From the time she was a student at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London, Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, was famously influenced by the Russian Suprematists of St. Petersburg. So when her career retrospective opened in late June at the State Hermitage Museum, in the colonnaded Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace, it was a spiritual homecoming. The movement’s founder, the painter Kazimir Malevich, had taught near the Hermitage, and to make the historic connection perfectly clear, curator Ksenia Malich opened the show by hanging Malevich’s iconic “Black Square,” from the museum’s own collection, opposite the entry. It was the Big Bang for Hadid as well as for modern art, the ne plus ultra of pure abstraction.
Early on in her career, Hadid resolved to develop the ideas of a movement that was derailed after political resistance to it grew in post-Revolutionary Russia. Malevich was never able to consummate his own theories by building real structures. But through her projects, Hadid brought the implications of the Black Square, the Red Square, and all the other four-dimensional geometries floating in the white infinities of Malevich’s canvases into reality, in a way the master himself could not have anticipated. In project after project, taking great evolutionary leaps, she transformed his “Suprematism of feeling” into designs of keen emotional intensity.
But Hadid’s work did not just extrapolate from canonical Suprematism or other influences; her own artistic and architectural inventiveness took those seminal influences into highly original, purely Hadidian territory. The range of invention in this 35-year retrospective, from the architect’s fragmented early visions to the topologically smooth, spatially fluid designs of her more recent work, is paradigms removed from the Black Square posted at the entry.
“Zaha Hadid at the State Hermitage” starts with a vividly painted tableau of her award-winning AA thesis from 1976–1977, “Malevich’s Tektonik,” in which she programs a tekton of jogged orthogonal masses by the artist into a habitable bridge over the Thames. The retrospective, which features more than 300 objects, ends with digital models of Hadid’s hypnotically curved structures, including the swooping Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan; a desert village of polyhedral pavilions for Aramco in Saudi Arabia; and the Magazine, a restaurant wafting like a stingray in London’s Hyde Park.
In a reaction to the often crushing regularities of industrial Modernism and the leveling impact of normative standards, Hadid first escaped Euclidean forms early in her career with impure, illegitimate geometries, and then with increasingly liquid shapes and spaces, some stretched like rubber. The exhibit reveals how she worked with surprising versatility at all scales in all building types, from her vast urban plan for Singapore to product design: shoes, rings, benches, and even a car.
In the ceremonial Nicholas Hall, haunted with ghosts of czars past, Hadid was not permitted to exhibit on the sacrosanct palace walls. So she built the show into the room on temporary walls configured in a dynamic pattern of crossing Xs: dozens of models, drawings, paintings, and reliefs are ganged on either side of each wall. The double-X configuration injects Hadid’s concept of fluid, interlacing space into this symmetrical, axial, classical room. She creates a dispersive field of display typical of the non-hierarchical, democratic spaces of her architecture.
In the conceptual design phase, Hadid researches her projects exhaustively in a range of techniques and materials. The exhibition illustrates how she tests designs in multiple media, as if each were a separate lens offering a different way of seeing. Hung gallery-style on the walls are wispy calligraphic sketches, organizational diagrams, hard-line X-ray drawings, working drawings, acrylic tableaux, paper wall reliefs, and models in foam core, Plexiglas, and digital print.
In the east half of the exhibit, visitors immediately enter an allée of paintings done during one of the intensive phases of Hadid’s research, from the late 1970s through the late 1980s. In acrylic tableaux, she paints entire cities that seem warped in the distortional throes of Einsteinian space, and she depicts buildings in simultaneous views from all sides, as though in a time-lapse sequence, frame by frame. Colors are vivid, provoking strong emotional responses, as in a Matisse painting, but yoked here to explosive forms that seem to project out to the viewer. She depicts cities as fields of energy whose push and pull of forces charge and shape the buildings she plants in their warped planes. Gravity is no longer the force keeping buildings in vertical obedience.
When Hadid first painted these omnidirectional tableaux, with hieroglyphic markings that were actually abstractions of plans and sections, no one quite understood them. They were not the usual explanatory architectural renderings, but pieces and views of a building that viewers knitted together in their minds. Mystification was part of the experience, and unlike the Russian Constructivists, often confused with Suprematists, Hadid was not concerned about the mechanics of architecture, about showing how buildings were fastened. Malevich was a mystic, and Hadid likewise wanted to create a sense of wonder. No need to show bolts. Technology was a means rather than an end.
Indisputably, the computer changed Hadid’s practice, although her early projects were so complex that they appear to have been designed digitally. In her case, the computer caught up with her vision, and when it did, she harnessed its power to drive her vision even further.
The show uses a visible divide to mark the firm’s gradual transition, in the late 1990s, into a largely digital practice. In the hall’s west end, there are few if any freehand drawings, sketches, or hand-painted tableaux. The analog design media featured in the east hall all but disappear. The transition is unexpected, even saddening, for an architect who used those methods brilliantly as tools of exploration. Digital printed models supersede hand-built ones, which, of course, were incapable of capturing the complexities of compound curves characteristic of the new generation of designs. Still, the digital work clearly grows out of the firm’s older vision, possibly because that vision originally evolved without the mechanical drafting tools that surreptitiously imposed the tyranny of the right angle on most drafting boards.
“Zaha Hadid at the State Hermitage” is a show of seminal works and an accelerating sequence of architectural triumphs: the dynamically shaped Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany (2005); the urbanistically sensitive MAXXI in Rome (2009); the acrobatic Aquatics Center for the London Olympics (2011); the bread-loaf office towers of Galaxy Soho Beijing (2012); the voluminous, magisterial public spaces of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, South Korea (2013); and the Jockey Club Innovation Tower at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (2014), which lists like a sailboat.
The one segment of the exhibit that seems out of character is a zone of about 50 skyscraper models, grouped together like a gridded city of point towers. Whereas all of Hadid’s previous projects, even her very recent designs, are typified by asymmetry, distortion, incompletion, porosity, and dynamism, the towers display the botanical symmetries of flowers, which have recently become the office’s morphological touchstone and inspiration. It is hard to reconcile the ideology behind the towers, which clearly express structure, rationality, and even efficiency, with Hadid’s more poetic work that embraces the inexplicable. Even the architect’s current low-rise and mid-rise institutional and corporate projects seem more in line with her older work, extending those early concepts into the digital landscape. Perhaps the demand for skyscrapers to be hyper-efficient inevitably means reducing their designs to a series of multiplication tables, which encourage the extruded stacking and serial repetition that Hadid had always avoided as a matter of creative principle.
This is Hadid’s second visit at the Hermitage. In 2004, she won the Pritzker Prize on a stage built by Catherine the Great, another prepossessing woman who prevailed in a man’s world. In the dense context of St. Petersburg, in the shadow of Catherine and Malevich, the current exhibition expands our conception of Hadid’s career, charging her work with an intense historical dimension.