Samuel Medina on Zoe Zenghelis
Near the bottom of The Egg of Columbus Centre, 1973, a painting by Zoe Zenghelis, the cerulean slab of the United Nations Secretariat Building in New York comes face-to-face with an impish impostor and blanches. At the top of the frame, a cluster of gilded Arkhitektons synthesizes Malevich and Trump, as if to prefigure the luxury hotel the latter had hoped to impose on perestroika-era Moscow. Down First Avenue, a sprawling megastructure reminiscent of a ’60s Spanish casino hopscotches across the marmoreal plinths that have begun to supplant Manhattan’s blocks. Clambering amphibious volumes innovate a kind of architectural amplexus, propagating the island’s grid over the East River. Countless Douglas Coupland–y oddities gather in the variegated strata.
Egg was among the most congested works in “Zoe Zenghelis: Fields, Fragments, Fictions,” on view this past spring and summer at the Heinz Architecture Gallery inside Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. It is dense with allusions, from the strange but identifiable (Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa blowing in from the right) to the enigmatically personal (the Dalí-esque huevo). Pen drawings of the same pinball city, done by Zenghelis’s architect husband, Elia, and displayed alongside the painting, indicate that the capriccio was the result of collaborative exchange, its preoccupations jointly shared and turned over. In the early ’70s, the Zenghelises—expatriated from Greece to England fifteen or so years prior—fell in with a married couple of Dutch transplants, architect Rem Koolhaas and artist Madelon Vriesendorp. Drawing on a shared set of affinities that included Russian avant-gardism, Surrealism, and deltiology, they trialed a creative partnership with Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, 1972, a Chris Marker–ish design scenario about a post-apocalyptic London torn asunder by Superstudio’s Continuous Monument. After a sojourn in the United States, where Koolhaas assembled material for what would become his droll, intelligent pastiche Delirious New York (1978), the foursome solidified the practice, founding the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in 1975.
Rem ideated, Elia delineated, and Madelon and Zoe illustrated. This division of labor persisted for about a decade until the group parted ways due to professional and marital tensions. Koolhaas, who retained control over OMA, was the only one to recognize the importance of self-mythology, and with every new plot twist, he wrote out former mentors and collaborators. Architecture, at least in its haughty “disciplinary” mode, is generally skeptical of collective authorship and outright dismissive of gendered partnerships. Historians and journalists were easily swayed by Koolhaas’s version of events. Critical reappraisals, not to say mea culpas, have surfaced in recent years, however. Responding to “Do you remember how perfect everything was?,” a 2021 survey of Zenghelis’s paintings staged at the Architectural Association (AA) in London that prefigured the Heinz hang (organized by Hamed Khosravi and Theodossis Issaias), historian Kenneth Frampton bestowed on Zenghelis the honorary title of “architect.” She hasn’t warmed to it.
Instead, Zenghelis, who was born in 1937, regards herself as an imagemaker. She creates moody vistas using a limited stock of walls, shards, and modernist matchboxes. Often, they seem to cycle through conflicting emotions: Huddled together, the prisms appear flush with anticipation, but isolated from the group, they grow dejected, as indicated by the subtlest gradations of color. Thickened brushstrokes denote unlikely areas of interest, such as uneventful “blank” spots of canvas. Skyscrapers, 1978, a haunting sketch of two Art Deco towers bathed in an oceanic fog, their pinnacles peeking out from a nuclear (?) squall, betrays an erstwhile interest in miniaturist figuration that has all but disappeared in later pieces like Fragments, 1994. Where Skyscrapers portends an untimely fate, Fragments ushers in a new cityscape, its building blocks borne along on jets of wind. Motion is insinuated at the corners of pictures, so that the hard edges of Zenghelis’s board-game tableaux—patchworks of pallid grays and greens, blues and purples—suggest expansion, not finitude. Shapes in Space, 1992, with its curved horizon and turbid sky, depicts objects on the verge of escape velocity yet somehow rooted in place. Shadows look frozen for all time but also randomly assigned: A phantom tower casts a shadow as dark and solid as its neighboring slabs. In the eerie City of Our Choice [II], 2010, pylons as slim as gum sticks have the glum look of headstones, and stubby polyhedrons gather into henges. This shift toward the oracular began earlier with Dalí, 1994, in which semi-coiled apparitions (looking something like lozenge wrappers or expired balloons) shimmy across blocks of pastel color. Imagistic concerns vanish under the prismatic line work of Happiness, 2000, only to reappear in the bizarre Partitions, 2001, whose barbed-wire and oneiric props risk the easy identification much of Zenghelis’s post-OMA work stringently avoids.
Before she got mixed up with architecture, Zenghelis had been casting about for a mooring. At the Regent Street Polytechnic, she studied interior design and then set design before switching her focus to visual art. She admired the paintings of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who as young artists taught at the Poly, but waves away the suggestion that her scant interactions with them were meaningful. It’s evident that Zenghelis never had much use for the School of London’s lumpy, grumpy impasto, though she was drawn to its atmospherics—not the penumbral churn of Kossoff’s psychogeographies, but the promissory daybreak of Auerbach’s borough scenes. After graduating, she did not begin to paint regularly until Koolhaas enlisted her talents and she befriended Vriesendorp, an assured artist who made dreamy paintings taking after the work of Magritte and the Low Country Surrealists.
The capriccios of Zenghelis and her collaborators helped shape the visual culture of architectural postmodernism.
Teaching emboldened Zenghelis. She and Vriesendorp took on a unit of AA students, persuading them to exchange their fineliner pens for brushes. They had been talked into the gig, formalized as the Color Workshop, by Zaha Hadid, a young instructor at the school who had entered, then quickly exited, the OMA fold. She, too, was a painter—an outrageous talent, in fact, who ultimately gave it up to build. One of the largest pieces at the Heinz was jointly credited to all three women, as well as to workshop participant Brian Ma Siy. Cultural Strip, 1983, explodes the sedate mode of architectural representation typical of professional practice. Crisply rendered building fragments stand out from a muted background, as walls, windows, and escalators are gripped in a process of self-assembly. Zenghelis’s hand is detectable in an incongruous swatch of pistachio green and the palest shade of pink, which threatens to tip into gray. She used a similar palette in the aptly named Cassata, after Parc de la Villette, from the same year, a kind of autocritical gambit that transmutes OMA’s famed proposal to remodel the Parisian commons into ambrosial color theory.
After withdrawing from design around 1985, Zenghelis committed to painting full-time. Yet her involvement with OMA in its formative phase implicates her in the architectural canon, such as it is. For a decade, the young office built next to nothing. It playfully trolled the architectural establishment, even as it sought admission to it. In Delirious New York, Koolhaas obliquely assayed Manhattan’s “culture of congestion” in the inoculative rhetoric that would later become his trademark. Vriesendorp channeled the American-Freudian imaginary, with its risible hang-ups about the primal scene and penis envy. Appearing in many of her tableaux, the Statue of Liberty (often given the jolie laide aspect of Jeanne Moreau) is irately conscious of her lack. In others, anthropomorphized Manhattan skyscrapers are pictured screwing in penthouses or pantomiming the hunched laborers of Millet’s Angelus. Dalí repeatedly subjected that work to his paranoid-critical method, and his Architectonic Angelus crops up in the heterogeneous City of the Captive Globe, 1972. The painting, which memorializes a fictive Manhattan as “the capital of Ego,” remains Zenghelis’s most indelible image, and it, too, was jointly conceived—this time with Koolhaas. In Captive Globe, hyperbolic confinement and delirious apposition are prescribed as a favorable basis for cultural efflorescence, and the metropolis (“a world totally fabricated by man”) incites, but never quite exhausts, the architectural unconscious. One can hardly imagine a more succinct summary of early OMA, right down to the spotty attribution, which varies across the painting’s many editions.
The same image (printed on an exhibition poster in the Heinz show) could also be viewed as a graveyard of twentieth-century utopias. Congealed ideologies and contorted fantasies stretch out across the interminable gridiron, such that competing architectonics—Suprematist, Corbusian, Trumpian—are mutually liquidating. Architecture persists as a practice, but its claims on the future are voided. Today’s cities mock its projective capacity, absorbing asinine gestures and cutting critiques in equal measure. The banality is crushing without being interesting—the only criterion that has ever mattered to Koolhaas. In recent years, he has roamed the hinterlands of North America and East Asia for signs of a “degree zero architecture,” presenting his discoveries—server farms in Nevada, automated animal-husbandry centers in China—at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2020.
This wasn’t OMA’s first flirtation with the pastoral. At the Heinz, a gallery devoted to a series of unbuilt “Greek projects” backdated the firm’s turn away from the metropolis. A splinter office operating under Elia’s direction was briefly tied, in the mid-’80s, to the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, government. Its minister of the environment, Antonis Tritsis, was an architect and planner turned party personality who was rumored to have soldiered alongside Che Guevara in Bolivia. He hailed from Cephalonia, the largest of the Ionian Islands, and after seeing the office’s scheme for Parc de La Villette tasked Elia with several cultural projects, including a seasonal fairground near a monastery dedicated to the island’s patron saint, Gerasimos. Zoe’s St. Gerasimos Sacred Path, Kefalonia, 1984, is alert to every rift and cleft in the looming mountainous landscape and pointedly aloof to Elia’s design. Likewise, Hotel Therma, 1000 Olive Trees, Lesbos, 1985, ecologically, but also compositionally, offsets a neo-Constructivist scheme for a private resort on Lesbos. (Perhaps Tritsis, who later became mayor of Athens and transformed the city through a campaign of tree planting and new parks, took note.)
In the show’s best moment, Elia’s proposal for a gated community of villas on Antiparos, an island in the Aegean Sea, hung alongside Zoe’s interpretation of the project. In his ruled drawing, the disparate villas are nested within a system of intersecting axes and ostensibly purposeful arcs, whereas in her painting, the structuralist pretensions have fallen away. Mixing oils and graphite, Zenghelis interrogates the design, submerging its organizational matrix in a mottled sea of sandy orange. The buoyant houses have become a constellation of indeterminate, scratchy signs; it’s an effect that recalls Klee. A version of the same painting was acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which holds numerous works attributed to Zenghelis and her former design mates. Many were made during the doldrums of the ’70s: With a worldwide recession causing many architects to regret that they hadn’t gone into law, the studio synonymous with Koolhaas partly subsisted on sales from Vriesendorp’s and Zenghelis’s oils, gouaches, and acrylics.
“Fields, Fragments, Fictions” made an ample case for Zenghelis as a painter. With such an expansive showing, a few missteps were to be expected. In an effort to situate her work within the art world, the curators, in consultation with Zenghelis, retrieved several pieces from the Carnegie’s modern collection to stage alongside her canvases. Interpolations by artists such as the British Ben Nicholson and the Polish Janice Biala, as well as by Auerbach, added little to an appreciation of the work, however. Meanwhile, Zenghelis’s biographical links to the architecture world were selectively and strategically articulated. The degree to which Issaias and Khosravi cited Hadid, who remained a friend of Zenghelis’s until the architect’s death in 2016, is evidence of this. The implication was that the older painter mentored the younger designer, but two exceptional acrylics Zenghelis made in 1986, after Hadid’s star had already reached the stratosphere, suggest the influence flowed in both directions. As for Vriesendorp (who is better known than her former accomplice), she was a fairly elusive presence in the show—with one exception. In a blown-up photograph positioned by the entrance, the two women were seen working on an abstract mural, their backs to the camera. Vriesendorp is seated on a stool and carefully raises her brush to the wall while Zenghelis kneels on the floor, contemplating her color palette; each is lost in concentration, yet mindful of the other’s movements.
For roughly a decade, the pair performed wonders in their little corner of OMA. The dozens of painterly copies they made of failed competition entries helped shape the visual culture of architectural postmodernism. Of all Zenghelis’s images, these are the ones that most forcefully impress themselves on the viewer. Fantasy needs grounding premises, the sort that organically allow for a public park to be transformed into a Sicilian cake and gain greater clarity and meaning in the process, or that casually present an egg as the inflatus of modern urban life. If Zenghelis is reticent about her passage through architecture, she needn’t be. It gave her a basis from which to coax out strange, or stranger, possibilities.
Samuel Medina is a writer and editor based in New York. Until recently, he was the executive editor of The Architect’s Newspaper.