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Zaha Hadid’s retrospective in Venice: A kaleidoscopic tribute missing her final touches

By Bika Rebek
June 3, 2016
Originally published on The Architects Newspaper |

The first posthumous retrospective of the grand dame of architecture opened at the Palazzo Franchetti last week to coincide with the opening of the Venice Architecture Biennale. A smaller show was quickly re-shuffled after her passing in March into a retrospective featuring an impressive range of material and media. From hand sketches to virtual reality environments, the variety of media is a testament to Hadid: She began her career in an analogue world and later became a leading figure during a transitional moment in digital design. In that sense, the show doubles as a record of techniques adopted within architecture throughout the past four decades.
The retrospective encompasses built, under-construction, in development, and unrealized projects, loosely organized in ten rooms by chronology and media. In addition to models and drawings, video interviews and animation sequences supplement the show. It opens spectacularly with a gradated field of parametric tower studies set in the sumptuous hallway of the Palazzo Franchetti. Both the neo-gothic Venetian palazzo and Zaha’s architecture respond to a series of mathematical rules and proportions that can be applied at all scales and work together harmoniously. In fact, Hadid has exhibited multiple times in historic spaces in Italy, often to great effect. Several biennales ago, she designed a series of sculptures for the Villa Malcontenta by Andrea Palladio based on the building’s proportions.

Special attention is given to early projects pivotal to her career, including her first built project from 1993, the Vitra fire station. Even though computers were already used for drafting at the time, the project is mainly represented through hand sketches, hand-cut foam models, and her legendary large oil paintings. The MAXXI Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome, completed in 2009, shows an evolution of her aesthetic enabled by increasingly available 3D modeling software. The curvy forms of the museum were drawn using programs such as Rhino or Maya, yet the process still includes paper models and hand sketching. In contrast, the projects of ZHA CODE, a unit within the office dedicated to digital design research established five years ago, tend to generate—rather than sculpt—form through code. Instituted as an experimentation and education platform, ZHA CODE projects often do translate into concrete design proposals. One of their realized projects shown at the retrospective is a 3D printedchair designed through a combination of 3D modeling and structural optimization scripts.

This combination of technique, which uses both sculpting and generative scripting, points towards an increasing technical proficiency in creating form based on particular functional variables, rather than purely formal ones. As another example, the minimal surface defining the Mathematics Gallery at the Science Museum in London was generated based on airflow around an airplane displayed in the show. One room at the exhibit is dedicated to the documentation of constructed projects and features photographs by Helene Binet. Strangely the black and white photographs of the built projects are among the most abstract representations of space in the entire exhibition.

Seeing four decades of incessant production compressed into such a small space is impressive, yet it also makes the absence of the architect the more palpable. Missing the eye of an architect famous for her consistency and drawing disparate things together, the show is vertiginous in its density and variety. It also produces some strange adjacencies and overlaps. Overlooking the grand canal of Venice, the most recent and in-progress projects are represented through large scale, colorful client renderings filling every available square centimeter, only to be topped by a set of VR glasses and large tables covered with models and publications. Perhaps, precisely because of this hurried, unfiltered display, the show becomes an important snapshot of the work produced by an office still under the immediate direction of Hadid. Given the stature of the work and the strong legacy created by the Iraqi architect, the office might become the first architecture super-brand, not unlike fashion brands continue to thrive for decades under different directors, bearing the founder’s name. For now, this retrospective allows to marvel at Zaha Hadid’s immense production while already missing her final touches.
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