© Zaha Hadid Architects

How Architecture Is Born: 8 Abstract Paintings by Zaha Hadid and the Buildings They Inspired

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

The late Dame Zaha Hadid was known internationally for her audacious brand of parametric architecture, and her firm continues to develop highly distinctive urban landmarks in a multitude of metropolises around the globe. However, many aspects of Hadid’s signature style can be traced back to the early 1980s, before the architect had seen any of her proposals for buildings come to fruition.

Hadid’s use of painting as a medium to convey theoretical ideas brought her to prominence in the art world in 1988, when her abstract canvases were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The young architect presented vibrant explorations of deconstructivism and futurism, touching upon her roots as a mathematician but also the desire to explore modern architecture at a macro scale — many of the paintings portray masterplan proposals for major cities, looking at ways to enhance connectivity between urban nodes.

© Hadid Zaha

© Hadid Zaha

The World (89 Degrees) © Zaha Hadid Architects

Lebbeus Woods — another theorist famed for creating striking abstractions of architecture — recounted his amazement at Hadid’s painting techniques during a visit to her studio in 1984:

“I saw a watercolor Zaha Hadid was working on taped to a drawing board. It was a delicate and intricate drawing related to her breakthrough project for The Peak. Being one who drew, I asked her what brushes she used … Without a comment, she showed me a cheap paint-trim ‘brush’ that can be bought at any corner hardware store — a wedge of gray foam on a stick. I still remember my being shocked into silence. Years later, I came to understand her choice of tools as characteristic of her approach to architecture: a wringing of the extraordinary out of the mundane.”

While the majority of Hadid’s early paintings remained in theoretical realms, she also utilized these techniques to develop real-world architectural proposals, many of which were built. Here, we look at four projects where painting played a vital role in this iconic architect’s design process:

Early study paintings for Cardiff Bay Opera House © Zaha Hadid Architects

Scale model for Cardiff Bay Opera House © Zaha Hadid Architects

Cardiff Bay Opera House, Cardiff, Wales

Hadid’s deconstructivist paintings for the Opera House — a competition-winning proposal that was never realized — hover between the realms of technical drawing and abstract artwork. Recognizable architectural elements — stairs, beams and girders — are clearly present, but the compositions are never literal, instead illustrating a sense of dynamism that Hadid sought to achieve within the final building.

Freed from the constraints of gravity inherent within three-dimensional studies, Hadid’s fragmented planes appear to float or even fly, evoking a sense of drama that the architect believed would create a memorable mark upon the urban landscape of Cardiff. The angular strokes and vibrant purple hues present within each piece are characteristic of Hadid’s boldness during the 1980s, as the young architect strove to translate her theoretical principles to the physical realm.

Early study paintings for the Vitra Fire Station © Zaha Hadid Architects

Vitra Fire Station © Zaha Hadid Architects; photograph by Christian Richters

Vitra Fire Station, Weil am Rhein, Germany

The architect’s first built work arrived after more than a decade of development work that included several paintings in Hadid’s typically intrepid style. The artworks are composed of deconstructed volumes, exploded into a series of razor-sharp components that project outwards into perpetuity. This confluence of shards is informed by the site, a narrow strip of land between adjacent plots in Weil am Rhein.

Hadid’s daring composition resulted in a building that possesses a sense of tension and movement, but also provides practical benefits: Its multifaceted exterior allows for multiple entrances and exits for firefighters and vehicles. Each space flows into the next, arranged according to the building’s sequential program. This prioritization of fluid movement is visible from the first painting to the completed fire station.

Early study paintings for the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art © Zaha Hadid Architects

© Roland Halbe

© Roland Halbe

Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art © Zaha Hadid Architects; photograph by Roland Halbe

Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

Hadid’s pre-construction paintings for the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art were translated quite literally to physical form on the bank of the Ohio River in Cincinnati. A solid cuboid is sliced and diced to form a dynamic cluster of projecting blocks, reflecting the firm’s desire to create a building that appears to be in a constant state of flux alongside its static neighbors. This permeable form results in a highly accessible building that can be read as an extension of the public square below.

The fractured block concept visible within the paintings also allowed for a variety of different façade treatments, with concrete, steel and glass applied to reflect internal changes in program throughout the building. Dissected by a series of ramps and stairs that link the café, galleries and theater on different stories, the structure evokes a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle in both the original paintings and the final building.

Early study paintings for the MAXXI Museum © Zaha Hadid Architects

MAXXI Museum © Zaha Hadid Architects; photograph by Helene Binet

MAXXI: Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome, Italy

The paintings produced for Hadid’s Museum of XXI Century Arts in the Italian capital plays with scale, representing both the details of individual architectural elements and the constant movement of this frenetic cityscape as a whole. The sinuous lines that provide the primary focus within each artwork are highly linear yet characteristically fluid, exploring themes of connectivity and dynamism that would ultimately be translated in concrete within the completed building.

Luminous ribbons slalom from front to back, evoking the perpetual flow of traffic and people through the streets of Rome. These curves are echoed within the intertwining forms of the building, leading visitors through a fluid space that smoothly transitions from one exhibition to another. The upper volume terminates at a grand picture window overlooking the city, its cantilevered volume forming a bold emblem for the institution.

For more coverage of Dame Zaha Hadid, check out the following features:

Unparalleled: How Zaha Changed Architecture

“You Can’t Teach Architecture. You Can Only Inspire People”: 10 Top Quotes by Zaha Hadid

How to Make Killer Presentation Videos: 13 of the Best Zaha Design Trailers

“We Just Loved Her”: Frank Gehry Reflects on 30 Years of Friendship With Zaha Hadid

Top image: Blue Beam, Victoria City Aerial, Berlin, c. 1988 © Zaha Hadid Architects