Zaha Hadid and the
Russian Avant Garde
Some time ago I spent several days in the guest room of the Austrian
Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna. I looked through the guest
book. Contemporary artists, architects, and designers who had stayed
there had all left their notes. Some made drawings and caricatures;
others, collages. An architect even developed some plans for the
positioning of furniture in the space. Everybody thanked Peter Noever,
the (now former) director of the museum, for exhibitions, seminars, and
art events. One of the pages in particular contained quite an unusual and
linear graphic composition with an extremely dynamic structure, as if it
were trying to push itself out of the space of the book. The signature by
Zaha Hadid made everything clear. This drawing for me epitomizes the
code, the algorithm of her creativity.
Those lines were pretending to outline Infinity in the way that the
shapes and shells of architecture encapsulate space. The drawing
reflected an impetuous dynamism of forms and temperamental energy.
The lines of the composition defined
the direction of the movement and
registered its compositional code.
Lines as separate objects gained
the status of artistic forms in their
own respect in the works of Vasily
Kandinsky and Alexander Rodchenko.
Both Kandinsky and Rodchenko were
using lines as independent elements
in a composition. Kandinsky reflected
on the perception of linear forms, on
“understanding” their language; for
him, the line became the media to
interpret emotions. For Rodchenko,
lines were first and foremost a
material for construction.
Alexander Rodchenko, Construction No. 92, 1919
According to Kandinsky, the line when it is liberated from rigid
instruments (like the ruler and compass) becomes more flexible. Linear
modulations can reveal “the slightest gradation of artistic feeling.” In his
article published in the magazine Iskusstvo (Art) in 1919, dedicated to the
importance of the line in the arts, Kandinsky suggested some preliminary
classification of lines according to their influence on the spectator:
“. . . there can and do exist cheerful lines, gloomy and serious lines, tragic
and mischievous, stubborn lines, weak lines, forceful lines, etc., etc. In
the same way, musical lines, according to their character, are denoted
as allegro, grave, serioso, scherzando.” 1 In his famous later text Point and
Line to Plane, he wrote: “. . . every phenomenom of the external and of the
internal world can be given linear expression—a kind of translation.” 2 The
line is the basis of a language that expresses emotions, energy, rising up,
falling down, rhythm, and motion.
On the other hand, Rodchenko used lines as instruments for designing,
projecting, and creating something that did not exist before. He treated
the line as a trace of some definite technological operation: cutting,
welding, overlapping, sectioning, and so on. The line as the basis of a
language of structure and organization. For Rodchenko, any composition
emerges from the foundation of its linear scheme.
The perfect significance of the line was at last clarified—on the one
hand, its bordering and on-edge relationship, and on the other—as a factor
of the main construction of every organism that exists, the skeleton, so to
speak (or the foundation, carcass, system). The line is the first and the
last, both in painting and in any construction at all. The line is the path of
passing through, movement, collision, edge, attachment, joining, sectioning.
In the line a new world view became clear: to build in essence, and not
depict (objectify or non-objectify); to build new, expedient, constructive
structures in life and not from life and outside of life. 3
Those at once lively and constructive lines I saw in the linear structure
made of metal wires by Zaha Hadid for the exhibition on Russian avantgarde
art at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich. The Galerie Gmurzynska has
always been interested in artists whose works can be continued in the
space outside the gallery. Artists whose concept is the environment, not
just the picture on the wall.
The idea of the expansion of forms in
space and the close relationship of the
works by Zaha Hadid with the Russian
avant garde became evident in her design
of the exhibition The Great Utopia at the
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in the
1990s. It happened so that the exhibition
environment created by Zaha Hadid at that
time integrated art works by Russian avantgarde
Zaha Hadid’s concept of form and space
integrates works of art into an environment
that she herself has created. Who dominates
in this competition: the work of art or the
exhibition installation? A lot of visitors to
Alexander Rodchenko, Construction, linocut, 1921
Kazimir Malevich, drawing from the book Suprematism, Vitebsk, 1920
the Guggenheim Museum confessed that the exhibition installation helped
them to better understand Kazimir Malevich, Gustav Klutsis, or Vladimir
Tatlin. Understanding by feeling the space. The exhibition defined their
perception of the artistic world of the Russian avant garde. In the 1920s
nobody thought of creating special environments such as this for works of
art. Exhibitions looked as if objects were just taken out of the workshop.
By the end of the twentieth century, it became a sort of rule for
exhibitions to plan the installation so that avant-garde art could uncover
its full potential. Zaha Hadid found an interesting solution in creating
the environment on a larger scale than the art pieces themselves. The
contrast of scales—the large scale of the installation and the smaller scale
of the composition—creates the necessary tension to help the spectator
find his place and his mode of perception in this environment. Quite
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Skyscraper, photomontage, 1925
often the exhibition architecture is a sort of
huge three-dimensional artistic installation
which speaks the same language as the
objects it is incorporating. The last exhibition
at Galerie Gmurzynska created another
situation. Zaha Hadid created a dialogue
through the ages with the artists of the
Russian avant garde.
I remember another exhibition where
Zaha Hadid represented herself as an
architect. It was a small exhibition at the
VKhUTEMAS Gallery (which is now part of
the Moscow Architectural Institute). The
installation consisted of huge pneumatic
forms reminiscent of the exponentially
englarged iMac monoblocks of the late
1990s. The visitors were moving amidst
these objects like they would amidst
Boris Korolev, drawing for the Temple of Communication of the
People, 1919. Cubist sculptor Boris Korolev together with Nikolai
Ladovsky were members of the Zhivsculparch (painting, sculpture,
and architectural synthesis) group, organized in 1919 in Moscow
within the architectural sub-department of the Department of
Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education.
Kazimir Malevich, Spatial Suprematism, 1916
houses. From inside, the projectors were constantly displaying visuals.
Those giant computers were exposing a never-ending flow of transforming
forms and flexible structures.
Zaha Hadid’s exhibition and architectural projects are very special in
terms of scale. She works within an extra-large environment of space,
within which smaller works of art look quite cozy. Her perception of the
extra-large range of forms is very similar to the planetary thinking of
Kazimir Malevich. “Our Earth, the surface of the Earth is not organized. It
is covered with seas and mountains. Some kind of Nature exists. I would
like to create Suprematist Nature according to the laws of Suprematism
instead of this Nature,” 4 Malevich once explained to Osip Brik, a critic and
director of the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKhUK) in Moscow in 1922–24.
Malevich and his perception of the world offers another meeting point
for Zaha Hadid and the Russian avant garde. Hadid works with great
compositional freedom and at the same time possesses the talent of the
innovator, comparable to the talent of Malevich and his idea of converting
the surface of the Earth into various series of Suprematist spatial
compositions, Planits and Architektons. Every Malevich Planit is a
statement. The same visual-plastic statements are architectural and
environmental objects designed by Zaha Hadid. Quite a lot in terms of her
spatial compositions is close (but not similar) to Malevich’s works. The
use of empty space, the energy of her will in place of the elements, the
freedom and force of visual statements. And of course a sense of scale.
Malevich used a number of forms that did not have exact proportions,
which could be small or enormous at the same time: the square, the circle,
the cross. The preferred scale of Zaha Hadid is quite huge. But she never
uses forms in exactly the same way as Malevich. Her visual language is the
language of the topological transformation of complex curvilinear forms,
ovoids. But the principle of the structural unity, the fractal principle is
quite close to that of Malevich’s Architektons.
Her projects have a direct link with the concept of Rationalism by
Nikolai Ladovsky. According to Ladovsky’s ideas, architecture has the
most important basic function, not
only of protection or shelter, but one
connected to orientation in space.
Architectural forms have to explain
visually to people the qualities and
character of the space surrounding
them. Scales and proportions,
geometry, lightness or weight, and
so on. This is achieved by means of
divisions of walls into panels or
windows, the number of columns or
their absence, the character of the
surfaces, angles, and perspectives.
Some spaces indicate an entrance and
subconsciously we move inside, others
organize our movement and show the
way out, others act like the giant
Stalactite caves in order to astonish
Student’s model revealing compositional qualities of a cone
turned upside down, 1920s. From the propaedeutic discipline
“The Space” created by Nikolai Ladovsky, VKhUTEMAS,
Faculty of Architecture.
Alexander Rodchenko, dynamic architectural composition from linear
elements, 1919. The drawing was executed during Rodchenko’s
participation in the Zhivsculparch (painting, sculpture, and architectural
synthesis), a group organized in 1919 in Moscow within the architectural
sub-department of the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s
Commissariat for Education.
us, and others explain how the ensemble of buildings is organized, where
we are at the moment. Some architectural forms stress fluidity, some—
Nikolai Ladovsky developed a series of propaedeutic exercises for
future architects at the school of VKhUTEMAS (Higher Artistic-Technical
Workshops) in Moscow in 1920–22, based on the composition of space.
Those exercises were first abstract and then based on concrete items.
Zaha Hadid, drawing in the guest book of the Museum
of Applied Arts (MAK), Vienna
Depending on the type of buildings, some
compositional characteristics could be
dominating. Some works by Zaha Hadid—
for instance the project of the Innovation
Tower in Hong Kong or the library in
Seville—can be regarded as the development
of some of Ladovsky’s tasks, where
extreme lightness or heaviness are
compositionally stressed by means of
architectural forms. The whole system of
Ladovsky’s exercises was based on the
Cubist approach to form. Forms are
divided by sections into pieces which move
and freeze at some moment, giving birth
to an architectural image. What we see in
works by Zaha Hadid is, in her own words,
a “controlled explosion.”
What is space? It is an interesting and
ever-changing subject. For instance,
K.O. Vytuleva, a young art historian from
Moscow, has discovered the phenomenon
of “blurred silhouettes, uncertain and
ephemeral images” 5 in contemporary architecture. She found the echo
of this illusionism in the echo of the legacy of the “theory of a cloud”—
a cross-disciplinary theoretical concept of the nineteenth and twentieth
century. She did an analysis of Zaha Hadid’s building and found the
repeating motif of the cloud-like form. In general, this idea is very close
to the paintings from Malevich’s series White on White, as well as
Rodchenko’s Dissolution of the Surface. In both cases, the paintings by
Malevich and Rodchenko stress the mutual influence of space and form
and the miraculous things that happen at their flexible border.
According to Ladovsky, the main material of architecture is space. Yet
it is not just emptiness. Architectural space is a gap articulated by means
Nikolai Ladovsky, section of Collective House, 1920
of architectural forms. The qualities of these articulated intervals can
suppress or elevate, explain the structure of the environment, form an
attitude toward the building.
What is the essence of space in the exhibition projects and architecture
of Zaha Hadid? Generally it is not emptiness, neither of form nor structure.
I think it deals more with motion, dynamics. The same goes for dynamic
compositions in paintings of the avant-garde artists, which uncover the
hidden inner life in these works of art. Dynamism makes our perception
more efficient, it draws us into the artistic space.
The similarity of architectural objects designed by Zaha Hadid to the
Russian avant garde does not mean that she moves inside this tradition. In
fact, she helps this tradition to develop. Thanks to her work, we can observe
this tradition as livable and workable. The principle of fractals as the idea
of multiple levels of complexity; topological transformations as complex
curved shells and surfaces; the idea of cells creating a sort of architectural
tissue; a membrane as a border. All of these ideas she embodies in the
same minimalistic compositional manner as artists of the avant garde
embodied their “styles” and “isms.” They foresaw the world and the
perception of the world that was going to emerge through the ages. We
have already been living in the era of the avant garde for a whole century.
1 Vasily Kandinsky, “Malenkije stateiki po bolshim voprosam. II O linii,” Iskusstvo.
Vestnik otdela izobrazitel’nykh iskusstv narodnogo Komissariata po prosveshcheniiu
(“Little Articles on Big Questions: II. On Line,” Art: Bulletin of the Department
of Visual Arts in the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment), vol. 4
(Moscow, February 22, 1919), p. 2.
2 Vasily Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane (New York, 1979), p. 68. Originally
published as Punkt und Linie zu Fläche (Munich, 1926).
3 Alexander Rodchenko, “The Line,” Experiments for the Future: Diaries,
Essays, Letters, and Other Writings, exh. cat. The Museum of Modern Art
(New York, 2005), pp. 113–14.
4 S.O. Khan-Magomedov, Kazimir Malevich (Moscow, 2010), p. 193.
5 K.O. Vytuleva, “‘Obraz oblaka’ i estetika peredovyh tehnologij v novejshej
architecture,” Decorativnoje iskusstvo i predmetno-prostranstvennaja sreda
(“‘Image of the cloud’ and esthetics of the leading technologies in the latest
architecture,” Decorative Art and Environment, Bulletin of the Moscow State University
of Industrial and Applied Arts), Vestnik MGHPU, vol. 3 (Moscow, 2009), p. 229.
Mikhail Korzhev, student project of a warehouse, 1922. Second part of the compositional task
for revealing the visual effect of mass and weight in the “United workshops” headed by Nikolai
Ladovsky, Vladimir Krinsky, and Nikolai Dokuchaev, VKhUTEMAS, Faculty of Architecture.