Issue Number: 95
Zooming in on Zaha
Everything you wanted to know about Zaha Hadid RA but were afraid to ask... Hugh Pearman reports on how the world’s most famous female architect is taking over the Design Museum
There is nothing like a strong brand name. When it comes to architecture, Zaha Hadid RA is it. In marketing terms, she has instant recognition, the character of the person – stylish, sometimes abrasive, often endearing – and her typically audacious, organically flowing buildings merge into one. So it comes as no surprise to find that she is, finally, the subject of a major London exhibition this summer, at the Design Museum. It is part retrospective, part snapshot of her latest projects.
This is an important relaunch show for the slightly off-pitch museum near Tower Bridge, whose new director Deyan Sudjic is overseeing plans to build a new home plugged into one end of Tate Modern with its mouthwatering visitor numbers. In the meantime, he is giving Hadid the run of the entire Thames-side museum. But is even this big enough?
Hadid is the only woman ever to have won the top US architecture award, the Pritzker Prize, in 2004 – a few years before her great champion, Richard Rogers RA, finally collected it this spring. Last year, she had no trouble filling New York’s Guggenheim with her large-scale paintings, models and photographs of finished buildings, as well as her innovative furniture. Since then, the 56-year-old Iraqi-born architect has won significant commissions, most recently a new performing arts centre in Abu Dhabi, which is part of that country’s extraordinarily ambitious drive to construct arts buildings. More recently, the designer Karl Lagerfeld has asked her to design ‘Mobile Art’, Chanel’s contemporary art container, to be unveiled at the Venice Biennale in June.
‘The hand of Zaha will be much in evidence,’ says Design Museum curator Sophie McKinlay. ‘We want to immerse people in her world.’ Accordingly, Hadid’s 200-strong office is designing the show, taking over not only the main temporary-exhibitions floor, but the level above that as well, not to mention the spaces in between, and should funds allow (even the Guggenheim could not afford everything she suggested), outside as well. The museum will effectively become a Zaha stage set.
This is not a streamlined version of the New York show, says McKinlay. It is originated from scratch, with a strong emphasis on Hadid’s links with London. She trained at the Architectural Association during a particularly fertile time in the 1970s. Now, she is finally building here, most notably the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, but also the new HQ of the Architecture Foundation. She has already completed an iconic Maggie’s Centre for Cancer Care in Gordon Brown’s constituency of Kirkcaldy, Fife (pictured), and she has a transport museum in the pipeline for Glasgow.
Zaha Hadid, Maggie's Centre in Fife.
Paintings have always been an important part of the design process for Hadid, and the Design Museum exhibition will look in depth at how she explored an early (unbuilt) competition win, the Peak Club in Hong Kong.
It was this design that first brought her to international attention, in 1982, though it took years before it was built in actuality. If only the Millennium Commission had held its nerve and built her competition-winning Cardiff Bay Opera House in the mid-1990s. As
it was, other countries got her designs first – Germany constructed her BMW factory in Leipzig and Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg; the United States built her Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati; Italy commissioned her Maxxi arts centre in Rome; France worked on her tram station in Strasbourg; and Denmark added her new wing to the Ordrupgaard Museum in Copenhagen. Zaha is currently building an opera house in Guangzhou, China, and undertaking a number of projects in the Middle East, though not yet in her native Iraq.
Given her work rate – which after the slow early years of unrealised plans has exploded into a frantic pace of building activity since the turn of the Millennium – it is appropriate that the exhibition will feature an imaginary city of all Zaha’s projects, built and unbuilt. This is a conscious reference to the fantasy cityscapes of the architect Sir John Soane in the early nineteenth century.
In a crowded field, she is one of the biggest architectural phenomena that Britain has ever produced. Hadid had a privileged background, when her family was part of the wealthy governing elite of Iraq in better times, but otherwise she is very different from the white male norm of her profession. Not everyone approves of her architecture, which is never less than showy. Emphatically, what you do not get with Hadid is the old mantra of form-follows-function. Her early interest in the Russian Constructivists has matured into something more fluid, where the boundaries that usually separate ground, walls and roofs tend to dissolve.
Her work is highly sculptural and often beautiful. Marrying this with an extraordinary level of commercial success is a singular achievement.
Can she keep it up? The Design Museum show is a good moment to take stock. This promises to be architecture’s alternative Summer Exhibition.
Zaha Hadid: Architecture and Design, The Design Museum, London (0870 909 9009; www.designmuseum.org), 29 June–31 Oct
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