“Even as a student, Zaha had a kind of mythological aura around her,” recalls the artist Madelon Vriesendorp, who taught Hadid in painting workshops at the AA in the 1970s, introducing her to a vibrant colour palette beyond the smudgy greys and browns she had favoured. “She was an incredible creature, always dressed in spectacular layers of scarves and feathers and Perspex heels. And she had this strange habit of burning the edges of her drawings. They looked like futuristic treasures dug up from the ground, with all these crazy forms bending, twisting and warping. I loved her images, but I didn’t even try to understand what they meant.”
Visitors to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London might have the same reaction. Nine months after the globetrotting Iraqi-born architect died suddenly from a heart attack in Miami, aged just 65, her dazzling early output of paintings and drawings – produced before her first building was completed in 1993 – has gone on show. Housed in Kensington Gardens’ old gunpowder store, which Hadid herself transformed into the Sackler Gallery in 2013 with a swooping white canopy, the pages bristle with explosive energy, the singed corners of her sketchbooks revealed in public for the first time alongside 3m-high canvases.
The exhibition provides an unparalleled insight into the creative process of the architect’s early years, revealing how a strange calligraphy was incubated in her notebooks, an esoteric universe of dots, dashes and swirls that would gradually evolve into something resembling a spatial proposition. Like spermatozoa infiltrating an egg, her wiggles would burrow their way into the embryonic form of an interior perspective, or an idea about how a building might occupy a site, before leaping off the page into working drawings and wall-sized paintings.
“When we opened the box of notebooks, it was like seeing an enormous battery of energy,” says the gallery’s director Hans Ulrich Obrist who, despite collaborating with Hadid for over 20 years, only saw pages from her sketchbooksfor the first time in her lecture for the RIBA royal gold medal earlier this year. “It was an incredible discovery,” he says, “encountering this reservoir of ideas behind her work, which anticipated the digital age long before the computer.”
While Hadid’s buildings became known for their sinuous computer-generated forms, as though sculpted from stiff peaks of whipped cream, her early work was full of the intersecting angles and dagger-sharp geometries of Russian constructivism. For her, modernism was an unfinished project. At a time when postmodern pastiche was in the ascendant, she said she found the Soviet avant garde offered a mine of “yet untested compositional innovations, full of complexity and dynamism”. As her former tutor Rem Koolhaas remarked at her memorial service, held in St Paul’s Cathedral in October: “Zaha took a 50-year-old substance – constructivism – and in a triumph of personal alchemy, turned it into the architectural language of the 21st century, smooth and contemporary, as if it came out of a spray can.”
It wasn’t a spray can, but tiny eyeliner-size brushes that produced these exquisite paintings, which have the precision and delicacy of Persian miniatures, pored over by teams of assistants over weeks and months. Shumon Basar, who joined Hadid’s studio in the mid-90s as an impressionable twentysomething fresh from university, recalls the office having the atmosphere of a Renaissance artist’s workshop, the paintings being the product of a grand collective effort, often late into the night.
“At around midnight, Zaha would finally settle down,” says Basar, whose duties included shuttling Hadid around in her own black cab. “She would call one of us and go through her latest sketches, with very few words, and we would go away and photocopy them and develop each idea into a drawing or relief model. The next morning she would come back and tell us very forcefully which ones she did and didn’t like.”
The paintings were the product of a collaborative effort, made through a laborious sequence of transferring and enlarging, drafting 0.35mm ink lines on tracing paper, then using scalpels to sharpen the intersections of the lines, before tracing a final time and transferring on to the canvas with carbon paper. Hadid directed her loyal assistants with her trademark combination of charm and terror, and was always present to paint the key parts herself. “People say you can tell which bits of Rembrandt’s paintings he actually painted, and I think you see Zaha’s hand,” Basar says. “She was especially good at the ‘whoosh’, making the transition between colours extremely smooth.”
The “whoosh”, it emerges, was a key part of the Hadid lexicon. Floors would whoosh into walls, public space would whoosh into private, deep indigo skies would whoosh into sharp tongues of vermilion. Little whooshes appear in the sketchbooks, alongside other hieroglyphs to which she assigned names such as “tic tics” and “slabettes”, a visual code that would one day evolve into the canted walls and precipitous cantilevers of her buildings.
“She invented so many words, because she could never remember the actual names of anything or anyone,” recalls Vriesendorp. “It was always ‘thingamajiggy’ this and ‘tic tic’ that.” New recruits to the office would at first be referred to as “Pupsi”, before a more fitting nickname was found. Her collaborators’ aliases included Licky, Sleazy, Yawn, Potato, RawMan and Clinton – the last having something to do with interns.
The Serpentine exhibition is hung as a fine-art show, so there is little text to help decode what you’re looking at, but Hadid’s stylistic evolution is clear to see. Beginning with her graduation project, Malevich’s Tektonik, in 1977 – a proposal for a structure over the Thames that could have come straight from the Russian revolution – the exhibition shows how the geometries of her early constructivist influences became gradually more wild as time went on. A scheme for a Museum of the Nineteenth Century in 1978 has something of the flattened cubist manner favoured by Koolhaas, but only two years later, in a proposal for the Irish prime minister’s residence, her angular forms are spiralling off into space, threatening to transport the taoiseach to another dimension.
By the 1980s, the paintings depict fractured landscapes teeming with splintered shards and oblique planes, fields of flotsam zooming towards multiple vanishing points, as if being sucked into a wormhole. Her 1983 competition-winning proposal for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong shows the building exploding in a snowstorm of confetti. For a scheme in Hamburg in 1989, different views of her project dance like sailing boats buffeted by the wind, the facades, sections and plans collapsing into each other like a row of dominoes frozen mid-tumble. You begin to understand why clients might have been wary to build her structures, given she preferred to depict them smashed to smithereens.
“Her early structures always looked considerably heavier than she wanted,” recalls Nigel Coates, her contemporary at the AA. For the anti-gravity artist, steel and concrete never quite bent to her will. But the trust gradually came, computers caught up, and by the time of her death, Hadid had completed 56 projects in 45 cities around the world, from the BMW headquarters in Leipzig to the Heydar Aliyev centre in Baku, Azerbaijan. Her futuristic mathematics gallery at the Science Museum opened this week, and about 30 of her live projects remain to be completed. However, since her death, several major clients have got cold feet and the office has shed staff as a result. Plans to move the practice to the former Design Museum building in Shad Thames, London, are now on hold; no longer commercially viable, the site is likely to be sold on.
It will be a rocky road for the 400-strong company, made no easier by the recent public outbursts of Hadid’s long-time collaborator and practice director Patrik Schumacher, who took to the stage in Berlin last month to call for the abolition of social housing and the wholesale privatisation of cities.
“I was so angry by the end of his speech,” says a close friend of Hadid’s who was in the audience. “It was really shocking. Zaha wouldn’t have agreed with any of it.” The trustees of the Zaha Hadid Foundation and executors of her estate released a damning statement in response: “Knowing Dame Zaha as well as we did, we can state categorically that she would have been totally opposed to these views and would have disassociated herself from them. We personally also totally disagree with these views.” The practice was quick to follow suit, declaring that Schumacher’s manifesto “does not reflect Zaha Hadid Architects’ past – and will not be our future”.
Joining the firm in 1988, Schumacher was instrumental in introducing computer-aided design techniques to the office and scaling the business to the worldwide empire it became. But, to many critics’ eyes, his “parametric” modelling techniques and the scale of the practice have seen the strength of the work diluted to a fraction of its earlier power. Construction is almost complete on a luxury apartment block beside the High Line in New York, which has seen the sinuous lines reduced to a flimsy appliqué. A lumpen glass block is under way in Dubai, designed as an office, but now to be serviced apartments, conceived as a generic slab with a wavy hole bored through the middle – a molten geometry that the rectangular glazing panels can’t quite match.
“Some of the things the office has produced recently have been way off,” says an old friend of Hadid’s. “Zaha would dismiss this stuff quite openly. I don’t think she really liked the squirmy towers that were being proposed. The practice now faces the same challenge as a fashion house like Alexander McQueen or Yves Saint Laurent, to keep the output rolling in such a way that it is both innovative and true to its DNA. The danger is that Zaha merely becomes a brand that can be leaned on. If they were wise, they would think very carefully about what the legacy is.”
• Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings is at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, until 12 February.