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A Tribute to the remarkable Zaha Hadid

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.

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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.

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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.


Thomas Cubitt: London’s Master Builder

It is almost impossible to conceive an image of London without the work of Thomas Cubitt. As one of the most prolific master builders during the 19th century, Cubitt was responsible for creating huge swathes of our city. From the stuccoed garden squares of Belgravia and Pimlico to the literati populated corner of Bloomsbury, Cubitt’s legacy can be seen throughout London. Even today his terraces and garden squares are among the most coveted residences in the world.

Born in 1788, Cubitt’s early years were spent as a ship’s carpenter and after undertaking a long voyage to India, he returned to England with enough money to establish a building firm in 1810. Based in Grays Inn, Cubitt’s company swiftly gained an exceptional reputation that culminated in his first significant commission in 1815, The London Institution in Finsbury Circus. Amongst his peers, his methods were considered unorthodox for the time. Ignoring traditional building practice, Cubitt pioneered a fully comprehensive management style that employed an in-house team of builders, roofers, civil engineers and specialist artisans. At its peak, Cubitt’s workforce numbered in excess of over a thousand with almost 11 acres of workshops in Pimlico.

Following the success of The London Institution, Cubitt turned his focus to the residential market. Concentrating on the areas surrounding his workshop, he began to develop his now highly regarded stucco style of housing. Some of the best examples of his early work remain on the Albion Road in Stoke Newington.

In 1824, Cubitt received what was to be his most significant commission: the development of Five Fields, an area of London owned by the Duke of Westminster. Located between London and Knightsbridge village, this region had become a rural swampland with high levels of crime and banditry. Working alongside Grosvenor’s Estate Surveyor, Thomas Cundy, Cubitt’s vision was both ambitious and unprecedented earning him the nickname “Cubittopolis” by prominent novelist, Lady Margret. 

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The centrepiece was to be Belgrave Square The original scheme consisted of four terraces, each made up of eleven white stucco houses, with the exception of the east terrace, which consisted of twelve. Detached mansions were initially built in three corners of the square, with a large private garden in the centre. Intending Belgravia to be a prime residential area above all else, Cubitt restricted building to exclusive private houses only. Shops and public houses were confined to the mewses and smaller streets located on the outskirts. This still holds true with many remaining to this day on Motcomb Street, Elizabeth Street and Wilton Row.

In 1843, his name and fortune now secured, Cubitt turned his gaze towards Pimlico – or what he termed as ‘South Belgravia’. This area had previously been purchased by Cubitt in 1823, but due to complications with the land two decades of farming were required before development of the land was feasible.

Belgravia’s northwestern and south eastern axis were extended across the canal to form Belgrave Road and St Georges Drive. The finest addresses, Eccleston Square and Warwick Square, lie in-between. Cubitt continued with his Italianate Stucco terraces but refined the design further, creating what became known as the Pimlico Porch: a Doric Portico with the addition of a balcony atop. A renowned stickler for consistency, Cubitt’s unfailing attention to detail has resulted in Pimlico boasting one of London’s most architecturally consistent areas to date.

Belgravia and Pimlico, whilst remarkable in scale and scope were by no means Cubitt’s only achievements. Even during his embarkment upon Belgravia in 1824, by the mid-twenties, Cubitt was already ‘in almost every other expanding metropolitan district’ (White, 75). In addition and as a result of his collaboration with Prince Albert, he had become a close confidant to the Royal Family. Together they built Osborne House, which became the Royal retreat on the Isle of Wight. This lead to further commissions principally the eastern facade of Buckingham Palace and the remodelling of John Nash’s Marble Arch. In appreciation for his work, Queen Victoria offered Cubitt a title. However, the notably humble man refused this generosity.

In fact, not only did he refuse this opportunity but he also referred to himself throughout his long and illustrious career as a ‘builder’ rather than the more socially acceptable ‘architect’ or ‘land surveyor’.

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When he died in 1855, Cubitt had achieved more than any man before and arguably, any man since. From celebrated designs on Battersea Park, Pimlico and Belgravia; he was also responsible for personally funding 1km of Embankment. This is all of course in addition to his early projects in Bloomsbury (Gordon and Tavistock Squares) and Stoke Newington. Upon his passing the impact he had upon London was perfectly encapsulated in the words from Queen Victoria, who remarked, “…in his sphere of life, with the immense business he had in hand, he is a real national loss. A better, kindhearted or more simple, unassuming man never breathed.”

Today with London undergoing such momentous regeneration, it is apt that we should remember his enduring influence on our city. If there was ever a mantra that perfectly encapsulates his legacy Massimo Vignelli’s famous quote seems remarkably astute, “If you do it right, it will last forever.”