Zaha Hadid: daring innovator of form
Dame Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect whose soaring structures left a mark on skylines and imaginations around the world and in the process reshaped architecture for the modern age, died in Miami on Thursday. She was 65.
Ms. Hadid contracted bronchitis earlier this week and suffered a sudden heart attack while being treated in the hospital, her office, Zaha Hadid Architects in London, said.
She was not just a rock star and a designer of spectacles. She also liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity. Geometry became, in her hands, a vehicle for unprecedented and eye-popping new spaces but also for emotional ambiguity. Her buildings elevated uncertainty to an art, conveyed in the odd ways one entered and moved through those buildings and in the questions her structures raised about how they were supported.
Her work, with its formal fluidity — also implying mobility, speed, freedom — spoke to a worldview widely shared by a younger generation. “I am non-European, I don’t do conventional work and I am a woman,” she once told an interviewer. “On the one hand all of these things together make it easier — but on the other hand it is very difficult.”
Strikingly, Ms. Hadid never allowed herself or her work to be pigeonholed by her background or her gender. Architecture was architecture: it had its own reasoning and trajectory. And she was one of a kind, a path breaker. In 2004, she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel; the first, on her own, to be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal, Britain’s top architectural award, in 2015.
Inevitably, she stirred nearly as much controversy as she won admiration, provoking protests from human rights advocates when her $250 million cultural center in Baku, Azerbaijan, forced the eviction of families from the site. A commission to design a stadium in Qatar — a sensuous plan that more than a few observers likened to female anatomy — became, in truth unfairly, a lightning rod for critics who decry the treatment of foreign laborers by the government there. She sued for defamation one critic who falsely reported that 1,000 workers had died building her stadium — before construction had even begun. She won a settlement and an apology.
After winning the competition to design a new stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Ms. Hadid’s firm was fired by Japanese authorities, over accusations about looming cost overruns, a decision Ms. Hadid loudly declared unjust and political.
Zaha Hadid was born in Baghdad on Oct. 31, 1950. Her father was an industrialist, educated in London, who headed a progressive party advocating for secularism and democracy in Iraq. Baghdad was a cosmopolitan hub of modern ideas, which clearly shaped her upbringing. She attended a Catholic school where students spoke French, and Muslims and Jews were welcome. After that, she studied mathematics at the American University in Beirut (she would later say her years in Lebanon were the happiest of her life).
Then, in 1972, she arrived at the Architectural Association in London, a center for experimental design. Her teachers included Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas. They “ignited my ambition,” she would recall, and “taught me to trust even my strangest intuitions.”
Ms. Hadid’s intuitions led her, among other directions, toward the Russian avant-garde, and its leaders: Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich. Her graduation project at the Architectural Assocation, called Malevich’s Tectonik, was a proposal for a hotel atop Hungerford Bridge over the Thames.
For a while she worked at Mr. Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, in Rotterdam, a cutting-edge firm and crucible for gifted young architects. By the 1980s she had established her own practice in London. And she began to draw attention with an unrealized plan in 1982-83 for the Peak Club in Hong Kong.
Ms. Hadid’s concept was a jagged, gravity-defying composition of beams and floating shards cantilevered into the rock face. It encapsulated the 1980s movement called Deconstructivism. During these years Ms. Hadid turned out an astonishing, super-refined variety of futuristic drawings and paintings. She used her art to test spatial ideas that she couldn’t yet make concrete without the aid of computer algorithms. She soon developed an insiders’ reputation as a leading theoretical designer of groundbreaking forms with unrealized projects like the Cardiff Bay opera house in Wales.
Getting her designs built was something else.
In 1994, she realized her first commission, a fire station on the corporate campus of Vitra, a furniture company, in Weil am Rhein, Germany. It inspired a design of typically outsized imagination: a winged composition, all sharp angles and protrusions. Architects were impressed. The firefighters, not so much. They moved out, and the station became an event space.
Not one to compromise or concede much to those who called her works impractical, indulgent and imprudent, from early on she made the most, creatively speaking, of what commissions she got. When her Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, a relatively modest project, opened in 2003, Herbert Muschamp, then architecture critic for The New York Times, declared it “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War.”
The center can, he said, “be experienced as an exercise in heightening the mind-body connection.” It “presents vantage points of sufficient variety to keep photographers snapping happily for many years to come,” he added.
Projects followed, like the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany; the Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain; and an opera house in Guangzhou, China, whose rock crystal-shaped design she likened to “pebbles in a stream smoothed by erosion.”
Her sources were nature, history, whatever she thought useful. Ms. Hadid’s design for the Maxxi, a modern art museum in Rome, alluded distantly to Baroque precedents, and became one of the rare modern buildings in the city to vie for attention with its numerous historical sites. Like the fire station it wasn’t entirely practical, but it was a voluptuous and muscular building, multi-tiered, with ramps that flowed like streams and floors tilted like hills, many walls swerving and swooning.
It took years before Ms. Hadid won major commissions in Britain, where she became a citizen and established a thriving office. Her Aquatics Center in London, built for the 2012 Olympics, was a cathedral for water sports, with an undulating roof and two 50-meter pools. It has become a city landmark and neighborhood attraction, bustling with kids and recreational swimmers.
Her partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, Patrik Schumacher, played an instrumental and collaborative role in her career. Mr. Schumacher coined the term parametricism to encompass the computer-based approach that helped the firm’s most extravagant concepts become reality. Ms. Hadid called what resulted “an organic language of architecture, based on these new tools, which allow us to integrate highly complex forms into a fluid and seamless whole.”
Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale Architecture School, where Ms. Hadid was a visiting professor this semester, described her legacy on Thursday as “an architecture that I could never have imagined, much less imagined getting built.” He remembered her as “the master of a cutting remark about another architect’s work, but also astonishingly warm, generous and radiant,” he said. “She was like the sun.”
Survived by an older brother, Haytham Hadid, of Beirut, she leaves unfinished, among other projects, a luxury apartment building beside the High Line in New York City.
Ms. Hadid embodied, in its profligacy and promise, the era of so-called starchitects, who roamed the planet in pursuit of their own creative genius, offering miracles, occasionally delivering. “She was bigger than life, a force of nature,” as Amale Andraos, the dean of Columbia University’s architecture school, put it on Thursday. “She was a pioneer.”
She was. For women, for what cities can aspire to build and for the art of architecture.
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