Two Zaha Hadid exhibitions feature archival work by late architect
Zaha Hadid has lived and worked in London for most of her life, and her architectural studies were saturated with rigorous explorations of the city’s latent potential. The fact that his practice only carried out a handful of projects in the city should not prevent us from asking an important historical question: what role did London play in shaping his thought? Are there any key themes that she has exported from her early explorations to her built projects around the world?
Zaha Hadid: reinventing London, the first exhibition of the Zaha Hadid Foundation (ZHF), explored these questions. The foundation was set up in 2013 by Zaha Hadid to broaden access and understanding of architecture, but progress was slowed by her sudden death in 2016. Spread over two sites in London, one in Clerkenwell and the Another near Tower Bridge, the foundation preserves Hadid’s legacy and life’s work while supporting students from diverse backgrounds through scholarships and grants. A team of 12 students from the Courtauld Institute of Art curated this exhibition, which ran for almost a month in June. The ZHF is one of the partner organizations of the institute to support the teaching program by giving students a practical understanding of the museum and gallery sector.
Reinventing London was installed in a single, windowless room in Hadid’s former offices in Clerkenwell. Starting with his graduation project Malevich’s Tektonik, viewers were taken on a chronological journey through a series of projects located in London. From the outset, Hadid was clearly interested in fighting what she called the “conservative element” in a 2015 City Lab interview. In her drawings, shapes were inverted, the ground plane was broken and simple memoirs have been stretched to include (seemingly) contradictory material.
In addition to challenging the conventions of architectural representation, Hadid’s early work also challenged the city itself. In his work, the existing urban context was a malleable object ripe for intervention, as seen in the drawing of the roof plan for 19th century museumwhere Hadid’s inserts land above Southbank Centre.
In Tall Buildings, Trafalgar Square project, the interior spaces are secondary to the emphasis on action, activity and the shock factor of bold formal movements. A painting and accompanying sketches by Hadid London 2066 project (1991) reported its ability to translate the components of the city into fields of oblique and cascading forms. In many ways, this work built on ideas seen in the 1983 competition designs for The top, a leisure club hidden in a hill in Hong Kong. Images from both projects simulate a weightless space where elongated prisms are propelled towards and away from the horizon. Hadid’s vision for London was informed by 20th century precedents of
Constructivist aesthetics and modernist megastructures and imagined topography, urban form and movement condensed into a singular landscape. Evoking a similar tension between the full and the empty, Hadid Pancras Way the models again experimented with urban space as a highly flexible substrate: in a few of the models the circulation of the building is seen as a subtle overlay on the existing floor while in others a glass box encapsulates the built mass, making the space around the form equal in value to the form itself.
In the center of the gallery, curators displayed two of Hadid’s student sketchbooks from his time at the Architectural Association. The pages contain a frenetic mix of ideas quickly sketched in thick green marker and class and lecture notes, as well as larger, more rigorously thought out plan drawings. As the curators have noted, seeing her thoughts, feelings, and handwritten musings during her formative experiences as a student feels intimate. The immediacy and lack of perfection displayed in these sketchbooks are surely an inspiration to students of architecture today, as they show how great ideas can flourish when the student simply uses whatever is within reach. hand, even if it’s a green marker, to get ideas down on paper. That a larger set of pages was not featured feels like an oversight, as viewer curiosity is unlikely to be quenched by just four pages.
It’s worth comparing this show of Hadid’s formative work to a simultaneous show staged on the other side of London. In Fulham, the Roca Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, hosts Everything flows: Zaha Hadid Design, an exhibition that features objects produced much later in her career by Zaha Hadid Design, which was founded in 2006. (The show runs until December 22.) Objects on display range from lighting to shoes and jewelry and re-establish that Hadid had an all-consuming formal vision. Just like the start Pancras Way the models invited viewers to imagine the sense of flowing dwelling, even the later Liquid glacier tablesfrom 2012 invite viewers to engage with an acrylic piece that looks like poured water frozen in time.
One difference between the two shows was the relative importance of the materials. At Galerie Roca, there is an exploration of sinuous wood, effervescent metals and glass handbags. Meanwhile, the ZHF broadcast focused on space, activity and program. One of Hadid’s most materially complex projects – the Olympic Aquatics Center, once called “alluring raw concrete” by architect and critic Peter Buchanan – is included, but the monolithic white, plastic, printed form in 3D omits hidden structural magic.
The curatorial team faced a significant challenge in mounting this exhibit, as much of Zaha Hadid Architects’ archival collection has yet to be processed. Despite this, they located formative projects like Leicester Square, Blue and green scrapers and the prismatic model for Habitable Bridge. The overall ambition behind the show – to discover new perspectives on Hadid’s relationship with London – was a success.
But there is much more to see. Future episodes could explore how the realization of Hadid’s plunging forms changed construction methods or how the ideas incubated during Hadid’s student work in and about London influenced the practice’s approach to working in other contexts at worldwide. Reinventing London should therefore be seen as an index of archival treasures likely to follow.
Josh Fenton, designer by training, works in London as a writer and communications consultant.