“I think there should be no end to experimentation.” It was a mantra Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born British architect, strove to live by. She was famous for buildings that give physical form to seemingly impossible shapes, from the splintered shards of the BMW Central Building (2005) in Leipzig to the curvaceous ebbs of the Heydar Aliyev Centre (2012) in Baku. A wide-ranging new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London shows how she came up with these shapes by putting pencil and paintbrush to paper.
“Early Paintings and Drawings”, which was planned in part by Hadid before she died earlier this year, shows that art was a central pillar of her work. For much of her career, it was the only one. Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) was established in 1980, but her first building, the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, wouldn’t be completed for another 13 years; it took another eight for her second scheme, the Bergsiel Ski Jump in Innsbruck, Austria to open its doors. It was only after 2004, when she won the Pritzker prize, usually given for lifetime achievement, that she began to get the big commissions that would make her famous. Even then, artwork served as the starting point for all her designs.
“Early Paintings and Drawings” fizzes with missed opportunity: these buildings never made it beyond the drawing board. In one room, you can see the enormous number of sketches Hadid drew for a single unbuilt project, the Hafenstrasse development in Hamburg. Another shows the many stages of her design process for an unrealised sports centre, the Peak. It is difficult to fathom how the shapes in her artwork might translate into physical structures, which helps to explain why so many of her plans never materialised – where she saw art, developers saw expense. Her greatest influences were niche: Malevich, Lissitzky, Tatlin and Rodchenko – members of the 1920s Russian avant-garde and tireless explorers of geometry. “Malevich’s Tektonik”, Hadid’s graduation project at the Architectural Association and the earliest work on display in the exhibition, proposed a hotel on a bridge in London modelled on the artist’s abstract shapes. In an article she wrote for the Royal Academy magazine in 2014, Hadid said that Malevich granted her “a new means of representation”. Her paintings show how original her architectural imagination was.
“Confetti”, The Peak, Hong Kong, China (1982/1983)
Given the ambition and idiosyncrasy – not to mention the sky-high costs – of many of her structures, it is remarkable that Hadid built so much. Nevertheless, her career was littered with cancelled plans. The Peak, a private sports club, was the first of these failures. The property developer commissioning it lost the rights to the site during Hong Kong’s reunification with China. It was probably for the best, as its construction would have required the partial destruction of the ancient hill on which it would have sat. But it lives on as a series of geometrically fascinating architectural drawings and prismatic paintings that would go on to generate interest in Hadid’s aesthetic. In this “confetti” painting, blocks of colour are interwoven with extraordinarily detailed streetscapes. It’s easy to see why it signalled that Hadid was an architect to watch.
The web-like white lines and neat colours of this piece might easily be mistaken for computer-aided design. But “Metropolis”, which was commissioned for an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, was painted by hand. It presents London as a stew of rival neighbourhoods. The red background suggests danger, violence and, perhaps, seduction, coming as it does from an architect who spent her entire career based in the city. The sections in which a dark colour shades into a lighter one, like the green areas representing London parks, demonstrate a technique Hadid called the “swoosh,” which would appear in the sinuous lines of her later architecture.
Hafenstrasse Development, Hamburg, Germany (1989)
This was a plan to fill in the gaps on a conventional mid-rise street in Hamburg with new buildings. It was a very different scheme to Hadid’s later built works, which largely took the form of freestanding monoliths rather than small-scale additions to a pre-existing environment. This drawing has an almost calligraphic quality. The horizontal lines running through the middle of the canvas represent the street, while the short, neat strokes curving upwards or pointing down are the buildings.
“Vision for Madrid”, Spain (1992)
These two paintings, presented together in the exhibition, were commissioned for a book of the same name published to celebrate Madrid's year as European Capital of Culture in 1992. Though it contained projects by more famous architects like Hans Hollein and Alvaro Siza, it was Hadid’s kinetic topographical experiment that turned heads. In an essay accompanying the exhibition catalogue, Patrik Schumacher, Hadid’s long-time number two, describes one of her architectural innovations as “the surreal move to treat explosion as a composition aspect.” These paintings – depicting fragments hurtling outward from the street-like vertical line bisecting the piece – are a case in point.
The turn of the 21st century saw Hadid on the cusp of success; in this sketch, which appears in one of the notebooks displayed in the exhibition, we see Hadid on the cusp of stylistic change, too. Here, the jagged spikes of her early work begin to soften. At times, they resemble the bends or curves of her late projects, such as the Riverside Museum (2011) in Glasgow and the cornerless Galaxy Soho (2012) in Beijing. Hadid’s mature architecture had its seeds in ideas she had put to paper years before.