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Lost in Space

A Soho exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s work reveals an architect who is shaking up the way we experience architecture.

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People who think Arabic culture stopped developing after Baghdad fell the first time, in the thirteenth century, should visit the show Zaha Hadid at Artists Space in Soho, where the Baghdad-born, London-based architect exhibits the towering contribution she has made to architecture with her unique algebra of complex and curving space. Denizens of the grid, New Yorkers—and New York institutions like MoMA—treat the right angle as the only buildable option. But in drawing after drawing and model after model, Hadid consigns Western traditions of Euclidean geometry to the Dark Ages as she abandons the box and pursues nonlinear designs based on algorithms of change: picture graphs charting acceleration toward a three-dimensional infinity. As though wielding a divining rod, this mathematician turned architect senses the warp and torque of pressures on a site and invents delirious roller-coaster buildings that deliver the eye and body to topographies of thrill. Policemen could cite her buildings for speeding.

Hadid’s Soho show is the latest stop in what seems to be an international Zaha-palooza, starting with the recent opening of a voluptuously rich retrospective in Vienna; followed by her winning the coveted Mies Prize in Barcelona for the best European building of the year, in recognition of her Park-and-Ride Station in Strasbourg; and then, last month, the triumphant opening of the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati—an eight-story antigravitational bundle of hovering horizontal galleries.

The dense mixed-media show at Artists Space, curated by Lauri Firstenberg, presents clear evidence that Hadid has been very busy since the “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at MoMA in 1988, when she displayed projects whose complexity anticipated by years the computer-driven designs of the following decade. Even then her work challenged the classical ideal that a well-tempered whole must bind the parts in a structured hierarchy—as in a Greek temple or even the efficient high-rises of Manhattan. In her post-classical projects, she liberated buildings from the ordering lines of gravity: Walls were no longer stiffly extruded up from a base like a stack of pancakes. Everything drifted into the Zaha ether. She applied perspectival drawing techniques from paper to three-dimensional forms, mixing the virtual and real, and the spectral geometries that came as a result generated enigmatic spaces beyond our ready ken. The parts of a building were no longer fixed but reeling and relational, pieced together in the mind during filmlike promenades. For Hadid, architecture is conceptual art; lazy eyes need not apply.

With a series of midsize projects, Hadid built up credibility and recently won commissions for huge structures, including a billowing BMW automobile plant in Germany and a library, archive, and sports center in Montpellier, France. Remarkably, there is no attenuation of emotional or visual intensity; Hadid’s complex spatial equations translate even to large-scale buildings. The abstractions stretch with the vision.

At Artists Space, Hadid unveils her newest project, the Price Tower Arts Center, to be built in the shadow of the Price Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiring nineteen-story masterpiece in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. She is one of the few architects anywhere who can survive proximity to Wright. The hypnotically sinuous structure grows tangentially from Wright’s angular building with a curve that rises and boomerangs back toward the entry. A ramped promenade flows continuously up into the two-story museum. Outside walls turn up in compound curves forming an undulating shell slashed with deep windows. Viewed from the tower, the roof forms a fifth façade, with skylights distorted by the force field like a rocket re-entering earth’s gravitational pull. The texture of Wright’s façades, themselves tensed in opposed patterns, is updated by Hadid’s oblique tartan.

Though Hadid’s enigmatic drawings may seem cryptic, the built structures have proved to be spatial delights that unfold as visitors follow their curiosity through evolving interiors. With their fearful asymmetries, her designs exercise a talismanic pull through the physics of wonder she has invented: She mystifies form. Artists Space, and the principal sponsor of the show, Donna Karan, deserve sustained applause for bringing Hadid’s work to New York, especially when the city’s major design departments have conspicuously preferred safely dead masters to those breathing fire.


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