“It’s kind of fascinating that Zaha was never nostalgic,” Hans Ulrich Obrist once said of the Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid. “There was no sense of the past as something finished.” Seven years after the Pritzker Prize winner’s untimely death, Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), Hadid’s first building in the U.S., is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the group exhibition A Permanent Nostalgia for Departure: A Rehearsal on Legacy with Zaha Hadid. “Challenging what legacy means, and enacting it as an act of preservation that is about dynamism rather than something static — a constant movement forward,” as curator Maite Borjabad López-Pastor explains of the exhibit, eight invited artists and architects — Rand Abdul Jabbar, Khyam Allami, Emii Alrai, Hamed Bukhamseen, Hera Büyüktaşcıyan, Andrea Canepa, Ali Ismail Karimi, and Dima Srouji — have attempted to deconstruct and reimagine various junctures in the late architect’s oeuvre.
Stepping inside the CAC, you are immediately struck by the vast and dramatic lobby, whose zig-zagging stairways and complex volumes appear frozen and fluid at the same time. Echoing and reverberating from afar, Khyam Allami’s generative spatial sound installation, A Relational Music (rehearsal), exposes the underlying organizational logic of Hadid’s architectural vision; in his research, he discovered that, unlike most contemporary art spaces, Hadid’s CAC building had no parallel walls, allowing for a reverberation “more beautiful than any of the great churches or industrial spaces,” as the composer and multi-instrumentalist puts it. His piece is followed, just beyond the exhibition entrance, by Between the Stumble and the Fall, a textile installation that flows from the gallery ceilings to create subtle curves in the otherwise boxy CAC. The work of Andrea Canepa, this seemingly effortless draping of pastel pinks, browns, and blues beguilingly plays on perspective and form, as the human eye’s been trained for centuries, under a hegemonic visual paradigm, to search fora stable, linear horizon. Like Hadid’s architecture — not to mention her paintings, which are also on show — the slanted planes in Canepa’s work, tilted to and fro on printed voile, create an ever-shifting perspective that offers new ways of seeing and perceiving.
Dima Srouji and Hera Büyüktaşcıyan tackle facets of Hadid’s formative years; using one of Hadid’s childhood photographs as a point of departure, alongside the CAC’s prominent concrete curve, the “urban carpet,” Büyüktaşcıyan’s cascading rugs create a double entendre of what it means to be grounded by geography and memories. Srouji translates this nostalgia with her three-channel video installation that uses archival footage of Beirut and Baghdad — cities Hadid referred to with joy — as a common thread, with Hadid-like oblique planes strewn across the wall. Merging the past, present, and future together, Rand Abdul Jabbar’s Tektōn, inspired by Hadid’s Architectural Association graduation project Malevich’s Tektonik, involves current Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati architecture students’ exploration of the term “tectonic.” The result is rammed earth and clay compacted into exacting geometric sculptures.
Hamed Bukhamseen and Ali Ismail Karimi of experimental studio Civil Architecture have reimagined Hadid’s legacy through their installation Site Notes. Featuring pointed walls that hark back to her exhibition design for the Guggenheim’s 1992 The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915–32, the piece places her work within a speculative genealogy of prominent Iraqi architects — Rifat Chadirji and Mohamed Makiya — and in doing so references a neglected context in which to analyze her output. Meanwhile, Emii Alrai beautifully captures the fluidity and timelessness of Hadid’s designs — the disparate influences for which included Russian Suprematism and Arabic calligraphy — with A Ceremony of Spectres, a series of floating arches and amorphous relics in gypsum and foam, attached directly to the CAC’s concrete structure. Whether intentional or not, the act of securing these excavated ruins recalls figurative ghosts or specters rising from the ashes — a heavy reminder that neither Hadid nor anyone else can escape the past when birthing something new and profound, or that perhaps a haunting may be a blessing in disguise. For, as its title implies, A Permanent Nostalgia for Departure makes a strong case for nostalgia itself, “resisting the idea of a retrospective or monographic traditional exhibition, and with it a monolithic narrative on the architect’s practice,” as Borjabad eloquently put it. Instead, the participating artists collectively and individually renew the past with an unlikely performance that jesters with the notion of a past-present continuum — Hadid’s idea, via Obrist, of the past as never finished — that continues into the beyond. With the right cultural intervention, a transformed and evolved nostalgia becomes a necessity for the living — a space where the past and future intersect.