The Personae of Beauty: Remembrance on Zaha Hadid

From Hashim Sarkis
Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning

Beauty, as Elaine Scarry explained, leaves us weak but gratified. It makes us want to extend the gratification longer by copying it. Curiously, this act of replication does not take away from the originality of the thing of beauty. To the contrary, it confirms its uniqueness and adds to its persona, its public role as the face of a value that is collectively upheld, distributed, and shared. If anything has persona, it is the architecture of Zaha Hadid.

In my first year of ‪#‎architecture‬ school at the American University of Beirut, a classmate, Rana Hadid, showed us her aunt’s project for the Hong Kong Peak competition. The drawings were dumbfounding; Rana explained the difficult process and how Zaha came out the winner even as she was shaking the grounding of the discipline. Before we learned anything about the discipline, we were seduced by the seeming lack thereof in her work.

As first-year students, we had no sense of what we were getting ourselves into, but the presence of these flying forms on every other magazine cover, our presence at AUB where ‪#‎ZahaHadid‬ had studied mathematics before heading to the Architectural Association in London, and our friendship with her niece connected us to her more than to the main figures of our modern architecture books. Mockingly, one of our teachers said that her work resembled the war rubble that surrounded us. And yet it was beautiful—optimistic and heroic. We all wanted to draw fluid, acrylic, impossible structures, but we were constantly told off, quietly told off, so that Rana would not hear that her aunt’s work was a passing craze and that it had no impact on the real world of architecture because it could not get built. Scarry had not written her book then, so they must not have known that beauty compels us to build it.

The personae of beauty proliferate in different ways. When you see a beautiful building, you want to go back to work. When you are inspired, you gain some effortlessness that releases your constraints. But there are different forms of inspiration. There are some architects that we look at because we want to engage them in a formal discussion, not to say to copy them, and then there are others whom we indulge in precisely because we cannot even begin to do what they do, because they represent the possibilities that architecture could be totally other than what we are doing. The parallel world they create is easily dismissible yet so coherent unto its own that we take a look. It creates a seductive distance that allows us to both admire it and dismiss it. Early on, Kenneth Frampton detected such eroticism in Hadid’s work.

It may be possible to emulate Le Corbusier or Mies because you follow their rules ahead of their forms, but it is not possible to emulate Hadid. This is not because it is too difficult or too idiosyncratic—well, maybe that—but because her forms never really show you how they are conceived. The persona hides the how. Along the way, it exposes modesty, as ambitious as the work always looks, and a level of vulnerability as well. Persona is a public face that deliberately subdues the identity of the object in order to concentrate on its public performance. Hadid is not invested in this public engagement, but she is agnostic as to whether there is an authentic object behind the surface. She is so invested in the surfaces that she produces structure and identity out of their manipulation, to reveal if anything that structure and identity are surface effects. She is so unique in her approach that no matter how much her designs have changed over the years, all of them are still legibly saying, “I am Zaha,” “I am Zaha.” In grief today, we are all Zaha, and ironically, it is the same act of replication that confirms uniqueness through empathy.

Throughout the many brief encounters with Zaha and her work, I have come to learn that it was the persona of the architecture, not the architect, that was driving it all. I also learned that she used the same tools to produce both. In that sense she was like a method actor who became her work, and in the process confirmed both its authenticity and its beauty.

Today the world is suddenly a less authentic and a less beautiful place.

Hashim Sarkis

Photo: Artur Salisz/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0