaluate her work?
There's another piece to this puzzle. Positioned midway through the Guggenheim show was a canvas grandiosely titled "The World (89 Degrees)"; Hadid completed it shortly after finishing work on the Peak, and it likewise remains one of her best-known pieces. The painting depicts a wide, sweeping terrain completely free of straight angles; even the horizon appears here as a broad curve. Dotting the landscape are buildings that share the skewed perspective of their surroundings: the same harsh slants, the same fluid forms. A closer look reveals that they are Hadid's own designs.
It's quite a dramatic collage, one that shows about as much respect for geography as Hadid's other projects generally do for physics: the Irish Prime Minister's house in Dublin, for example, sits in relative proximity to the Peak, even though the latter's proposed site is 6,000 miles away in Hong Kong. Still, the bold juxtaposition is softened by how smoothly the structures integrate with their fictional environment; while any other setting would give away their strangeness by way of contrast, they are right at home in this warped "world," where 89 degrees is as straight as it gets. The piece hammers home what the viewer may have already come to suspect: Zaha Hadid, through her work, re-imagines the entire world in her own image. What we see in her paintings is not the world we know; it's Zahaland.
The image of the Peak that I found so striking was and is so for this same reason. Almost aggressive in its approach, it grabs the viewer and forces him to view things on its own terms, which are hectic and turbulent and never totally still. A god in her world, Hadid assumes total control over time as well as space: "Grand Buildings, Trafalgar Square" (another show highlight) washes from a sunny yellow on the right to a deep blue on the left, capturing a 24-hour period in a single frame. Countless paintings cram multiple perspectives of the same object onto one canvas. Massive structures are presented in a way that makes them hover in place, unaffected by gravity. The way of things is different here. Reality cannot hope to compete.
In a way, this is tremendously to the artist's credit. She envisions a world with no practical parallels to our own, an alternate existence outside the realm of earthly possibility. Few adults are blessed with this kind of imaginative power, and fewer still can articulate their visions the way Hadid can with her paintings. The trouble arises when the boundary is crossed; the transition from fantasy to reality is always bumpy and awkward, the results always imperfect and incomplete. The buzz machine that made Hadid a star in 2006 hailed her as a "visionary architect." I'd just as soon call her a visionary and leave it at that.
by Daoud Tyler-Ameen