‘Metropolis' (1988) by Zaha Hadid at the entrance of the exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery
I have previously written about the late British Iraqi star architect Zaha Hadid (click here), and I showed little enthusiasm about her later works. However, I was a fan of her earlier paintings – the conceptual ones heavily influenced by the Russian avant-garde Kazimir Malevich – and the focus of the "Zaha Hadid: Early paintings and drawings" exhibition (until 12th February 2017) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which she redesigned in 2013.
Right: Malevich’s Tektonik (1976-77)
Not so long ago, I watched a BBC documentary about the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich presented by Zaha Hadid; it was no secret that the artist heavily influenced her especially when she was student at the AA. And the works at this show demonstrated his impact on her, not only aesthetically but also metaphysically. Malevich's utopian vision is prominent in Hadid's earlier bold abstract paintings – they are imaginative, futuristic and idealistic.
Constructivism and deconstructivism are both evident in her earlier works
Aside from Malevich, one could also detect the influence of another Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin (see above) and Arabic calligraphy (since I spent three years learning Arabic calligraphy under an Iraqi calligrapher, I could undoubtedly see the strong connection between the two). Her signature buildings often display bold geometrical forms and curves, which are inspired by her Arabic background.
Zaha Hadid's grand vision failed to be realised at the early years of her career
During the early part of Hadid's career, she was known largely as a theoretical architect, and her buildings were deemed as unbuildable. And walking around the exhibition, it is not hard to see why they thought that way. Her early paintings proof that she was a visionary, an artist who was willing to take risks, break barriers and create new grounds.
A while ago, a well-respected architect (whose name I can't recall) criticised Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid as artists rather than architects, and I couldn't agree more. However, they did achieve the almost impossible task of turning their art works into brick and mortar, and this certainly required an immense amount of perseverance and dedication.
The Peak (1982-83)
One of my favourite earlier projects by Hadid was the award-winning 'The Peak' in Hong Kong, which was intended to be a private sports club and spa. Judging from her drawings, I think this deconstructive structure was buildable, but I believe the developer lacked the vision and guts to go ahead with it (and they later opted for a hideous design that I consider a serious eye-sore that stands on the top of the peak now).
The project proposed excavating the hills to form a site by using the excavated rock to build artificial cliffs. In her paintings, the dramatic fragmented design display jagged edges that resemble its surrounding rocks. They also show the perspective of how the Peak looked down on the rest of the city of Hong Kong, how it stood in stark contrast to other architecture, and how it used the mountainside almost as a launching pad. Yet the most striking aspect of her paintings is how futuristic and coherent the city looked, which was more of an ideal than reality.
2nd row: Hadid's sketchbook; Bottom row: Hadid's furniture and products from the later period
At the exhibition, visitors could also see the abstract artworks transformed into 360-degree virtual environments thanks to the collaboration between the Virtual Reality department at Zaha Hadid Architects and Google Arts and Culture using a HTC Vive headset.
Serpentine Sackler Gallery's new extension was designed by Hadid in 2013
Leaving the exhibition, I felt that the exhibition revealed Hadid as more of an avant-garde artist full of utopian ideals than a practical architect. Practicality, conventionality and banality are words that could never be applied to her designs. She was controversial, daring and larger-than-life. In a world full of conformists, Zaha Hadid stood out for her unorthodox ideals, and whether you like her architecture or not, you would have to respect her for her visions and uncompromising approach to life and work.