Iraqi-born, British architect Zaha Hadid died of a heart attack on March 31st, 2016, in Miami. She was 65.
A pioneer in her field, she was the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 (an award that’s existed for 37 years), and the first woman ever to win UK’s most prestigious architecture award, the RIBA gold medal (an award that’s existed for 180 years).
And she most certainly was a fighter. She had to be. First, to survive and succeed in a male-dominated field, and second, to further her extremely radical vision as an architect and artist. She drew attention both, for her commissioned work—its massive scale and exaggerated, sweeping curves—and her own outspoken, provocative personality that made her a constant in media. Regardless of opinions around the aesthetic character of her work, Hadid’s contribution to architecture in the last two decades remains unrivalled and irrefutable.
Born in Baghdad in 1950, Hadid grew up in a progressive, politically inclined family. In 1972, she moved to London and studied at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Rem Koolhaas—another significant architect of our times—was faculty there during those days. Hadid studied under him and worked in his firm, OMA, for a year, before setting up her own practice in London in 1979. Her first major project that brought her international recognition was the Vitra Fire Station in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, completed in 1993. Built over a site devastated by a fire, it was here that her distinct deconstructivist architectural language manifested. Concrete planes extruding out into space, Hadid had established a bold style that tended to capture movement in a discipline that is inherently stationary. The iconic zigzag roof of the Riverside Museum of Transport in Glasgow, completed in 2011, won her further acclaim. While massive scale remained a constant, the expression changed from building to building, addressing the context of each particular project. The undulating, fluid geometry of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, a cultural centre, reflects the topography of the landscape and sensibilities of the local Azeri culture.
Hadid was a magnet for controversy. Her design for the Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar is likened to a vagina, but that’s not its only claim to fame. Reports that nearly a 1,000 construction workers had been killed in the making of the stadium surfaced in the media in 2015 and Hadid responded by filing a defamation suit against the publication. The construction of her project hadn’t even started when the accusation was made. However, her rather brutal initial response that workers deaths are a responsibility of governments and not architects created a storm over the ethics of powerful architects.
Unsurprisingly, there is a brigade of male architects who design with the same kind of supposedly problematic extravagance, but they are considered mavericks and their defiance adds to their charm, while Hadid became the difficult diva who famously stormed out of interviews.
Whether good, bad, or ugly, and opinions of beauty aside, the singular truth remains that Hadid created forms that are a world within themselves. The sheer scale, extremism in form, drunken, giddy heights, staggered elevations, the fluid, arabesque lines, jagged roofs, column-less expanses of space, the embracing of distortion and asymmetry; Hadid was able to capture movement within stasis. And in doing so she gave to us a distinct, wild, new way of experiencing architecture and space.
Perhaps one of the most extensive and sensitive profiles on Hadid has been written by eminent journalist John Seabrook for The New Yorker. He writes of her: “Hadid was a woman who had dared to enter a man’s world, and took no shit from anybody, though plenty was offered. She had to be twice as smart and three times as tough as her male counterparts in order to get anything built. And even then she struggled for years to realize her projects, and was forced to endure cruel and humiliating referendums on such thwarted projects as the Cardiff Bay Opera House, or the Olympic-stadium debacle in Tokyo, in which the government blocked Hadid’s competition-winning design from going forward after protests from prominent Japanese architects.”
To be able to pull that off, Hadid couldn’t have been anything else but fearless and unafraid to be radical. Her teacher, Koolhaas, observed that quality in her person early on, when he wrote of her in her final-year report: (she was) “a planet in her own inimitable orbit.”
Her legacy will live on in her incredible body of work.