Career Review | Zaha Hadid (1950-2016)

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Lauded by her contemporaries, decorated by her adopted country, and imitated the world over, Zaha Hadid is destined to remain ‘the greatest female architect’.

As an Architectural Association student in the 1970s, Hadid became mentee to figures like Rem Koolhaas, Madelon Vriesendorp and Elia Zenghelis. Starting her own practice in 1979, her early proposals are a catalogue of exquisite impracticality: the “bent slab” hotel hovering above a street in Berlin, towers and shards rising from Trafalgar Square, and a skewed and slanted New Barcelona. There’s scarcely a European city untouched by her imagination.

Though building little, her name had spread. Her prize-winning design for Hong Kong’s The Peak in 1983 brought international renown, while her proposal for the Cardiff Bay Opera House was deemed too “elitist” by the City Council. Perhaps also too daring for a country that had, as she saw it, “seen so much garbage for so long”, it was destined to remain her (and the city’s) unrealised dream.

By the 90s, with a growing reputation for emotive and unorthodox pitches to clients, she soon brought parametricism and constructivism into a fluid personal vision for the Vitra Fire Station and Berlin’s Internationale Bauausstellung. She had also begun to eschew hard edges and precarious climbs for seamless, undulant forms, most notably for London’s Serpentine Gallery.

The 2000s would be her epoch: BMW’s Central Building in Leipzig, Germany, is an ink-blue homage to the balletic manoeuvres of a robotic production line, the Galaxy Soho in Beijing is a ribboned colossus of intoxicating originality, and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku is an ever-cresting wave, 243ft high and vanishing into the interior landscape of the centre.

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Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku.

Closer to home, Hadid’s hand is felt in the 10million litre London Aquatics Centre and the Evelyn Grace Academy. She also designed an outpost for one of Oxford’s newer colleges, planting a mirrored wave in the Middle East Centre at St Anthony’s.

Oxford University’s Middle East Centre by Zaha Hadid YourStoree

Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.

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Evelyn Grace Academy.

In all this, her work is so consummately single-minded in its conception, that its mere existence seems to dismantle the history of ideas, presenting instead what might properly be called pure architecture: a visual statement of unimpeachable clarity and heart. “Diplomacy!” she told an audience at the Royal Academy last year, “Not my best talent! I don’t play up to people.”

London Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid

London Olympic Aquatics Centre.

 

But the neural pathways of genius are seldom without misstep: her much-derided “big ticket” projects in rogue and roguish states mark occasions when Hadid’s flame burned just a joule too brightly. Still, as her passing crystallises, her intention seems clear: when user experience and a visual aesthetic merge, great architecture is always democratic. In this, Hadid’s work, wherever it arises, is a stridently human manifesto: design is all.

Even as she played with folly, there was a beautiful clarity: her Liquid Glacial table for David Gill’s gallery in St James is a frozen dream, and her “undulating” boot for Lacoste is stridently abstract, while her shards of ice and bimorphous sofas at the Moonsoon restaurant in Sapporo are prototypes for the futurist dining experience.

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“We now see more established female architects all the time,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the challenges are immense.” With or without detractors, Hadid will always be the first woman to have won the renowned Pritzker Prize and the RIBA Gold Award. Added to her two consecutive Stirling prizes, four RIBA European Awards and a damehood, her legacy seems unquestionable.

“If you want an easy life,” she told the Academy, “don’t be an architect.

And she wasn’t merely a critic’s favourite. Her celebrity status is due in large part to her presence on the high street. Under the aegis of her Design Gallery in Clerkenwell, one can see her eye turn to every form: sculptural jewellery, conceptual handbags, “liquid” furnishings, illumination, ballet, even a zero-emissions car.

Hadid’s impact on British and world architecture cannot be exaggerated – her work itself is an exaggeration. With her orbicular curves, lunging lines and almost locomotive fierceness of form, she takes her place comfortably among a pantheon of greatness. As a woman and a British Muslim, she finds herself at its pioneering heart. Her compulsion to fill the world with the ever-new, the ever-thrilling, means that the architectural landscape is wiser, truer, and more beautiful for her work.

“If you want an easy life,” she told the Academy, “don’t be an architect. Ask anybody in my office. You have to work all the time. If you want a nine-to-five job and to go home and relax, just don’t do it.”

Zaha Hadid Architects.


 

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