Challenging the Master

The recent Zaha Hadid retrospective at the Guggenheim
in New York became a battle of architectural wills.

Zaha Hadid was said to be unhappy with the way her vast retrospective exhibition looked at the Guggenheim, and for good reason: it’s a jumbled mess. But then again, maybe the point of it wasn’t to present her career in a clear, understandable way, to use her paintings and drawings and models to explain her buildings and ideas to people who aren’t familiar with them. Perhaps the show was mounted at the Guggenheim so that Hadid could take on Frank Lloyd Wright. And if that was the reason, it is a stunning success, since her installation engages in one of the most provocative jousting matches with Wright’s glorious and problematic building that I have seen.

The exhibition takes up the entire spiral ramp as well as the top level of the adjacent Gwathmey Siegel tower. At various points Ha-did confronts the Guggenheim; at others she appears to play with it. And sometimes she denies it altogether and puts up walls that completely block the alcovelike exhibition spaces along the ramp, defiantly slicing straight lines across curves. (Making rectilinear space is a radical act in the context of Wright’s shapely structure.) Some of what she has done—like the walls, which are black, by the way, just in case you failed to notice that they are not part of Wright’s off-white interior—will strike some people as hostile. I don’t think so. What Hadid has done with this building is hostile only if you think Wright’s architecture is a hothouse orchid, fragile and perfect. It is neither; instead it’s tough and uneven and very resilient. Wright would have been enraged at Hadid for taunting him, but he would have admired her at the same time.

It’s a shame Wright’s and Hadid’s careers didn’t overlap. (She was eight-and-a-half when he died in 1959.) It would have been wonderful to see what he would have made of her since they are so much the same: Hadid, like Wright, is a brilliant designer who has encouraged a cult of personality so great that it sometimes gets in the way of seeing her work on its own terms. Like Wright, she has a compelling physical presence, and people tend to think she is bigger than she actually is. She also sees herself as a thinker as well as an artist who creates bold new forms. And she appears to crave renown as much as he did—Wright was, after all, the original starchitect.

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Still, this is a very odd show. Hadid has chosen to arrange most of it not by project but by medium: paintings, drawings, models, and photographs. This system of organization does have the virtue of reminding us how extensive Hadid’s oeuvre of paintings and drawings is, and how stunningly beautiful almost all of her artistic output is. But for people who come to this exhibition to learn about her work, I fear there will be only confusion. Many of Hadid’s projects appear in the exhibition in one medium and then reappear in another a couple of turns of the spiral later. If they’re in the category of built works—admittedly a minority—they will show up again toward the end of the exhibition in the photograph section. Try tracking any one building project through this maze—you can’t.

An exception to this curatorial system is the section devoted to the Peak, Hadid’s design for a Hong Kong nightclub that won a 1982 competition and immediately thrust her onto the international stage. One of the most famous unbuilt structures of the last generation, it has been given a room of its own, with Hadid’s celebrated images of this sharp-edged angular building placed in the large double-height gallery space Wright created off the second floor of the spiral. A model of the Peak is positioned—quite brilliantly—so that it appears to be flying out of the wall, as if it were a gargoyle designed by El Lissitzky. Putting this object high above us is visually spectacular—and confirms the fundamentally sculptural sensibility at work here.

Hadid’s architecture is one of lines and shapes more than space. It’s definitely three-dimensional, but she tends to be more interested in the container than in the nature of the space within it. For example, the crisp lines of the Peak—which for so long were emblematic of Hadid’s work and indeed set the tone for her first completed building, the Vitra firehouse—have given way to a more fluid architecture. But even as her acute angles have softened into voluptuous curves, you still feel the shape more than the space within. While I have no doubt that Hadid sincerely wished the Peak to be built (and that it could have been built, in some form or another), its power lies in the visual beauty of those iconic drawings and paintings, which were as much comments on Hong Kong as they were a solution to a particular architectural problem. Hadid created lines of force. When you look at these powerful diagonals they seem more like lasers than facades, and they remain compelling almost a quarter-century after she painted them.

Many of Hadid’s images aren’t so much representations of architecture as they are ruminations on architectural issues. That would be okay if what she is trying to say were a bit clearer. Hadid has always been preoccupied by issues of fragmentation, disintegration, and explosion, but she explores them through paintings and drawings that have an exquisitely pristine, serene, and utterly otherworldly quality: creating a new order to contemplate disorder. The medium is not quite the message here.

The effect of painting after painting, drawing after drawing, and model after model can be somewhat numbing—as bedazzling as so many of the pieces are—and you begin to get the sense that Hadid has done it this way because she wants you to experience her as a thinker before you think of her as a builder. You are quite a way up the spiral before you get to Vitra, and its concrete reality comes as a relief. But even that is a bit of a tease, because you’re soon back in the world of the unbuilt, and it is another turn around the spiral before you get into the heart of the current, actively building Hadid, and finally encounter the Phaeno Science Center; the BMW building, in Leipzig; the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, in Cincinnati; and the spectacular ski-jump tower in Austria, among others.

The latter portion of the exhibition also includes a few objects from Hadid’s new period of fluid form—a gargantuan reception desk of Styrofoam created for an international art exhibition, something called the Acqua Table, chandeliers, and the Z-Car, which is designed to change shape depending on driving conditions. One of the last things you see is a full-size mock-up of the Z-Island Kitchen, which has been assembled in the tower gallery. Here everything has swoops and curves, and Hadid manages to subvert minimalism by making it sexy rather than puritanical.

“Hadid’s buildings are bigger than their functions,” Detlef Martins says in one of the catalog essays. Of course the ability to go beyond function is something that can be said of any piece of architecture that has serious intent, but I get the sense that Martins is implying that Hadid does not need to play by the rules. She has that effect on critics. In another essay Joseph Giovannini goes so far as to compare Hadid to Louis Kahn. “Kahn asked a brick what it wanted to be. Such Modernists anticipated in their designs the phy-sical properties of the materials in which they were building, but Hadid explored the properties of the materials in which she was designing. …She asked drawings, models, paper reliefs, and paintings what they wanted the design to be, or how they could force or even precipitate the design.”

In other words, the building isn’t the primary concern. It’s the drawings, because they not only contain the ideas, they in effect determine them. It’s odd, this wish to see architecture as something other than a tectonic pursuit, as something whose highest manifestations are conceptual. Hadid is such a good architect that it’s hard to believe she truly wants to stand for the notion that real buildings are an afterthought. But almost everything about this show suggests that she does. °

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