A Look At The Brilliant, Lesser-Known Art Of Zaha Hadid

Hadid’s prescient early paintings and drawings look as though they could have been made on a computer.

Before Zaha Hadid turned to computers to express the gravity-defying curves that would become her signature, Hadid used painting and drawing as the primary medium through which she explored constructions of space. Now, nine months after the visionary architect passed away, these early works are getting a closer look.


In a new exhibition in London, a collection of these rarely seen early works reveal the Pritzker laureate’s creativity even before she designed and built her first building. Dating from the 1970s to 1993, when her first project, the Vitra Fire Station in Germany, was completed, the paintings and drawings fill the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, a building that was designed and completed by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2013.

Vision for Madrid, Spain, 1992. [Image: copyright Zaha Hadid Architects]

According to Amira Gad, the curator for the exhibition, the roots of Hadid’s architecture style are visible in this body of work, which includes sketches from eight of her sketchbooks as well as paintings that Hadid submitted to architectural competitions in order to convey her ideas for structures in a more abstract way.

“The idea of weightlessness, something seemingly floating–it’s appearing in her paintings and then reappearing in her buildings later on,” Gad says. She point to one work, The World (89 Degrees), which was integral to Hadid coming to the decision that she would never have a 90-degree angle in her buildings. The paintings are the physical evidence of her research processes and formulations about her theory of architecture. Stylistically, Hadid drew heavily from the Russian avant-garde movements of constructivism and suprematism, and especially the work of Kazimir Malevich.

The paintings and drawings also prefigure Hadid’s forward-thinking attitude toward using technology as an architectural tool. “I look at them now and they could be computer generated, but that was before that technology even existed,” Gad says.

Hadid herself participated in some of the planning of the exhibition before her death in March. Gad says that the idea for the exhibition came about in 2006 during a conversation between Hadid and the Serpentine’s artistic director, Hans Ulrich Obrist. The final product is a tripartite showcase: A portrait of Hadid as an architect (appropriate, given its location in the Sackler Gallery), of Hadid as an artist through her paintings and drawings, and finally of Hadid as a designer, with a pop-up shop only selling products she designed.

Zaha Hadid Architects, now under the leadership of Patrik Schumacher, is today known for its adherence to parametricism, a style of digitally enabled formalism that relies heavily on algorithmic generation that’s found new controversy in a time of political upheaval when architecture’s role is uncertain. In Hadid’s old drawings, the seeds of this futuristic style can be seen–long before algorithms had a place in architecture.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.