Zaha Hadid’s retrospective in Dubai allowed visitors to touch the works on show, making for a unique visitor experience


It’s rare to be invited to touch and physically experience design pieces in a gallery setting. Yet visitors to Zaha Hadid’s retrospective at Leila Heller’s new Dubai space from January 18 to February 29 were encouraged to do just that. After a crew of specialists riding around on a cherry picker installed the Iraqi-born architect’s objects in the cathedral-like gallery setting, the space took on the hushed importance of a museum — without the guards, admission fees or wait times.

It felt downright mischievous to run one’s unmanicured fingertips along the Luna Table, questioning how an immense single slab of granite had been sculpted to crumple as effortlessly as a discarded piece of paper, or to imagine shattering the Liquid Glacial Chair with one’s post-Business Lunch weight, only to realize how surprisingly solid and comfortable it was against the small of the back.

Despite the fact that many of the objects exhibited were first introduced several decades ago, beginning in the ’80’s, the show conveyed the stark functionality of an urbanized future world.

The Zephyr Sofas could easily belong in a space station or the penthouse of an interplanetary skyscraper. The Silene Ring, which bent like a precious metal joint with the flick of a pointer finger, could have convincingly posed for the impenetrable body armour described in a sci-fi novel’s vision of computerized human half-breeds.

A member of Hadid’s team on hand for the opening explained that, however forward thinking her aesthetic may be, the architect’s designs are equally grounded in nature. Look closely enough and the Zephyr Sofas also give off the appearance of desert dunes molded softly by the wind.

While other architects who attempted to translate their large scale projects into collaborations with jewellers, lighting designers and marble houses, might be criticized for commercializing their name in an effort to tap into a new sales market, these designs stand on their own as legitimate works of functional art with both a purpose and a message.

The formidable architect has just been announced as the first woman in history to be recognized with the Royal Gold Medal, approved personally by the Queen of England, and awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Although at this point, 30 years into her practice, Hadid’s sense of artistry is so uniquely recognizable that it transcends national reference points, it seems fitting that the Iraqi-born artist’s retrospective has landed in the Middle East to be made accessible to a regional audience at this moment in time.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One – on – One Issue #35, on page 42.