Zaha’s World

What does it mean to be a “visionary” architect?

The World (89 Degrees), 1983, acrylic on canvas

The architect Zaha Hadid is often referred to as a visionary, but what exactly does that mean? Judging from the retrospective currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (through Oct. 25), the title has a lot to do with the source of her inspiration. The show, which proceeds in a linear fashion along the spiral, begins with paintings, continues with paper reliefs, models, and architectural renderings, and concludes with photographs of finished buildings. Although the organization is linear, the effect of gathering such a diverse group of material is nonetheless to reinforce just how unprogrammatic are Hadid’s designs. This architecture is not a response to functional requirements, or construction methods, or site constraints, but seems driven, instead, by images of The Future: streamlined shapes, free-flowing forms, silhouettes that suggest an intergalactic space station.

But there is more to Hadid’s architecture than sci-fi imagery. Traditionally, architects have sought to create order out of chaos. Hadid’s generation of self-styled avant-garde practitioners—among them her fellow Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne, and Daniel Libeskind—has upended this metaphor. Instead of order out of chaos, they have strived mightily to create chaos out of order. The result is dissatisfying. At its best, the Guggenheim show elicits amazement—”I didn’t know they could do that.” At its worst, it is merely confusing.

Tea & Coffee Towers, sterling silver

The paintings—and there are many—are cartoonish, like frames from a sci-fi comic strip. Despite their presentation and surroundings, it’s hard to take them seriously as art, so perhaps they are merely a testimony to the architecture. The beautifully crafted models, in wood, metal, and glass, have the self-sufficiency of abstract sculptures, pure undiluted form. After the exquisite models, mundane reality intrudes: In the photographs of the actual buildings, the geometrical shapes turn into windows, with sills, and sashes, and caulking; pristine geometry is interrupted by metal handrails; the smooth concrete cracks. The impression is of idealized forms left out in the rain, to paraphrase a remark of Frank Lloyd Wright’s to Philip Johnson.

Despite her honors and this large retrospective, Hadid, 55, has built relatively little. Her largest work, completed last year, is the BMW Plant Central Building in Leipzig, Germany. Although the BMW automobile is sometimes advertised as the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” the plant is less about engineering and technology than about chic, futuristic imagery. A kitchen-counter mock-up at the top of the Guggenheim ramp produces a similar impression. The seamless, white sculptural form reminds me of something from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although there are no human figures to spoil its pristine beauty, if there were, they would be wearing silver jumpsuits, miniskirts, and Monica Vitti hairdos.

Hadid’s taste for retro fashion was evident in her first project, The Peak, which is appropriately accorded its own room at the very beginning of the exhibit. Designed in 1982, The Peak is a hotel on a dramatic mountainside overlooking Hong Kong. Although the competition-winning scheme was never built, it brought Hadid international recognition. In hindsight, it looks pretty tame, a revival of Russian Suprematism combined with the 1950s googly architecture of Miami Beach, Fla., and Wildwood, N.J. Next to the model and drawings of the building (unlabeled, like everything else in the show, so it’s impossible to understand how the building actually functions) are two examples of seating designed by the architect in 1985-86. What is striking is the extent to which the forms of the building and the furniture are interchangeable.

Soho City Masterplan, Beijing, China

Even if you are a fan of Hadid’s work, this exhibition will seem flawed. It refers to the architect’s “analytical methods,” yet does not explain the connection between the idiosyncratic paintings and the final designs. Or maybe it does. The paintings represent intersecting lines, colliding forms, and fragmented shapes. Sometimes these re-emerge as a piece of furniture, sometimes as a building, sometimes as an entire city block. The urbanism is slightly frightening—a vision of the city that appears unrelated to either human use or occupation. Brasilia on speed. Walter Gropius once said that an architect should be able to design a city or a teacup. Whatever the merits of such a dubious claim, even Gropius wouldn’t have suggested that teacups and cities were interchangeable. In Zaha’s world, they are.