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Hadid’s paintings take on a life of their own

Virtual-reality experience is the result of a collaboration between the late architect’s studio, the Serpentine and Google

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The exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s early paintings and drawings at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London (until 12 February), which is due to travel to Hong Kong in March, is a revelation in many ways. It brings together the largely unseen paintings that Hadid would make for architectural competitions—spatially complex, richly coloured plays on Modernism, and particularly Russian Constructivism—and offers tantalising glimpses of her intimate sketchbooks. But by entering the world of virtual reality (VR) it also allows the audience unprecedented access to her imagination.

The VR experience in the exhibition is a collaboration between the gallery’s curator of digital, Ben Vickers, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) and Google Arts & Culture. Vickers says there was always an intention to work on a digital component of the show because it was important in “memorialising Zaha” after her death in 2016. But when he and Freya Murray, the programme manager for Google Arts & Culture, met Helmut Kinzler, a senior associate at ZHA, and his team, “it was revealed to us that they had been doing a whole load of virtual reality”, Vickers says.

Using HTC Vive headsets (Vickers argues that the Vive is “the most advanced headset right now”), visitors witness themselves in a “wireframe” reconstruction of the gallery space, before fixing on paintings and being plunged into them. It becomes clear that long before she was able to build an actual building, Hadid was designing the future. “The exhibition is all paintings and drawings before Zaha builds a building—they’re all unbuilt,” Vickers says. “You look at these things and think: how did Zaha continue to believe in what she was doing, being knocked back in these competitions, and not getting the opportunity to build? It was this very advanced vision. Some people ask, if VR had existed, would she have been able to build sooner? Because, suddenly, it does bring them to life in a way in which it’s much easier to conceive of them as a spatial environment that you inhabit. In that sense, she’s hugely visionary. I didn’t know how visionary until I worked on the show.”

Murray says the project was developed in collaboration with the Google Cultural Institute’s experimental arm and its Paris lab. “It’s a place where we bring together tech and creative communities to share ideas and discover new ways to experience art and culture,” she says. Like Vickers, Murray argues that Hadid’s paintings “pre-empt VR”, so it was natural technology to use.

“It didn’t start with, ‘Let’s do a VR project,’” she adds. “It really started with considering what would make sense for this exhibition and how could we use technology to supercharge the experience.”