Zaha Hadid Was Just Getting Started

  • 2016-04-05
  • The New Yorker

Architects are, as a rule, old. Architecture is the slowest art. Unlike the closely adjacent fields of mathematics and music, architecture resists prodigies. The body of knowledge required is so broad, and the pace of design and construction is so stately, that it takes a long time to find your way. Celebrated designers, from Louis Kahn to Frank Gehry, usually don’t build much until their late forties, and they—Gehry and such others before him such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Lloyd Wright—often work willfully into their ninth and tenth decades. That is why the death, at the age of sixty-five, of one of the field’s visionaries, Zaha Hadid, gives such pause: although her vision was unusually visible from early on, she may also have been, like many in her generation, just getting started.

Because of that breadth of required knowledge, architects like to think of themselves as Renaissance artists: polymath artisans and courtiers and alchemists, merely disguised as modern professionals. Hadid was more of the Renaissance than some: her unusual and anachronistic distinction is that, very rarely for a contemporary designer, her most significant handmade works are paintings. And her paintings, for all the accomplishment of her Pritzker Prize-winning body of built work, from museums to stadiums, may be what travel furthest into the future.

Even in our digital age, architects generally prefer drawings, which direct your attention to edges and intersections, to seemingly decisive lines and seemingly definitive points. The fluid medium of paint, with its literal and figurative depth, with its capacity for atmospherics, is something else. Hadid’s enduring project began in 1983, with paintings that arose from her student work at London’s Architectural Association, for a competition to design a health-and-leisure club, never actually built, on a hillside above Hong Kong. The paintings for the Peak Club combined something of the seeing-from-all-sides-at-once ecstasy of Analytical Cubism with the rigorous non-perspectival projective geometries—isomorphic, axonometric, paraline—that architects have long deployed to capture three dimensions in two. The building, in her moodily black-and-blue paintings, emerges in a seemingly geological process of fracture and flow, out of the dense and intense geometries of Hong Kong far below.