The Exploding Hong Kong Building That Launched Zaha Hadid’s Career

Before she actually completed any buildings, Zaha Hadid was busy making them explode. When the Iraqi-born architect was first getting started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she worked obsessively on concepts that tore apart architectural conventions. Instead of anodyne renderings, she painted her buildings as abstractions – sometimes in a state of disassembly or collapse. That was the case in 1983, when Hadid entered a competition to design a private recreation club on Victoria Peak, painting it as it dissolved into a “confetti snowstorm,” as she described it.

Her design won Hadid global attention, but it was never built – partly because her architecture was nearly impossible to achieve before the advent of computer-aided design. That’s one of the reasons why, although she founded her architectural practice in 1980, her first major project wasn’t until 1990, when the Vitra glass company commissioned her to design a fire station in Switzerland. Until then, she had spent the first two decades of her career drawing, painting and imagining architecture in a way no one had ever done before.

Sketch Selection from Sketchbook 2001- © Zaha Hadid Foundation – Courtesy Swire Properties

That early work is now on display in Zaha Hadid: There Should Be No End to Experimentation, a new exhibition that runs until April 6, 2017. “She wasn’t just a great architect, she was a great artist,” says curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. For the first time, Hadid’s drawings and paintings are being showcased not as architectural artefacts but as artworks in their own right. “There are no models, there are no plans – there is air in between the works so there is space for people to breathe,” he says.

The idea for the show was hatched just over a year ago, when Hadid was preparing for a lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects. She had brought along some of her personal sketchbooks, the first time Obrist had seen them, even though he had known Hadid for years. “They were almost like doodles, but all her buildings seemed to come from the flow of these free sketches,” he says. “It was very personal. She kept them in her bedroom. I was amazed and wanted to see more.” They agreed to discuss turning the notebooks into an exhibition after Hadid returned from a trip to Miami, but she never made it back. She died of a heart attack on March 31, 2016, at the age of 65.

Obrist began preparing the exhibition with a sense of urgency. It would serve not only as a kind of memorial, it was an opportunity to shed new light on Hadid’s creative genius. The show includes sketches, drawings and paintings from the architect’s early career, as well as four virtual reality installations that convert abstract paintings into immersive experiences. It’s a novel approach that draws out some of the most powerful aspects of Hadid’s work.

The Peak – Hong Kong, China, Blue Slabs Acrylic on canvas 1983 – © Zaha Hadid Architects – Courtesy Swire Properties

That’s particularly true in the case of the Peak Leisure Club, a design for a club on the Peak that won an international competition in 1983. Hadid envisioned a space that burrowed into the hillside, blurring the lines between architecture and topography. The virtual reality version of her paintings for the design highlight her talent for creating images that seem to transcend the surface on which they lie. “They’re very multi-dimensional,” says Obrist. “These works have the idea of zero gravity, a kind of floating – that is the incredible thing she achieves in these paintings.”

In terms of architecture, the Peak project hinted at many of the things that would become common in Hadid’s work. “You have a lot of things in there that became important later – distinctive horizontal layers, the idea of floating, this notion of defying gravity,” says Obrist. “Hong Kong was already a very congested, jam-packed, crowded city, and this is an answer to an extreme urban condition, an answer to a constraint. Often radical architecture does not only grow out of a sense of desire for experimentation but it’s also go to with this idea of a constraint.”

Hadid’s critics often accused her of creating extravagant forms just for the sake of it. One of the reasons she didn’t complete any buildings until the 1990s was because their airy, curvaceous forms can only be realised with the help of digital design tools. “There were a lot of fluid shapes that pre-computer would have been impossible to build,” says Obrist. “In a way she anticipated an architecture of our age that is only possible using digital tools.”

It’s significant that Hadid was a woman in a field dominated by men, because her architecture was assertive and difficult – just not in any traditional way. That seems to have rubbed some observers the wrong way. One of Hadid’s harshest critics, Stephen Bayley, described her first building as “shrieking” and lamented how the “labial folds” of her design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic stadium made it look like a “giant pudenda.” Shortly after her death, another critic, Harry Mount, attacked her as a “narcissist” lacking “good sense” while comparing her buildings unfavourably to Victorian rowhouses “full of history and detail.”

Obrist sees things differently. “She was certainly the most charismatic person I met in my life. It was totally magnetic,” he says. He feels the same way about her artworks. “It’s very interesting how she invents the future,” he says, by using the tools of the historic Russian avant-garde to create something entirely unprecedented. Her buildings may be made of metal, glass and concrete, but their building blocks are her sketches, drawings and paintings.

There Should be no End to Experimentation © Zaha Hadid Foundation – Courtesy Swire Properties

Zaha Hadid: There Should Be No End to Experimentation runs until April 6, 2017 at Artistree. Click here for more information.

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