Luke Hayes/Zaha Hadid Foundation

Zaha Hadid died last year as a triumphant succession of her buildings finished or neared completion, most of them deeply imprinted by the digital process: the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, the Jockey Club Innovation Tower in Hong Kong, the Galaxy Soho towers in Beijing. “Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings,” on the other hand, which runs at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens through February 12, takes us back to the white hot period of her career, when drawings and paintings were the medium of her invention—a period when she established the DNA that would nourish the rest of her nearly 40-year-long practice.

Hadid and her associates executed over two thousand paintings in about two decades, and dozens, including some of her most famous, now hang at the Serpentine Sackler: the architect herself converted this brick military magazine into a pristine, jewel-like gallery several years ago, building a contiguous restaurant garden pavilion, the Magazine, tented under lyrically tensile roofs. Provocatively displayed in a structure from her digital period, the show suits this posthumous moment by documenting (with a painting-by-painting roadmap) how Hadid developed one of the most original visions of our time.

Installation view
Hugo Glendinning/Zaha Hadid Foundation Installation view

The pleasure of the show is the immersion into the vastness of the architect’s rubberized urban panoramas, with morphing perspectives warping the fly-over views of the city rendered in sumptuous and vivid colors: one tableau was painted using 500 colors mixed in tiny Kodak film capsules. Even in familiar paintings there’s a huge amount of information in the details, which are too small to see in published images. Especially in Hadid’s early works, small individual rooms in which she improvised furniture and wall configurations as she drew never repeat themselves but look, in reproduction, like repetitive cells. Up close one sees the small disruptions that would eventually overtake the surrounding Cartesian orthodoxy and become Zaha’s vision itself. The easily overlooked cellular sequences reveal her capacity for invention: she didn’t do the same thing twice, and from the beginning challenged the normative and repetitive.

It is not quite true, as the growing myth would have it, that Hadid sprang from the Architectural Association (AA) as a fully formed visionary, but the exhibition starts off nonetheless with her hugely precocious and promising early designs. The opening project, a fifth-year student tableau (1977-78) proposing a striking red-blue-and-white transposition of a Malevich architekton onto Hungerford Bridge over the Thames, shows the strong influence of her teachers, Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, and Elia Zenghelis. Students of the Russian Avant-Garde, they used program to animate form simply by moving new program (with the echo of new Soviet social order) into found form or inexpressive boxes. Hadid simply “injected” floor plans of a hotel into one of Malevich’s architektons, coloring it vividly in a tableau that she encrypted with abstractions of parts strewn across the canvas. The seemingly inexplicable marks look hieroglyphic.

Malevich's Tektonic (left) on display at the exhibition
Hugo Glendinning/Zaha Hadid Foundation Malevich's Tektonic (left) on display at the exhibition

In her thesis project, the Museum of the Nineteenth Century (1977-78), also on a Thames bridge, Hadid proposed a train-like structure with one end trailing into the water, where it floats like a barge. The façades of the rail cars and a larger structure angle across the bridge and are imprinted with Super Studio grids; in one area of the painting, she quotes from Koolhaas’s Exodus project, his own AA thesis from five years earlier. As in buildings designed by her mentors, the spaces are cellular, though she disrupts them from the inside with geometrically agitated and angular interior landscapes. The car falling off the bridge presages disruptions of many kinds later.

The third painting from this formative period is a famous exploded axonometric of OMA’s 1978-79 submission for an extension to the Dutch Parliament, in which Hadid individuated the buildings parts—corridors, a covered forum, a mini-skyscraper, a tower of stairs—sliding them apart, allowing each piece its individuality. Rooms are still cellular, and the orthogonal lock on all the parts still holds within the explosion.

Installation view
Hugo Glendinning/Zaha Hadid Foundation Installation view

According to incisive interviews conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the museum's artistic director and one of the curators of the exhibition, what Hadid called her “Big Bang” occurred in a 1981 study for renovating a townhouse at 59 Eaton Square, in which an axonometric explosion disrupts a London city block and its surrounding neighborhood: “The explosion was the decisive analogy and gesture that set off my creative career, breaking up the rigid order of all prior architecture, opening up the city block and injecting the fluidity and dynamism of contemporary life.”

In 1981, for a competition to design the Irish Prime Minister’s House, she exploded the plan with a curving roadway that crashed into a rectangular compound, a triangle generated at the point of impact: she designed the building in the fallout of the pieces. She proposed this at a time when teachers at Harvard and elsewhere doubted the advisability of cranking even a single wall off the orthogonal, and when postmodernists were festooning facades with garlands and pediments. Tension between the pieces holds the composition together in a delicate balance between the order and disorder of impact. The reductive geometry—a parabolic road, triangular entry, rectangular compound—recalls the Russian Avant Garde: “The whole idea of lightness, floating, structure and how it lands gently on the ground: It all comes from [the Russians],” she told Obrist, who curated the exhibition along with his colleague Amira Gad and Woody Yao of Zaha Hadid Architects.

The Peak (1982-3)
Zaha Hadid Foundation The Peak (1982-3)

If the Big Bang was Eaton Square and then the Irish competition, the shot heard by architects around the world was her winning design for the Peak, a men’s club in Hong Kong, represented in a room of its own within the exhibition. Obrist exhibits the original inked drawings that won the competition, including one exploded drawing of the exploded building, its floors all splayed in different directions. At a time when clarity was de rigueur in all architectural projects and drawings, Hadid offered no explanatory notes or even labels. You have to work at the drawings and piece them together in your mind. They engage you by provoking your curiosity, challenging you like puzzles. Even in a competition, she never drew down to her audience.

Hadid spent the money she won from the Peak competition on developing the ideas in painted interpretations, even after the developer’s financial problems doomed the project. Showing her deep interest in cities, and the relationship of Hong Kong itself to her design of a single building, she embedded the project in panoptical, abstract overviews of the city as it climbs up to the Peak, each view different, but all inventive and stunningly beautiful. She did not intend to sell these paintings, as has often been assumed, but she did them in the pursuit of research and for the sheer love of painting. All were executed as a team effort, sometimes with four or five architects, painters, and textile designers working on different sections at the same time. As architectural visions, they rank right up there with Piranesi’s Carceri series for their originality and power.

The magisterial paintings are hung in the same room as the more intimate sketches she did in ink, watercolors, and ink washes, some smudged with her saliva when she wanted a quick smear. The sketches, with gestural strokes that capture fleeting movement, have the delicacy of works by Kandinsky, based on his famous point, line, and plane theories: her abstractions, however, evoke building parts without being explicit.

Installation view
Hugo Glendinning/Zaha Hadid Foundation Installation view

In a long vitrine centered in the exhibition space, the curators have displayed some of Hadid’s notebooks. She drew from an early age, long before she knew she would be an architect, and these notebook sketches, interspersed with calendars and appointments, are a diary of her most intimate architectural thoughts that informed her work at the drafting tables in the now legendary Studio 9, a lofty classroom in an old Victorian schoolhouse. She related to the architects who worked with her through drawing: they chatted on paper, hatching ideas in midnight sessions.

The perimeter of the exhibition gallery around the core spaces is lined with paintings like stations of the cross: each represents building blocks—field rather than object, multi-perspectivalism, spatial immersion—of what quickly became a vision. Her lyrical, calligraphic painting of Verner Panton’s famous Panton chair by Vitra was created on the Xerox machine: she slid an image of the chair’s profile across the glass window as the light drum rolled, mechanizing the process of distortion long before the computer made it a matter of punching a button.

Luke Hayes/Zaha Hadid Foundation
Hadid's notebooks on display at the exhibition
Luke Hayes/Zaha Hadid Foundation Hadid's notebooks on display at the exhibition

In many paintings, she warps space. Her famous, much published “The World” is a fish-eyed composite of unbuilt buildings spread across a cityscape contoured with the earth’s curves. Like “The World,” all the paintings in the show have an individual narrative: the Trafalgar Square diptych shows the same building from different angles at four different times of the day and night.

Though every painting clearly belongs to a family, each one reflects the touch of the architects and artists who worked on it and who can recognize each other’s characteristic brushstrokes (Hadid specialized in graduated whooshes of color). Her practice was, in part, a Rubens studio, and unlike many architects, she welcomed the input of others as a part of the studio’s collective creativity. These studies later became reference points for her own practice: The prow of the recently completed Harbor House in Antwerp re-creates moments that can be found in her studies for an aborted office complex in Dusseldorf (1989-93).

Grand Buildings, London (1985)
Hugo Glendinning/Zaha Hadid Foundation Grand Buildings, London (1985)

There’s only one clunker among the many paintings: a view of Cologne which, in its failure, reveals what was so engaging in almost all the others. The colors are muddy rather than vivid, and the urban fabric of the background looks like a pattern rather than a projected view of the city. The best paintings are spatially hypnotic, especially those with several building views that are melded with transitional topographies and that make the spaces between buildings appear woozy. The depictions of actual buildings themselves make spatial sense, even if they are distorted, but the interstitial spaces between them that mediate the views are contortional, creating the dizzy, drunken, Einsteinian warp that makes the images so captivating.

These are paintings full of life and invention, all of which challenge the methodical realities that were embedded in the straight edges and constructed perspectives of the presentation drawings that had long typified architectural representation. Perspectives in these paintings are freehand rather than mechanical, reflecting the lightness and dynamism that informed a vision that challenged both reality and representations of reality.

Metropolis, 1988
Zaha Hadid Foundation Metropolis, 1988
Vision for Madrid (1992)
Zaha Hadid Foundation Vision for Madrid (1992)

Even if they had no professional or commercial reason and required mobilizing squads of associates, the paintings gave Hadid a way to explore ideas and to see and experience space, and they translated into building plays of perception in the actual buildings. When the computer came along in the mid-to-late 1990s, the game changed. “What’s very sad is that thousands of years of perfecting drawing disappeared in 20 years,” Hadid told Obrist. “Of course, we can do things much better now on a computer. But the artistry has gone.”