Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings review

A new show at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London portrays how Zaha Hadid used painting and drawing as a design tool to imagine architecture.

Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London
Until 12 February

All images – Zaha Hadid Foundation

As Zaha Hadid Architects’ new Mathematics gallery opens at London’s Science Museum, a short walk to Kensington Gardens brings you to an exhibition at the ZHA-designed Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which paints a picture of Hadid as an artist.

Focusing on her early drawings and rarely seen sketches conceived well before she built anything (the first was in 1993), it gives an insight into where it all began for the Pritzker Prize-winning, Iraqi-born British architect. ‘The big bang moment’ she called it - the formative years when she began to use painting and drawing as a design tool, to investigate and imagine, to ‘break out of the rigid order of all prior architecture’ and represent her radical vision for arranging space and interpreting realities.

A personal sketchbook. Image Credit:  Luke HayesA personal sketchbook. Image Credit:  Luke Hayes

Inspired by suprematism, constructivism and in particular the work of Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin, Hadid explored ideas of abstraction and fragmentation to visualise the dynamic forms and fractured geometries that would one day be translated into her otherworldly built structures characterised by their lightness and fluidity. At that time, in the late Seventies and Eighties, her designs shocked the architecture world, prompting skepticism that her surreal schemes - depicted as shifting lines, intersecting angles and distorted shapes, fractured and breaking off into pieces and shattering into space - could ever become real buildings. Today her paintings have lost none of their impact, and this exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see them up close in all their glorious detail.

The exhibition is the result of years of conversation between the late architect Hadid and the Serpentine Galleries’ artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist, starting with her first built structure in London, the inaugural Serpentine Pavilion in 2000, and culminating when Obrist saw her inky, calligraphic sketches for the first time during her last lecture at the RIBA, while accepting the prestigious Royal Gold Medal.

Malevich’s Tektonik, 1976-77 (left); Museum of the Nineteenth Century London, UK, 1977-78 (right): Longitudinal Section (left); Axonometric (right)Malevich’s Tektonik, 1976-77 (left); Museum of the Nineteenth Century London, UK, 1977-78 (right): Longitudinal Section (left); Axonometric (right)

Unfortunately last yer ashe died suddenly in Miami, while the works for this exhibition were being collated. As a result, ‘we felt a great urgency to realise this exhibition and make it a reality,’ says Obrist.

On entering the Sackler Gallery - a 19th-century former gunpowder store, transformed by ZHA in 2013 with a sinuous, white, tensile structure - visitors are greeted by a vast, 5m-long, bright red canvas, Metropolis (1988), whose power instantly assaults you. But perhaps we should start at the beginning chronologically, with her Architectural Association graduation project - Malevich’s Tektonik (1976-77) - in the corner of the gallery. Inspired by the Russian suprematist, Hadid took the primitive building blocks of his architectural models, the ‘architectons’, and fashioned them into a 14-storey hotel, grounded in a real space, on Hungerford Bridge in central London.

Berlin 2000, 1988 (left); Hafenstrasse Development, Hamburg, Germany (right)Berlin 2000, 1988 (left); Hafenstrasse Development, Hamburg, Germany (right)

In her conceptual painting, the hotel is shown in 3D on the bridge, then again in plan in red and black and fragmented into building blocks, like scattered pieces of Lego. She told the BBC in 2013: ‘I was very fascinated by abstraction and how it really could lead to abstracting plans, moving away from certain dogmas, about what architecture is, and that project really liberated me and freed me from all these rules.’

For a competition for the Irish Prime Minister’s Residence in Dublin (1979-80), Hadid envisioned a triangular reception block and master suite floating magically above an existing walled garden. She described her process to Obrist: ‘I applied a level of seriousness in the very early sketches of the Irish Prime Minister’s Residence. It began on paper which was always cut; the carving started at that point, so the interesting point was “zero”. This way of creating very complex projections was very common before computing; it readjusted all the distortions and the formations.’

Metropolis, 1988Metropolis, 1988

Her competition-winning proposal for The Peak Leisure Club (1982-83) centred on the creation of a ‘man-made polished granite mountain’ in the hills of Kowloon, Hong Kong, which would be formed of excavated subterranean spaces, artificial cliffs and floating voids to house the private club’s various activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was never built.

Gravity-defying and seemingly on the brink of instability, one painting depicts the building as a confetti of shreds and slivers, Suprematist Snowstorm (1983).

The Peak, Hong Kong, China: Confetti: Suprematist Snowstorm, 1983 (left); Blue Slabs, 1983The Peak, Hong Kong, China: Confetti: Suprematist Snowstorm, 1983 (left); Blue Slabs, 1983

Perhaps the most personal piece in the exhibition are her sketchbooks, which are a real highlight. Repetitive, black squiggles and smudges reveal the very beginnings of Hadid’s ideas and the inner creative workings of her mind. With slots cut out of the pages to store pens, they’re, the closest you get to the architect as an artist.

Almost in summation, The World (89 Degrees) (1983) is a vibrant amalgamation of seven years’ work, including her AA projects, the Irish Prime Minister’s Residence, The Peak Leisure Club and her proposal for the Parc de la Villette competition in Paris (1982-83). It’s like a graveyard of her unbuilt projects, propelled into another time and dimension.

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