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Zaha, queen of confusion

Zaha Hadid At the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 until 10 September

The flags were out in The Mall for the grande dame of artistic patronage, described in the media as a redoubtable and quietly regal figure. Many turned up to catch a glimpse of her and to fete her life and work. But enough of the Queen Mother's centenary. The launch of Zaha Hadid's retrospective at the ICA was a more austere affair.

This exhibition focuses on her 'utopian vision of the shape of cities to come' and includes all the projects that have made Hadid a household name (although the same cannot be said for the projects themselves). The scheme which, more than any other, brought her fame - the Cardiff Bay Opera House - is notable by its absence.

Unbelievably, this is the first major exhibition of Hadid's, although the intimacy of the ICA is an awkward showcase for her work. Housing such bold and brassy designs in a corridor, cafeteria and upstairs room gives the exhibition the feeling of a student final-year presentation. The works themselves do not help to dispel this impression.

There is something intentionally unintelligible to the dynamic, contextualised drawings, with their flurry of shapes and swooping lines, for which Hadid is famed.Worm's and bird's-eye perspectives were never conceived for the sake of clarity.

Nor do her words help. In the description for her Contemporary Arts and Architecture Centre in Rome, under the sub-heading 'Walls/Non-Walls: Towards a Contemporary Spatiality', Hadid writes: '(emancipating) the wall . . . by running extensively across the site, cursively and gesturally, the lines traverse inside and out.' I remember writing things like this in my student all-nighter days, desperate to mask my lack of content. Phrases like 'transparent and inviting . . . like a forest of mushrooms . . . the canape [sic] has an occupiable depth' really don't do her any favours.But regardless of the fact that a more readable and workable format could cut through the confusion that surrounds Hadid's work, I have a sneaky regard for her refusal to become 'accessible'.

The main part of the exhibition is located in the ICA's lower gallery, which is described as a 'large curvilinear armature . . . (onto which) recent projects, animations and pools of coloured light are projected . . . bringing a fresh perspective to Hadid's jewel-like architecture'.After such a buildup, the space can only be disappointing, though the sweeping wall with flying curves overhead gives a pleasingly different feel to an otherwise straightforward display.

Undoubtedly an exciting architectural talent, Hadid needs to be judged on a greater number of built works.Her serious consideration of contextualism, within and of the built environment, and of patterns of user movement are very positive. Her exploration of spatial relationships, driven by her drawing methods, certainly provides a refreshing fluidity of form. But some of the details - which have been positioned high up on the walls - sit uncomfortably with such flowing shapes.

In the upper gallery, Hadid's art is brilliantly dynamic without the constraints of the architectural 'message'. Given the few artworks on display, it is interesting to see her changing style, from a crude naivety in the early 1980s to the crashing futuristic confidence of her latest works.

Many reviewers and biographers of Hadid focus on her sexuality, her background and her character - none of which have any bearing on the merits of her output. Unfortunately, while interminable, sycophantic media coverage praises her fortitude and courage, I don't think that this exhibition provides the insight, or the distance, for a sensible appraisal of her work.

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