Zaha Hadid’s radical geometries

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

Some time in the mid-1970s a student came to London from Iraq with a vision of how architecture could remake the world. Remarkably – and eventually – she succeeded.

Zaha Hadid’s untimely death deprives the profession of one its most belligerent, brilliant and fascinating talents at the height of her powers.

After decades of failing to get any of her radical designs built her practice now realises dozens of projects every year for corporations, governments and private individuals across the world.

Many of Hadid’s most celebrated buildings have appeared just in the past 10 years or so: the Contemporary Arts Center, a colossal concrete chequerboard propelling a Cincinnati street corner several decades into the future; the BMW Central Building, an alien megastructure touched down in the centre of Leipzig; the Museum of XXI Arts (MAXXI), Rome, a vast complex of steel and concrete hills, valleys and tunnels.

Hadid’s built legacy in her adopted country is comparatively slight: for many years her uncompromising blueprints were beyond the establishment pale, illustrated most infamously by the Major government’s last-minute intervention (backed by the Welsh Establishment and local politicians) to block her dynamic proposal for the Cardiff Bay Opera House in favour of the innocuous Millenium Centre that now occupies the site.

Here in Scotland she left an angular cancer care centre in Kirkcaldy, and Glasgow’s saw-toothed Riverside Museum of Transport. Her most dynamic British design was arguably the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, a steel and glass space station arranged around a running track running straight through its heart.

Utopian energies

But Hadid’s importance transcends the buildings she was able to get built or her many blueprints for projects left unrealised. Her lasting legacy is likely to be her unwavering commitment to recovering the utopian energies that inspired architectural Modernism, a tradition that was at its lowest ebb when she embarked on her career in the early 1980s. Blamed for ‘ugly social housing projects’ and the ‘excesses of Brutalism’, the Modernist movement that had dominated architecture from the 1930s through to the 1970s had been eclipsed by a freewheeling post-modernism that cheerfully mixed eclectic styles, and a conservative backlash seeking to re-establish traditional vernaculars.

Hadid had no patience for any of that. Soon after graduation she forced her way onto the architectural scene with an series of extraordinary blueprints that elevated architectural planning to the realm of abstract painting, and which were before long were being exhibited as works of art. For Hadid herself, however, they were practical designs for structures she wanted to get built, the first statements of her intent to re-energise Modernism by rediscovering the soaring vision of its early 20th century pioneers that architecture had the capacity to make the world anew.

Hadid’s early plans were an intense engagement with the thought-worlds of early Modernists such as Kasimir Malevich, the founder of the Supremacist movement associated with the Russian avant-garde. Malevich’s ground-breaking abstract paintings sought to analyse form into its constituent elements, depicting fundamental shapes – circles, squares, rectangles, often in stark primary colours – floating in fields of pure white space. These simple objects were to serve as the building blocks for the construction of a new art from first principles. Malevich went on to re-imagine his new visual grammar in three dimensional terms, designing a series of ‘Arkhitektons’, plaster models built from geometric blocks, that, in the words of his contemporary, El Lissitzky, represented a ‘way-station between art and architecture’. Malevich’s experiments with pure form offered a conceptual framework for the revolutionary Constructivist architecture of the early Soviet Union, which sought to build new skylines for a new society using a new, pure architectural grammar.

For Hadid, the Russian avant-garde was unfinished business, cut off just as it was getting started after Stalin’s rise to power in the 1930s. Though the Constructivist insistence on rational structure and the use of new building materials lived on through the International Style that dominated post-war Western architecture, the results – endless clusters of glass and concrete towers – were rather utilitarian when held up against the light of the movement’s early dreams.

Bringing Malevich to London

Hadid signalled her desire to pick up where Malevich had left off as early as her 1977 Architectural Association thesis, an unashamed effort to apply Suprematist principles to the urban landscape of central London, imagining an unlikely scheme for a hotel complex in which an Arkhitekton spanned the Thames in the manner of a horizontal skyscraper bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Imperial Star Destroyers that had appeared in the Star Wars movie released that year.

In what turned out to be one of her last statements, a Gold Medal Lecture earlier this year, Hadid said:

The Russian avant-garde offered me a reservoir of yet-untested compositional innovations that were full of complexity and dynamism. The Suprematist compositions of both Malevich and El Lissitzky experimented with the interpenetration of forms rather than maintaining their neat separation.

Hadid’s incredible designs for The Peak (1982-3), a proposed leisure complex on the mountainside overlooking Hong Kong, represent a particularly ferocious application of her Constructivist methodology. Her plans cut the mountain and the city skyline into innumerable fragments, an explosion of swirling shards. At first sight the designs appear as wild exercises in an unfettered expressionism, showcases for a virtuouso technique. But, as Hadid’s sometime mentor Lebbeus Woods observes, the drawings are a severe exercise in ‘systematic and obsessively analytical construction’, a pragmatic tool for understanding the tectonics of the environment into which her proposed design for the complex was to be set. Hadid breaks up the landscape to probe it for geometrical patterns and tendencies that will guide the design of the new structure to be placed within it. Woods writes:

On close examination, we find that the drawings reveal complex and subtle rearrangements and reinterpretations of what most of us would call reality, portraying new forms of spatial order governing the relationships between sky and earth, horizon and ground, the artificial and the natural … Animated bits and pieces of buildings and landscapes fly through the air. The world is changing. It breaks up, scatters, and reassembles in unexpectedly new, yet uncannily familiar forms. These are the forms of buildings, of cities, places we are meant to inhabit, clearly in some new way…

Hadid’s blueprints should not be confused with a conservative concern to assure that a new building will fit politely into a landscape through the adoption a local vernacular. Rather, they represent intense efforts to discern a form for a new structure that will sharpen a site’s particular geometries. In a chapter on Hadid in his The Art-Architecture Complex Hal Foster writes:

[A] primary motive of her architecture is the release of forces detected in a given project or site, out of which unforeseen structures and spaces might be developed.

Foster notes that Hadid’s descriptions of her work often draw on a vocabulary of intensity, speed and power, associated with other early Modernist movements – such as Futurism and Expressionism – to convey something of the energy she wanted her designs to unleash. Describing her first completed commisson, the Vitra Fire Station at Weil am Rhein, she said: ‘The whole building is frozen motion … ready to explode into action at any moment.’

Transformative technologies

It has often been suggested that the influence of Hadid’s early plans and drawings extended to the development of the modelling software that now constitutes the primary toolkit of every contemporary architect, software whose parameters set the framework for modern architectural design. Whether or not that is true, it is indisputable that digital technology influenced Hadid, allowing her to experiment with ever more radical excercises in deconstruction and reconstruction, and to extend her repertoire of shapes from the classic Constructivist elements apparent in her early drawings to spirals, folds, ramps, wedges and prows.

And crucially, the digitisation of the design process, together with advances in construction technology, made it easier for a much wider range of potential clients to contemplate the possibility that Hadid’s fantastic designs could actually be translated into reality. A trickle of commissions in the early 1990s quickly turned into a flood, and by the turn of the millenium dozens of Hadid projects were underway. Some 80 years on, it seemed, the dreamworlds of the avant-garde were finally taking concrete form, as Hadid’s neo-Constructivist buildings began to appear on city skylines across the world.

Success and controversy

Hadid’s remarkable achievements – her contribution to the reinvigoration of the Modernist tradition and steep climb to the summit of a still patriarchical profession (made harder still by her ‘exotic’ Middle Eastern background) – have been universally acknowledged. But her success has always been dogged by controversy.

The dramatic expansion of her practice – which has grown from a small cadre to a global studio employing hundreds – has been accompanied by increasingly sharp criticism of the quality of its work. Hadid has been accused of churning out a kind of ‘Constructivism-by-numbers’, committing the mortal Modernist sin of resorting to cliché – albeit of her own making – to turn projects over at speed.

And critics otherwise in sympathy with her crusading Modernism have accused Hadid of being content to exploit the surface aesthetic of the early Modernists while passing over the political energies that motivated them. Since she started winning commissions, and especially since joining the glamorous ranks of the ‘Starchitects’, most of Hadid’s major projects have been funded by corporations, financial institutions, hedge funds, tycoons, wealthy families, and, latterly, Middle Eastern petrostates. The conditions under which some her most recent projects have proceeded have overshadowed the buildings themselves: her Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku has been dogged by allegations of forced evictions, and the construction of the al-Wakrah Stadium in Qatar is indelibly associated with the deaths of migrant workers.

The radical geometries of the Russian Constructivists and those that followed them were understood as part of a wider project to reform the social order. It was an unashameably socialist architecture, prioritising workers clubs, factory kitchens, public transportation and social housing. Something of that public spirit continued to inform social democratic post-war modernism, with its New Towns, schools, libraries and health centres.

Even from the outset of her career, when Hadid made her most explicit references to the avant-garde, it seems she was more interested in the aesthetic possibilities the rediscovery of the movement opened up than in its political dimensions. Woods writes:

From one perspective, it seemed to be a post-modern effort to strike out in a new direction by appropriating the tectonic languages of an earlier epoch – notably Russian avant-garde at the time of the Revolution – but in a purely visual, imagistic way: the political and social baggage had been discarded. This gave her work an uncanny effect. The drawings and architecture they depicted were powerfully asserting something, but just what the something was, in traditional terms, was unclear.

And for Foster her work is essentially an architecture of surface:

[I]n the final analysis … her relation to all these modernisms is less deconstructive than decorative – a styling of Futurist lines, Suprematist forms, Expressionist shapes, and Constructivist assemblages that updates them according to the expectations of a computer age.

In Hadid’s defence it might be said that her relative neglect of social architecture has as much to do with the failure of public institutions to commission her work as with any hostility on her part. Architects can only build for those willing to pay them. Indeed Hadid has often expressed admiration – and at times when it was deeply unfashionable to do so – for grand post-war public projects such as Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and London’s South Bank. In one interview with Jonathan Glancey she said:

What I would really love to build are schools, hospitals, social housing. Of course I believe imaginative architecture can make a difference to people’s lives, but I wish it was possible to divert some of the effort we put into ambitious museums and galleries into the basic architectural building blocks of society … I want to be able to touch everyone, not just the educated and cultural elite, with a little of what we can do. One of the things I feel confident in saying we can do is bring some excitement, and challenges, to people’s lives. We want them to be able to embrace the unexpected.

Intriguingly, that interview, and other rare recollections of her early years in Iraq, suggest that Hadid’s deepest inspirations might pre-date even her discovery of her beloved avant-garde. During childhood holidays in the early 1960s – before Iraq’s descent in its prolonged political nightmare – she was able to visit what remains of the monumental structures of ancient Mesopotamia, where architecture as we now understand it began. She told Glancey:

My father took us to see the Sumerian cities. Then we went by boat, and then on a smaller one made of reeds, to visit villages in the marshes. The beauty of the landscape – where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings and people all somehow flowed together – has never left me.

Only Hadid would have known, but one can speculate that here, amidst the elemental forms of this most ancient of civilisations, some of the imaginative seeds were sown for the most advanced structures that now stand in the midst of the cities of the 21st century.

All images copyright of Zaha Hadid Architects.