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Zaha Hadid, Visionary Architect Who Helped Design the Future

The Iraqi-British Pritzker winner will be remembered for introducing daring curves and futuristic shapes to modern architecture

Zaha Hadid poses in front of the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, which she designed, in 2005.
Zaha Hadid poses in front of the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, which she designed, in 2005.
Jochen Luebke AFP:Getty Images

‘Having to fight hard has made me a better architect.’ Zaha Hadid, The Times

Who walks out of interviews? Well, for one, Dame Zaha Hadid. Taken as a singular instance, it’s unfair to introduce her spectacular career by alluding to the moment last fall when she walked out of a BBC radio interview due to the tone and tenor of a journalist’s questions. To those who already felt a certain way about her work, it crystallized her reputation as "diva"-like.

Viewed with a wide-angle lens, however, the incident represents the challenges Hadid deftly handled throughout her celebrated, trailblazing career, and a degree of scrutiny not often leveled at her peers. As it turns out, the BBC issued a statement regretting the interviewer’s behavior and erroneous assumptions. And Hadid, as she had done throughout her career, dropped the mic, went back to work, and continued doing what visionaries do.

Born in Baghdad on October 31, 1950, Zaha Hadid—who passed away in a Miami hospital due to a sudden heart attack during treatment for bronchitis—will be remembered for introducing daring curves and futuristic shapes to modern architecture. A prolific architect as well as an academic and teacher—she’s taught at Harvard, Yale, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg—her firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, currently employs roughly 400 workers in a converted schoolhouse in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of London.

Peak Leisure Club
One of Zaha Hadid's sketches for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong.

Hadid, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012, says that her design career started due to her parents. During a trip to Beirut as a seven-year-old, she went to a furniture maker to pick up pieces for her room ordered by her father Mohammed, a "forward-thinking man with cosmopolitan interests." The collection contained an asymmetrical mirror, which started her love affair with asymmetry. She was free to decorate her room, which happened to be in a Bauhaus-inspired home in Baghdad, as she wanted. Her cousin liked it, and asked her to design hers. Then, an aunt did the same thing. Ever since, the concepts and possibilities of space were Hadid’s driving concerns.

Hadid has said growing up in Baghdad in the ‘50s and early ‘60s was inspirational, as it was a period of progress and nation-building. She moved to England in the 1960s to attend boarding school, but her heritage and homeland have always been instrumental influences; she told The Guardian that the landscape, the way the water, land, and buildings flowed together, was inspiring. She also explained how her background has led to backlash throughout her career:

"Being an Arab woman and a modern architect certainly don't exclude each other – when I was growing up in Iraq, there were many women architects. You cannot believe the enormous resistance I've faced just for being an Arab, and a woman on top of that. It is like a double-edged sword. The moment my woman-ness is accepted, the Arab-ness seems to become a problem."

Hadid was educated at the American University of Beirut, where she studied mathematics, then completed her studies at London’s prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture, where she studied alongside peers such as Bernard Tschumi. The Iraqi-British architect began her career upon graduating in 1977, becoming a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture alongside founders Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, both former professors.

Hadid left OMA in 1980 to start her own firm in London. Initially, Hadid was known as a "paper architect," celebrated for conceptual designs as opposed to any significant built work. While she spent most of the ‘80s entering contests and creating proposals, her detailed sketches and paintings from that time provide exceptional insight into her style, talent, and influences. (Her final project for Rem Koolhaas at the AA was an elaborate, angular hotel set atop a bridge on the River Thames.) Her abstract sketches and line drawings drew heavily from the work of Constructivists and Suprematists, most notably for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong in 1983, and earned her a reputation for imagining powerful, elaborate, and inspired work. New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp once wrote that her drawings were "virtually calligraphic in their capacity to convey emotion through line."

It was these compositions that helped her secure her first major commission, a fire station located on the campus of the modern furniture company Vitra, located in Weil am Rhein, Germany. As the Vitra Chairman, Rolf Fehlbaum, said at the time, "the appeal of her architectural compositions lay in their mobility, speed, and performance. Zaha was the perfect choice for a fire station."

Her structure—a replacement for a fire station that had previously burnt down, requiring a complete redesign of the campus—was a revelation, a wedge of vectors, shapes, and cast-in-place concrete that Hadid would later compare to a piece of Land Art. In a 1993 review in The Architectural Review entitled "Provocative Pyrotechnics," critic John Winter praised the abstract design as a "pile of boards that have tumbled into a semi-random and rather beautiful heap." It was the first of many built projects completed with collaborator Patrik Schumacher, a structural engineer who would later become a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects. (Schumacher, now a director, is the natural assumption for who will inherit the office’s work.)

Enthusiastic praise of Hadid’s work eventually turned the former paper architect into an in-demand designer for those seeking eye-popping, forward-thinking designs. She would soon create a series of attention-getting structures that appeared to push spatial boundaries: the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck, Austria (2002), which contained a space station-esque viewing platform; and the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio (2003), her first U.S. commission and an "urban mothership" that The New York Times anointed "the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War."

When Hadid was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2004, the first woman to win architecture’s highest honor, she was praised for her exemplary body of work, which, while relatively small at the time, showed great promise for the future. "Always inventive, she’s moved away from existing typology, from high tech, and has shifted the geometry of buildings," said Lord Rothschild, that year’s Pritzker Prize jury chairman. Frank Gehry would add that "the 2004 laureate is probably one of the youngest laureates, and has one of the clearest architectural trajectories we’ve seen in many years."

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre
Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan. Hufton + Crow

That upward trajectory hasn’t been without some turbulence, as her inventive work has attracted criticism throughout her career, some fair, some manufactured. Her award-winning 2012 design for the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan—a curve so sweeping that it appeared like the lined, white grid of the building, and architectural conformity, had artfully melted in front of you—was attacked due to its associations with the Central Asian country’s repressive government, and her designs for a World Cup Stadium in Qatar have come under fire for the country’s alarming record of labor abuses (which, though accurate for Qatar at large, were misattributed by some members of the press to "1,200 deaths" in association with Hadid’s project).

In the mid-1990s, Hadid submitted an ahead-of-its-time design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales, a curved theater surrounded by a flowing glass facade that critics dubbed the "crystal necklace." Despite winning the initial competition, her design was dismissed by the Millennium Commission, which was funding construction. The design was even resubmitted twice against competing designs by Sir Norman Foster, winning both rounds, yet still remaining unbuilt. Hadid would later say that the saga "seriously impeded the psyche of her staff."

She would go on to use the designs as a model for the Guangzhou Opera House (2010) in China, a glass-enclosed structure that resembles "a pair of pebbles that have washed up from the nearby Pearl River," according to a critic. "The idea," Hadid told The Guardian, "is that the building is really a part of the city and you're aware of the city even when inside. It doesn't just go away." It’s since been called "the most alluring opera house built anywhere in the world in decades."

Cardiff Bay Opera House
Cardiff Bay Opera House sketch by Zaha Hadid

The most recent imbroglio involves the design and construction of the Tokyo National Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games. Hadid’s plan, which won an international competition, was taken off the slate last year amid complaints by the Japanese government of rising construction costs. Hadid fired back at the criticism, saying the bid system for construction companies was unfair, and noting that the design selected to replace her stadium, by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, bore a very strong resemblance to her firm’s work.

In the intervening decades, Zaha Hadid broadened her work to include forays into jewelry, interior design, products, and fashion, and continually argued for more creativity and risk-taking in her profession. As she told The Architectural Review in 2011, there’s more to the profession than self-serious work:

"Architecture is for well-being; it should be enlightening and should make you feel good. I don’t think you are supposed to just go to a place to contemplate the end of the world. There is this idea that architecture has to be dour and heavy-handed. But there is another way, and while of course we need good housing, hospitals and schools, people also have to enjoy themselves, whether in a streetscape, a hair salon, a cycledrome or a theatre."