Zaha Hadid Retrospective, Guggenheim, New York City

Architecturally illiterate, I entered the Zaha Hadid retrospective at the Guggenheim with no knowledge of the architect or her impressive body of work. The exhibit is vast and provides a glimpse into the many facets of Hadid’s work, from painting to flatware design. However, there isn’t a great deal of guidance for people like me, who are unfamiliar with Hadid’s vision and interdisciplinary approach. I was overwhelmed.

The exhibit focuses chiefly and reverently on Hadid’s precise, gleaming models and vibrant drawings. My friend and I regarded the abstracted drawings with some bafflement: “This is supposed to guide someone in building a structure?” “What do those green spirals represent, exactly?” Interestingly, Hadid’s drawings are complemented by Jackson Pollock’s works in the concurrent “Paintings on Paper” exhibit—figurative early Pollocks as revelatory as non-figurative architectural sketches.

Under-represented and divorced from the rest of the exhibit are the buildings themselves, present mainly in a few large-scale photographs. Hadid’s own website attests eloquently to the importance of her buildings in context—how they reflect and shape the natural and urban landscape, as well as the unalienable human activity of the space. Yet the viewer is not really allowed to see the finished buildings in context. Rather, they appear here as an encroachment on the pristine museum space. For me, the photos didn’t represent the triumphant end results of the models, which emanate pure potential; they seemed distant, somewhat sullied by the intrusion of human life. I could already feel the paint chipping, the bathroom door latches breaking.

Moving through this exhibit, I was left with no inclination to visit Hadid’s actual buildings, to be among the grimy trespassers in those far-off, looming structures. But I felt that I would love to be Hadid herself, or at least my romanticized conception of her, luxuriating in my beautiful studio (in this vision, it rather resembles the Guggenheim rotunda), god-like among the tiny, idealized worlds of chipboard, balsa, and styrene.