Grand designs: Landmark Zaha Hadid exhibition opens in China

Words by
Shai Baitel

5th August 2021

Launched this summer, a significant exhibition dedicated to the work of the eminent architecture firm is being staged at the Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai

Presented by Shai Baitel, Artistic Director of Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai

A first for China, the country's first large-scale exhibition of Zaha Hadid Architects showcases an inspiring overview of the studio’s 40 years of stellar design, avant-garde construction techniques and contemporary material innovations. Currently on display at the Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai, the exhibition features a selection of architectural models and prototypes, project exhibition sketches and drawings, project renders, photographs and large video projections of built work, as well as projects under construction.

What's more, visitors can view a selection of Chinese projects that have not been exhibited before, while the extensive portfolio of multidisciplinary research projects and experimental designs also form part of the displays. Also on show is a selection of furniture and product design from the Zaha Hadid Design (ZHD) collection and from long-standing collaborations with other brands.

Here, MAM's Artistic Director Shai Baitel offers insights into the life and trailblazing work of the eminent architect Zaha Hadid.


"There is movement and movement. There are movements of small tension and movements of great tension and there is also a movement which our eyes cannot catch although it can be felt. In art this state is called dynamic movement" - Kazimir Malevitch

Desert sand dunes are constantly shifting. They are unique among landforms in that, despite their size, a gust of wind or a rain shower can completely reshape them in an instant. Dunes aren’t necessarily towering; they can range from several centimetres to over a kilometre in height. Sand dunes are thus not defined by scale but by their continuous motion and movement.

They transform, blend, and envelop one another, never offering a clearly delineated beginning and end. Their folds and curves extend over wide swaths of continents, dwarfing any viewer in both their size and seemingly infinite vastness. Their continual movement give dunes an ethereal quality. Materially they are of our world, but in their form, dunes are alien. In this ambiguous space, dunes open in our imagination an unfamiliar, expansive world of possibility, based in an otherworldly understanding of motion.

With a brief, turbulent, and illustrious career spanning over 30 years - a relatively short time for an architect of her stature - Zaha Hadid was, until her untimely death in 2016, one of, if not the most commanding voices in contemporary architecture and design. Both in life and after her death, Hadid’s reputation has not been based solely on her works, but also on the relation between the woman and her architecture.

Grand designs: Landmark Zaha Hadid exhibition opens in China
Leeza SOHO Tower, Beijing, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects

Born to a prominent Iraqi family in 1950, writers and critics have often commented - and focused inordinately -on the gravity and significance of such a figure achieving success within the world of architecture. Hadid’s many accomplishments and accolades are remarkable considering the overwhelmingly white, male history of the discipline.

To navigate such a world, Hadid developed a brave and spectacularly uncompromising persona for herself that, in part, elevated her to the level of international celebrity. Yet, for an architect whose practice was fundamentally based in fracturing and interrogating many shifting viewpoints, this is only a singular lens through which to view her oeuvre.

Hadid drew on her own identity and personal history in her work, but also incorporated disparate architectural and art historical debates in a revolutionary fashion. Yet, what exemplified her practice—and united the distinct aspects of her identity—was an obsession with movement. From a fraction of a second to an infinite gesture, movement, and its many turns and folds, defined Hadid’s architectural legacy.

Grand designs: Landmark Zaha Hadid exhibition opens in China
The late Zaha Hadid

Her movement as a student from Baghdad to Beirut and then to London, her movement as a woman through a man’s world, her movement as a researcher and builder through various geographies and histories, all contributed to architecture and design at once in perpetual and suspended motion. The result of these various moving curves, edges, lines, and folds was the dissolution of subject and object - of person and building - which opened up a new space that Hadid boldly defined in her architecture.

Over the course of her career, Hadid constructed movement across all timeframes and sizes. Her early built work, characterised by the 1993 Vitra campus fire station commission (now regarded as a cultural landmark in Germany), was influenced by the abstracted motion of shapes in the work of Russian Constructivism and Suprematism. Specifically, the geometric abstract painter Kazimir Malevitch (1879-1935) had a strong impact on Hadid during her studies at London’s Architectural Association (AA).

Grand designs: Landmark Zaha Hadid exhibition opens in China
Shai Baitel, Artistic Director of Modern Art Museum (MAM) Shanghai

For her AA graduation project, she objectified his non-objective geometric forms in a project proposal called Malevitch’s Tektonik (1976-1977), taking his Suprematist forms as literal building blocks for a hotel suspended on a bridge above the Thames in London. In doing so she harnessed the infinitely suspended motion of Malevitch’s paintings in an architectural style that gave form to abstraction by giving form to movement.

While Malevitch’s Tektonik was never built, it influenced her Vitra fire station, which was constructed out of various jagged, geometric forms that captured a brief moment of motion from a human-sized perspective. Invoking multiple viewpoints on multiple planes, the fire station created a permanently frozen potential for action.

In her more recent work, such as the 2012 Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, Hadid reformed her use of movement and perpetuity to create a type of contemporary, secular Baroque architecture.

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote that “the characteristic of the Baroque is that the fold goes onto infinity,” and within these folds the individual can be subsumed and convened with the divine. Just so in Hadid’s later designs, where sharper lines and angles gave way to sloping curves. The sheer scale of this project, as well as many others from the 2010s, exceeded human scale in relation to their movement. These more recent projects took direct reference from non-Western sources, often from Hadid’s youth.

The Heydar Aliyev centre is, in part, inspired by Islamic calligraphy, while other works reference the intricately woven rugs from Hadid’s childhood home in Baghdad. These sources, however, are never the sole inspiration behind her architecture. They are decorative mechanisms for Hadid to achieve her own version of what the Baroque sought to communicate. Using worldly materials and sources, Hadid’s architecture creates a transcendent space where the individual and the structure become incorporated together in her design’s movement towards the sublime.

Zaha Hadid was one of the most commanding voices in contemporary architecture and design

While many of Hadid’s final projects, including the Beijing Daxing International Airport, were crated on a grand scale, she also brought her vision of movement to smaller design objects, including furniture, centrepieces, shoes and kitchenware. These objects brought her jagged lines and infinite curves to domestic settings displaced from Hadid’s own architectural works. Formalistically, her designs might feel unfamiliar, but their origins are certainly not vague. Various, fractured geometries, histories, and experiences are rewoven and suspended until a user or spectator intervenes.

Like her grandiose structures, Hadid’s smaller objects speak to the “dynamic movement” proposed by Malevitch, “which our eyes cannot catch but can be felt.” Her designs, large and small, intimate movements that, structurally, will never happen, but forever feel possible. Indeed, Hadid did not tell anyone the direction of the movement her architecture and designs were taking but suggested infinite possibility. She was much too prescient to let her work be defined by a prevailing influence or inspiration. As her friend and architecture critic Aaron Betsky once wrote, “Hadid does not give us the plot; she sets the scene.”

The ZHA Close Up: Work and Research exhibition will be staged at MAM Shanghai until 15 September 2021,