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Fabricators wrestle with realizing the landscape for a Zaha Hadid show.
An undulating landscape forms the backdrop for an exhibition of Zaha Hadid's work.
Courtesy PMA / ZHA

As the opening date loomed for Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion, a new show on the architect’s product designs now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one Hadid design remained to be finished: the exhibit itself. For the 4,000-square-foot gallery, Hadid had envisioned an undulating, three-dimensional landscape whose riverbed-like contours form plateaus and islands for the display of 20 objects from the museum’s own design collection. For the exhibition design team, in-house designers working with Brooklyn-based Associated Fabrication, installing the elaborate design was a race to the finish.

Hadid’s design for an undulating form ringing the room was translated into expanded polystyrene (EPS), a lightweight but stiff foam that was cut to specifications, sealed with a hard polyurethane coating, then sanded and finished with white plaster to match the existing walls. The resulting effect is that of a continuous topography that appears to flow underfoot thanks to an optical illusion created by vinyl floor graphics in shades of white and gray. Originally, the landscape was intended to stretch overhead as well. “But in the end, the ceiling became too complicated, with all the holes that would need to be cut out to accommodate things like sprinklers,” said Jeffrey Sitton, an assistant installation designer at the museum.

Zaha Hadid's designs will be showcased in the space.

Sitton and Associated Fabrication forged the Hadid-scape out of multiple pieces—some blocks as large as 15 by 8 by 6 feet— that were then finished by Associated in their studio, shipped to the museum, and fitted together on site, using wooden dowels for alignment. The design changed and evolved up until the last minute, not just because of budget restrictions but also because Hadid and her team continued to demand tweaks.

Jeffrey Taras, one of Associated’s founders, said constant modifications were par for the course when working with architects not under the pressure of typical client deadlines. Taras and his partner Willam Mowat are themselves trained as architects—the two met while at Columbia. Their shared GSAAP experience, Taras says, allows them to better interpret and realize the designs of architects like Hadid and also roll with an evolving design process. “If you let architects go, they’ll keep changing things forever,” he added, noting that Associated finally told Hadid’s office that no more changes were allowed if they wanted the exhibit to open on time. Associated has collaborated with Hadid on two previous projects, a series of Formica sculptural chairs and a wall for a booth at Art Basel. Associated has also gained attention for their expertise with CNC-cut Corian, a material especially amenable to the dynamic forms architects want to create today through 3-D modeling.

Creating a Zaha-scape.

Form in Motion, which opened on September 17 and runs through March, is the first U.S. show dedicated to the architect’s design of furniture, decorative arts, jewelry and footwear, but videos showcasing Hadid’s architectural design process will also be integrated in the space. The exhibit is the most recent in a series of design shows mounted by the museum under the aegis of Collab, a Philadelphia-based group supporting modern and contemporary design at the museum, and developed by curator Katherine Bloom Hiesinger. Hiesinger has worked on shows with Michael Graves, Maya Lin, Karim Rashid, and Frank Gehry, among others. “Gehry, for example, entrusted our team with the design, but some subjects want to design their own space,” said Hiesinger, noting that, to date, Hadid may have exerted the most control over shaping the look of her exhibition.

Molly Heintz