Kenny Schachter Remembers Zaha Hadid

Kenny remembers her brilliance, her conceptual extravagance and her fans.

The 15th Biennial of Architecture in Venice opened last week with an impromptu retrospective of architect Zaha Hadid, hastily organized since Hadid’s untimely death a few short months ago on March 31. What was meant to be an exploration of the research methodologies of the 400 strong bustling firm morphed into a mini-survey of a career reflecting the apotheosis of Zaha.

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Zaha Hadid with Kenny Schachter. Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

To be clear, this is not a review of the exhibition, which runs through November 27, 2016, but rather an appreciation of a relationship, a barefaced short hagiography of a friend and mentor—to me and many, many more. As an architect, designer, and artist, it was her democratic, boundary-crushing expression of form, no matter the manifestation, that so wowed. In the process, Zaha became an unintended lightening rod unsettling preconceptions of power (and success) with respect to women till the day she passed, and which won’t stop anytime soon.

There was, on occasion, an unwarranted backlash against the conceptual extravagance of Hadid’s practice and force of her personality that continued unabated throughout her life, but many of her relentless critics and detractors missed the essence of the work: a celebration of nature mated to technology, an all-encompassing way of life as lived by Zaha herself—an ascetic aesthetic, a rare notion in such a materially obsessed world. Her modest apartment was all but a showroom for her designs and products. Though the associative grief and aggravation may have gotten her down on occasion, it thankfully never got in the way of her extraordinary accomplishments.

Zaha Hadid, Common Ground at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Image: Iwan Baan

Zaha Hadid, Common Ground at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Image: Iwan Baan

Now, a chunk of my life has gone missing and the unthinkable shock hasn’t fully registered. It’s an incalculable loss for me and countless others. I don’t have to keep her on my screen to keep her in my thoughts; but she’s there too, still making news, literally everyday, even posthumously.

It began in 2003 when I cold-called Zaha’s office from Heathrow regarding a building I owned in New York and another in London. Though neither of those plans came to fruition, our relationship blossomed past my initial fear of her legendary and formidable presence. Our friendship encompassed many art and design exhibitions I organized over the years including three shows in London (2005-2007), and shows at Sonnabend Gallery, New York (2008), Gmurzynska Gallery, Zurich (2010), and Ivorypress Space in Madrid (2012), at which there was a discussion with Norman Foster. Our collaboration culminated with a show at Leila Heller Gallery, Dubai (2016).

My idea was that Zaha operated in a sphere beyond architecture; much of the work for our exhibitions were hybrid pieces and installations located between art, design, and architecture. They were spatially engaged and even came to include designs for two cars and a boat, in addition to furniture and sculptural objects. Zaha didn’t break paradigms with her life and career; she exploded them like the planes of her early drawings and most recently, her built work that thankfully is beginning to proliferate.


Zaha Hadid’s design for Hoxton Square. Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

The New York apartment building proposal (2004) was modeled after a billowing sail, or fish fin, in line with its Hudson River context, while the brief for the cars was to produce an environmentally conscious vehicle without harking back to historical forms. Between 2006-2012, the 1:1 scale models have been exhibited in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the ZKM Museum in Karlsruhe, the British Motor Show, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (permanent collection); a publication, Rove, accompanied the concept car, with a slipcover created by Hadid.

Objects ranged from a furniture/storage/sculpture, Belu, for use as my desk in art fairs cantilevered ten feet from its base in the shape of a twisted boomerang with a storage bin in the back and built-in seating. At Art Basel Miami Beach in 2006, Hadid fabricated a bespoke stand-alone pavilion that housed models and screens depicting various projects. All told, it was a whirlwind collaboration with a practice more dynamic than describable that mushroomed from significantly less than 100 architects (in 2004, when I arrived in London) to more than four times that,  where it still remains.


Zaha Hadid’s bespoke stand-alone pavilion at Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2006. Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter


Zaha Hadid’s bespoke stand-alone pavilion at Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2006 (interior). Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

While attempting to interview Zaha for the magazine, PIN–UP No. 1 (Fall Winter 2006/07), I chased her as she traveled to five cities across three continents over 2 ½ weeks—a grueling, inhuman schedule that ultimately she could not physically sustain. When I asked her whether she was always so confident in her life and work, her response was telling. “Yes,” she answered in a heartbeat. Zaha was like mercury given form, hard to get a grasp of, agile, elegant and sure of herself. But if you tried to get close, you did so at your own risk…. She wasn’t one to suffer fools.

Zaha resigned herself to the fact that I’d never amount to a significant client, but together we formed a bond as unlikely as unbreakable. When she cared, you could do no wrong; you were part of her extended family. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t vent, in no uncertain terms, if she thought you weren’t performing up to snuff—in any capacity.

We travelled the globe from Baku to Beijing: the sloping hooded shape of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan—which comprised an auditorium, a gallery and a museum—is one of her signature landmarks. The silhouette could be a trademarked logo. The concert hall is characterized by improbably sweeping velvety ribbons of blonde wooden paneling that is warm, stunning, and unprecedented.


Illustration by Kenny Schachter depicting Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan. Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

When we entered the atrium of the bulbous interconnected Chinese commercial complex, the Galaxy Soho, there were more than twenty thousand adoring, screaming fans on hand for a panel discussion. Upon exiting, such fervor ensued that we had to be ringed by a police contingent that ran along side our golf cart to keep pace with Zaha and protect her; it was like being at a Stones concert in their heyday in the 1960s.

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Z.Car I designed by Zaha Hadid with Kenny Schachter. Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

Just about every Sunday we lunched at River Café in London, owned by Ruthie Rogers, another considerate and kindly soul, located on the premises of the studio of her husband, the British architect Richard Rogers (another Pritzker Prize winner), which resembled a gourmet, friends and family architectural cafeteria. Our meals were comprised of a changing cast of characters regularly augmented by my many kids.

Zaha was wildly sympathetic to children and they responded to her similarly. I remember only a few weeks ago, a five-year-old cottoned on to her and wouldn’t leave her side till physically extracted by his parents. Zaha was like the mayor of River; from front to back, the patrons would pass her, either knowing her or wanting to.


Illustration by Kenny Schachter depicting the Vitra Fire Station, Germany. Image: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

Whether you respond to her work or not, you must admire her wiles and dogged determination. Zaha’s vision and her sacrifice at any price to achieve it cost her dearly. She didn’t have tunnel vision, she had tunnel life: work, work, and more work. It was a punishing course that inevitably took its toll. But inside the seemingly impenetrable titanium block that was Hadid lived a cooing kitten, a sweet, sensitive, caring pal and teacher. Her loyalty and friendship were unflagging.

Zaha planted a forest in her lifetime that will continue to grow and nurture creativity. She created a landscape of natural forms that, no matter how futuristic, are always rooted in the organic. Bless her prowess—her gifts and efforts were beyond gender; yet that she wasn’t a man made her life pointlessly Sisyphean.

All the planets must have aligned to give birth to such a star, an enormous breadth of talent. Zaha was a maverick instigator sharing more with punk than with the establishment that has belatedly embraced her. Zaha Hadid, I will always love and miss you.

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