Brutal and mysterious buildings for grown-ups

An exhibition of work by Zaha Hadid confirms the talents of a world-class architect
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A good work of architecture is very hard to build, the conditions necessary for doing so being about as rare as those required for breeding pandas. You need a talented designer, the right site, plenty of money, an understanding client and lots of patience.

A good work of architecture is very hard to build, the conditions necessary for doing so being about as rare as those required for breeding pandas. You need a talented designer, the right site, plenty of money, an understanding client and lots of patience.

Zaha Hadid is certainly talented, but so far the other factors have eluded her and she has no completed buildings in Britain. She does, though, have a new exhibition of work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, where visitors can see the development of her ideas in the form of models, drawings and computer animations selected from across her 20-year career.

Hadid, 49, is famed in Britain as the Iraqi-born architect who won the competition to design the Cardiff Bay Opera house in 1994. Her beautiful but complex design for an irregularly shaped auditorium embraced by tentacled wings won critical acclaim but scared off the men in suits who had the final say. The foundering of the project remains a source of regret for Hadid, but the accompanying publicity raised her profile and no doubt sharpened the negotiating skills which have since won her contracts for landmark projects across the world.

Commentators in the past have complained that Hadid's designs are difficult to understand (why do people think reading architectural drawings should be any easier than reading music?) and no doubt the same concerns will be voiced about this show. The walls in the lower gallery are densely hung with drawings and relief models which appear as an unrelenting stream of abstract forms. But what forms! Even the untutored eye could not fail to be thrilled by the dynamism of it all - the futurist lines of the drawings and paintings, the sparkle of the acrylic models and the big wall which cuts and tilts rakishly through the space. You want to see these things all built, and now.

The captions here are minimal and the guides inpenetrable. However, it is worth searching out the model for the science museum project which Hadid has recently won in Wolfsburg, Germany. A vast and irregular concrete box ("a terrain", Hadid calls it) will be raised up 7 metres on giant legs which themselves will be filled with cafes, bars and other activities. At night the museum will glow underneath like a giant space landing craft.

For some visitors Hadid's designs might seem like a sci-fi vision of the future. This is not because they're avant-garde but rather because many of Hadid's references are in the iconic architecture of the Fifties and Sixties, the heyday of sci fi visions. Considered beside the later work of Le Corbusier or the exuberant concrete structures of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the lineage of Hadid's designs become clear. Buildings of this school do not pussyfoot around with fancy steelwork or show-off glass technology - the favoured style of the new establishment in Britain. They are brutal and mysterious - architecture for grown ups.

But then Hadid is no shrinking violet herself. Right from her early days as a student at the Architectural Association - part of the same generation as Nigel Coates and the cult architect Rem Koolhaas - she gained a reputation as a talented force. You can see the large-scale Suprematist-influenced designs that resulted upstairs at the ICA (including her legendary schemes for the Irish Prime Minister's House, 1979, and the Peak Club in Hong Kong, 1982).

These days Hadid is well-known as a celebrity architect with her trademark Issey Miyake clothes, audacious jewellery and rich, throaty voice. But this exhibition helps redress the balance between the image and the work. She now has a young and talented team capable of building extraordinary things. They are now working on a vast carpark and tram station in Salzburg, a centre for contemporary arts in Cincinnati, a new museum of contemporary art in Rome, a ski jump in Innsbruck and a ferry terminal in Salerno.

Despite not having projects in Britain, Hadid is happy to live in London. "I wish we had some work here though," she says. "There is a conservatism, but there is also a wildness and a tremendous energy. But it doesn't know where it's going, there is no outlet." Until that time, she will continue to build abroad. And our loss, as they say, is their gain.

Zaha Hadid: Architect, Institute of Contemporary Arts, W1 (020 7930 3647) to 10 September. Hadid will lecture on her work at the Royal Geographical Society, London SW7 (call ICA box office for tickets) on Wednesday at 7pm

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