In the late 1990s, when Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center was seeking an architect to design its new, high-visibility museum, it considered a proposal from Zaha Hadid, the Baghdad-born, London-based architect who is being honored Saturday night with the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Collab Design Excellence Award. Hadid had completed only a few commissions at the time and her potent, generative architecture, which appears at once prehistoric and space age, was relatively unknown in the United States.
The sculptor Michele Oka Doner, whose Lexicon: Justice is installed in the lobby of the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center, was brought to Cincinnati as they considered Hadid's proposal. "I'll never forget," she recalls, "there was a man there and he said to me, 'She's a real curiosity, isn't she?' "
"Well, I took him to task," Doner says. "I went to battle. I knew she was more than a curiosity. She was a force to be reckoned with."
Hadid received the Cincinnati commission and the museum, still her most important work in the United States, opened in 2003. A year later she won the Pritzker Prize, given annually to an architect of singular vision and accomplishment.
Among the so-called starchitects - globetrotting designers who build high-profile projects - Hadid presents the most far-reaching and transformative vision for the human landscape. "She pushes the limit," says Kathy Hiesinger, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's curator of post-1700 European decorative arts and the curator of "Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion," presented by Collab in the Perelman building. "She has invented her own formal language. She's not afraid to make shapes that have not existed in architecture before."
"Form in Motion," the first U.S. show of Hadid's product and furniture designs to be exhibited within a space of her invention at the Perelman, is ostensibly meant to reveal Hadid's talent and vision as a product designer. There are jewelry, light fixtures, furniture, shoes, even a car designed for the British art collector Kenny Schachter. But it's really the Hadid world in miniature. "You can stand here and see the connections between the architecture and the objects," says Hiesinger.
"The exhibition is a reflection of our approach right now to all the work, total fluidity on every scale," Hadid explains. "Our work explores an organic design paradigm and evolving architectural language that emphasizes complex curvilinearity, seamlessness, and the smooth transition between elements. We like to work with fluidity because we believe it visually simplifies everything, and you can then cope with more complexity without crowding or cluttering the visual scene."
"The vocabulary she uses in the exhibit, the sinuous lines and organic forms, is the same as in her architecture," says Lisa Roberts, an Art Museum trustee, Collab member, and author of the contemporary design anthology Antiques of the Future (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006). "You get a sense of the wonder of her work."
Hadid grew up in Baghdad in the 1950s. The city was cosmopolitan and forward-thinking and her family valued the progressive nature of modern design. "The style of the furniture in my room was angular and modernist," she told the New Yorker in 2009. "I remember as a child wanting to know why these things looked different." The era, she said in her Pritzker address, was fueled by "an unbroken belief in progress and a great sense of optimism about the potential of constructing a better world."
At the American University of Beirut, Hadid studied mathematics (Hiesinger says her understanding of math surpasses that of most other architects working today), and entered a field overwhelmingly dominated by men. Having survived that, Hadid moved to London to attend the Architectural Association School of Architecture, a place renowned for pushing the limits in the field. She found herself among other future starchitects - Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Bernard Tschumi - who sought inspiration from early modernism. They studied a group of Bolshevik avant-gardists known as the suprematists. The paintings of that era were studies of motion - lines converging from different planes and different perspectives. Hadid was struck particularly by the work of Kazimir Malevich, who wanted artists to capture the dynamic movement of the machine age as it engaged with the systems and forms of nature.
Hadid seized on the suprematists as a way to develop a new formal language of architecture. For almost two decades, however, as her capacity to create architectural forms from multiple perspectives evolved (and engineering technology caught up), she had to force her way into a defiantly male profession, mostly by submitting drawing after drawing and being overwhelmingly turned down. "She is a warrior," says Doner, who adds that visionary male architects like Koolhaas "are granted a license to invent, while women have been made to pay."
The Cincinnati project was a turning point and by 2009, with the opening of the MAXXI: National Museum of the XXI Century Arts in Rome (which won her the Royal Institute of British Architects' Stirling Prize), Hadid was regularly receiving ambitious commissions, including the opera house in Guangzhou, China, and a master plan for a rundown waterfront warehouse district in Istanbul.
All the while, Hadid's complex designs, based on non-Euclidean geometry, forced material engineers to expand the possible. "There is a strong reciprocal relationship whereby our more ambitious designs encourage the continuing development of new digital technologies and construction techniques required to make those visions a constructed reality," Hadid says. "And those new developments in turn inspire us to push the design envelope ever further."
"Designing the furniture products is very beneficial to us as the pieces are experimental and quicker to execute than the architecture," she adds, "allowing us to express our ideas in a different scale and through different media."
Last year, Hadid delivered a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and the next day, Roberts brought her to the Art Museum's Perelman building and showed her the main gallery (where "Form in Motion" is presented). The idea for a show was born.
Roberts' hope has been to help make Collab a magnet for world-class designers. Each year the winner of the Collab award is given a chance to create an exhibit of his or her work. "This is not a museum exhibit," Roberts explains, but "a chance for the designer to reveal her capacity."
What Hadid reveals, even in this microcosm, is the inadequacy of conventional architecture to express our visceral and emotional connections to the Earth. "I've always been interested in how movement affects architecture," she says. "As in the frames of a film: not seeing the world from one particular angle, but having a more complex view. This developed further when we began to think of architecture as a landmass, like a landscape. An artificial landscape that meets the ground without interrupting the urban connections at street level: the ultimate mobility and fluidity."
Inside Perelman, Hadid transformed what is otherwise a lovely, classically proportioned, and well-lit rectangular room into a subtly moving interaction with time, distance, and motion. Hadid built a rockface wall (of foam) and then used her Vortexx chandeliers, which change colors, as does the sky through an airplane window, and tables, benches, and shelves, which seem to gather and fall away like volcanic formations across the millennia, in order to draw you through it. You end up behind the wall nestled in front of a projection screen showing slides of her commissions. Hadid provides a specially designed seat for viewing, and a number of people were observed sitting there recently as the afternoon rolled away, rooted, so it seemed, to the very Earth itself.