Design Diva Hits a High Z

By Gopnik, Blake | Newsweek, September 26, 2011 | Go to article overview

Design Diva Hits a High Z


Gopnik, Blake, Newsweek


Byline: Blake Gopnik

In cities around the world and at a splashy show in Philadelphia, Zaha Hadid is exciting eyes and teasing minds.

It should be the perfect spot for an interview with Zaha Hadid, the famous architect and designer: in an atrium in Miami's Design District, beneath a three-story Hadid sculpture that looks like a spider web made from taffy, sitting on her favorite 1960s swoopy plastic chairs. But Hadid isn't happy. "It's freezing in here," she says as soon as she arrives, and has the chairs and the writer pushed out into the Florida heat.

"They always say I'm a diva--but they don't call the guys a diva. It's just because I'm a woman," says Hadid, maybe with good cause; the lady's allowed to feel cold, after all. Yet her presence is undeniably operatic. Hadid is a large 60-year-old who dares to dress in shiny black leggings and a Miyake top that looks like crumpled origami. A ring on one hand extends into a mane of gold tassels. "You can't eat with it," she says. Her eyes are hidden behind big Prada glasses, Liz Taylor style, and she talks with a Lauren Bacall growl.

Hadid's works seem even more grandiloquent than she does, as though the normal world were torn apart by the force of her will. MAXXI, her new art museum in Rome, could be a tangle of pasta. The zigzags of Glasgow's new transport museum evoke accordioned trains. In Philadelphia, the city's great art museum just launched a show of Hadid design, including a coffee set that looks as if it should serve coffee to Klingons. A Hadid chair might as well be a lightning bolt, frozen--and gets titled, regally, Z-Chair. The display space itself, also by Hadid, is all curves and slashes, like a Styrofoam cup that got stuck in a shredder.

"I don't think that architecture is only about shelter, is only about a very simple enclosure. It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think," she says. That makes you realize that that atrium in Miami was the perfect Hadid setting after all, even if you got to sit there only for a minute. The taffy-pull she's filled it with, titled Elastica, has no purpose except stimulating the eye and teasing the mind.

Like that piece, Hadid's buildings may be the world's largest, splashiest, most expensive abstract sculptures, with other functions grafted on later. The design on show in Philly is equally sculpture-like, "uncompromising in its radical innovation," in the words of curator Kathryn Hiesinger. The goal of a Hadid chair isn't to cradle your body; the goal is to keep you aware of how uncradled it is. Her coffeepot is about how much it is not just about pouring coffee. In a classic Hadid, as in classic abstract art, achieving a captivating look and shape matters more than getting something practical done.

Hadid's entire career took off from modernist abstraction. She was born in 1950 into the elite of pre-Saddam Iraq, where her father was the minister of finance, and says she fell hard for the modern housing favored by her well-to-do relations. Her opus No. 1, she says, was the space-age decor she had done for her room as a teenager. But in the early 1970s, when Hadid studied at London's prestigious and experimental Architectural Association, she looked much further back, to the great Suprematist artists of the Russian Revolution. (Not exactly a functionalist bunch.) Her first proposals for buildings took the form of paintings almost as abstract as theirs. You could spot bits of structure but were more likely to find an energetic line or exciting color than a door or stairwell. "I am an architect who really was inspired by art, as a starting point, and by design," she says. "If one went back to the era of the Bauhaus and early modernism, these things overlapped: there was no clear definition of an artist, architect, designer--they were trying to reinvent the world, and they tried to look at everything. …

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