Architecture suffered an extraordinary loss with the passing of Zaha Hadid last month. Over a 30 year career that saw her crowned ‘Queen of the Curve’ (in tribute to her signature blend of flowing lines and organic forms), Hadid’s iconic style was unlike any of her contemporaries. A true visionary, Hadid was ultimately recognised as the finest female architect in the world and was awarded the highest accolades including the Royal Gold Medal (2016) and the Pritzker Prize (2004).
Born in Baghdad, Hadid moved to the UK in 1972 to begin her architectural studies at London’s prestigious Architectural Association (AA). Regarded as one of the major hubs for progressive architectural philosophy during the 70s, Hadid’s ability soon caught the attention of her tutors, Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zengelis. However, it would take the encouragement from the faculty to persuade Hadid of her own aptitude. Madeline Vriesendorp, who worked at the AA during Hadid’s time recalls, “She was very shy, not forceful. She would present her extraordinary drawings half-crumpled and scattered on the floor. For some reason, she chose to burn them at the edges. She was embarrassed. If you show your work, it’s like undressing in front of people. The more you believe in something the more you are embarrassed.”
Their efforts paid off, with Koolhaas later commenting that “Zaha’s performance during the fourth and fifth years was like that of a rocket that took off slowly to describe a constantly accelerating trajectory. Now she is a PLANET in her own inimitable orbit. That status has its own rewards and difficulties: due to the flamboyance and intensity of her work, it will be impossible [for her] to have a conventional career. She owes it to her talent to refine and develop over the next few years.”
Upon graduating from the AA, Hadid joined as a partner at Koolhaas’ Rotterdam Office for Metropolitan Architecture. In 1979, she left to set up Zaha Hadid Architects in London, which she ran with Patrick Schumacher. From here her career started, albeit slowly. Hadid’s first project came after winning the international competition to design the Peak Terminus in Hong Kong. Although this never materialised (due to the developer going bankrupt), her submission was critically acclaimed and launched Hadid onto the global platform. Centred around a selection of black and blue paintings, the design demonstrated her structurally ambitious and geometrically fractious style that recalled the revolutionary Russian Constructivists of the 1920s. These works would later form an important part of the Deconstructionist Architecture” exhibition held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988. A show that the New Yorker would describe as proving to “…. have been the second most important American architectural exhibit of all time”.
Hadid’s approach to architecture would be her calling card. Described as both a ‘Deconstructionist’ and ‘Neo-modernist,’ a more apt term would be baroque modernist. The classic baroque architects, such as Borromini and da Cortona, shunned the traditional single view perspective, instead creating vast ceilings that redirected the focus upwards to God. Hadid’s philosophy followed an equally revolutionist path that redefined the strict rules of modernism laid down by Le Corbusier and others. Her buildings, formed of multiple perspectives and flowing spaces, sought to reflect the chaotic fluidity of modern living.
Although many applauded Hadid’s skill and ambition, commissions were hard to come by. Promising projects in Dusseldorf and West Berlin both failed to complete: a trend that was becoming all too regular. As a result, the majority of her first 20 years was spent lecturing, splitting her time between the AA and Harvard University’s School of Design where she held the Kenzo Tange Chair. She would later hold similarly influential positions at the universities of Yale, Columbia, Illinois and Vienna.
While the 1990s saw Hadid realise her first project, the Vitra Fire Station (1993), this decade would be marred by controversy: the most prominent being the Cardiff Opera House. Having won the international competition, her designs were later rejected after the government ultimately refused to pay for the project due to opposition by local politicians. It was only upon the completion of the Richard and Lois Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, that her career truly began. Finished in 2003 and described by the New York Times as being “the most important new building in America since the Cold War”, it was only now that Hadid was able to shrug off her reputation as an architect who ‘designed daring buildings that couldn’t be built.’
From here commissions began to mount up, increasing in size and grandeur. Over the next ten years, Hadid would complete a plethora of projects which allowed her to gain the recognition she deserved. Among these landmarks included cultural palaces in Azerbaijan in South Korea and a stadium for the World Cup in Qatar. In 2004, Hadid was also be awarded the Pritzker Prize – the highest achievement in the industry and considered to be architecture’s version of the Nobel Prize.
However many projects she completed during this period, Hadid would later lament the lack of interest shown by the UK. “There isn’t a belief in the fantastic (in Britain), she explained, “They don’t think it’s possible.” This did eventually change with projects such as a cancer centre in Kirkcaldy, a transport museum in Glasgow, a library in Oxford, an academy school in south London, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, and the Aquatics Centre: the most dramatic of the buildings created for the London 2012 Olympics.
No matter how high her status climbed, Hadid’s work remained divisive. Many of her projects have been the subject of controversy. However, her talent remained undeniable and often transformed the views of those who at the beginning doubted her. Among these was eminent critic and Archigram founder, Sir Peter Cook who had commented on Hadid’s earlier work with Koolhaas, “I would hate to live in their buildings…..I would run screaming from their barrack-like walls and their prison-like cages.” Indeed, it was Cook who would later propose Hadid for the Royal Gold Medal commenting that “For three decades she has ventured where few would dare……if Paul Klee took a line for a walk, then Zaha took the surfaces that were driven by that line for a virtual dance.”
In comparison to all other art forms, architecture is by far the slowest paced. It is also a profession that resists the emergence of prodigies due to the breadth and extent of knowledge required to perform at the highest level. As a result, many of the greatest architects only produce their finest work in the later stages of their lives. It is not uncommon for this to extend far past the accepted age of retirement with I.M. Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright continuing well into their 80s or 90s. This is one of the main bereavements that comes with Hadid’s passing. While her achievements and influence are undeniable, at the age of sixty-five it can be said that she was only just beginning. Architecture may have lost one of its greatest modern visionaries, but Hadid’s vibrant and extraordinary work will endure, becoming more relevant as our cities change to closer reflect her designs.