There must be no more than a handful of people in the world who don’t know of the late Zaha Hadid. But to understand her fully is an almost impossible task. As the first woman to receive the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, and being made a Dame, the Iraqi-born visionary had an unquestionable influence on the way we experience our built environments over her extraordinary 40-year career.
Best known for her expressive designs, often characterised by sweeping curves and formal distortion, her extensive portfolio includes landmark projects such as the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, the Guangzhou Opera House in China and the MAXXI museum in Rome. Hundreds of leading architects, designers, entrepreneurs and innovators have cited her influence on their careers.
The key to understanding her architecture lies in her body of drawings, particularly in the early days of graduating and starting her own firm. These can be seen in the monograph, Zaha Hadid: Inspiration and Process in Architecture, published by Moleskine in 2011.
The Starting Point
Freehand drawing and painting was Zaha’s starting point, even long after the computer took over. She was strongly influenced by Russian Suprematist art, especially the work of Kazimir Malevich. Inspired by the way he depicted non-objective realities with flattened planes and multiple perspectives, she adopted a similar treatment for her own architectural plans, sections and isometric views.
Yet she went further than the avant-gardists and applied multiple layers of hundreds of 0.35mm lines travelling up and down the page and intersecting with other forms, creating hidden height and depth. Abstracting architecture itself and rejecting its prevailing norms allowed her to think without restrictions; an essential process that gave way to new possibilities. By following the line across the page, freely expressing form and exploring space in radically new ways, she could discover something in the process. In this way, her drawings are not of buildings, but about buildings; they represent the idea and vision at the genesis of a project.
Experiments in space
The young architect’s complete disregard for detailed representation and formal methodology manifested itself as a radical shift. Instead of assuming that something was not mathematically possible, Zaha brought it to life on the page.
Her drawing for The Peak, a leisure club in Hong Kong, shows a complex configuration of angles, lines and layers intertwined with the mountain it is perched on. Defiantly standing out against its natural backdrop, it creates a new geology for the site that “resists destroying it”. The possible and impossible collide as bold visions of the future cut through the site “like a knife”, inhabiting both real and imagined landscapes and broadening horizons.
The World (89 Degrees)
Perhaps the painting to make the biggest splash is The World (89 Degrees). Produced in 1983, it contains something of a science fiction nature. The overhead angle captures the world as if from a sputnik satellite up above. At first, it’s hard to make out what we are looking at. Instinctively, we turn our heads (89 degrees; 90 would be too obvious) to get a better understanding of the subject. Dynamic lines travel up to meet the diagonal slicing through the middle of the canvas. As we look closer, the flat plane gives way to layers of depth, with some shapes seemingly submerged below ground level and others levitating above it.
In actual fact, the image contains all the projects she had worked on to date. Yet it is not a mere record of her designs, but of her ability to manipulate the ground they occupy and arrange space in any way she wanted.
The Dawn Of A New Age
In 1983, Zaha was very aware that the dawn of a new age was imminent. She knew then that technological innovations would not only change the face of architecture forever but that the whole world would feel their impact. In order to seize on these new possibilities, she had to extract herself from reality and plant herself in another dimension that would allow her to suspend all conventional beliefs such as gravity, proportion and perspective. Rejecting the use of established tools such as parallel rulers, T squares or protractors offering perfect 90-degree angles, she liberated geometries and distorted space to allow new realities to usher in. By drawing on futuristic tropes and turning convention on its head, she is urging the architectural sector to revisit the untested experiments of modernism and reinterpret them for the incoming digital age.
At her graduation her professor, Reem Koolhaas described her as “a planet in her own orbit”. Nowhere else is this more evident than in this painting. 35 years after she produced it, there is no doubt that her legacy and spirit continue to illuminate us all.