“How would you spend a day indulging in cultural pursuits?” an interviewer once asked painter Zoe Zenghelis. She responded that her choice would be “walking and looking at streets, buildings, trees and plants, or looking at design in general.”1 For her, the building blocks of the city were not mundane reality but a basis for aesthetic experience—she was keen to locate geometric order even in the most haphazard of cities and delighted in expressing it through art.

Trained as a stage designer at Regent Street Polytechnic, London, Zenghelis had a variety of creative means at her disposal. Zenghelis employed what she called a “sun-drenched palette” to enrich aerial perspectives by her colleagues at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), which she founded in 1975 with Rem Koolhaas, Madelon Vriesendorp, and her husband Elia Zenghelis.2 Her eloquent use of color gave life and legibility to the group’s conceptually rigorous work. In Hotel Sphinx (The Head) Project, New York, New York (1975), the various functions to be housed in the edifice—the theater, the auditorium, the ballroom and the garden, to name a few—are distinguished from one another and thus made decipherable through color. The same approach to color informed Lützowstraße Housing, Berlin, Germany (1980), a proposal for social housing that allows the scheme to be read as distinct groups of interrelated and interconnected structures. Zenghelis’s work was essential in establishing revelatory new aesthetics for representing architecture that persist today.

Zenghelis, alongside Vriesendorp, ran the Color Workshop at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture (A.A.). “We tried to show our students how to use watercolors, acrylic and oil and then how to paint shadows, reflections, glass, mirrors, metal, marble, wood, etc., and through this to convey mood, reduce or enlarge scale and intensify sensation,” she would later remember.3 The two were particularly interested in the way layering acrylic paint could produce the same effect as oil, with brighter and bolder colors. Eventually, they moved to the school’s Communications Department, where they encouraged students to reflect on architecture’s intersections with photography and printmaking—“buildings are not black lines on white paper,” Zenghelis insisted, viewing architecture as a storytelling device, a communication tool with which to convey information.4

In 1985, Paintings by Zoe Zenghelis opened in the Architectural Association’s Exhibition Gallery and represented both the theoretical architecture that she conceptualized with her colleagues at OMA and the painterly aesthetic that she pursued independently. The fantastic landscapes and abstractions that she painted contained shapes suggesting buildings, and, reviewing the exhibition, critic Jasia Reichardt wrote, “I think of the architecture of imaginary film sets, a catalogue of prototypical elements—dwellings, elevations, stairwells, gymnasiums, entrance halls, bridges, garages, motels—against which a film director might set his drama.”5

Da Hyung Jeong, 2019–20 Mellon-Marron Museum Research Consortium Fellow


  1. “Zoe Zenghelis,” Building Design, June 16, 2006, 24.

  2. Haig Beck, “Toward an Architecture of Congestion,” Express Extra 2 (1982), 3.

  3. “An Artist in an Architectural Context: Paintings by Zoe Zenghelis,” AA Files 10 (Autumn 1985), 62.

  4. “Roosevelt Island: Zoe Zenghelis on Painting and OMA,” Drawing Matter, February 17, 2019, https://www.drawingmatter.org/drawings/autographical-2/roosevelt-island-zoe-zenghelis-oma/.

  5. Ibid.

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