The architect—immensely popular despite being truly radical—has died following a heart attack aged 65by Jay Merrick / April 1, 2016 / Leave a comment
Zaha Hadid, best-known in Britain as the architect of the Aquatics Centre used in the London Olympics, was arguably the one true architectural superstar of the last decade. Frank Gehry was as famous, Rem Koolhaas was more assiduously controversial, and Norman Foster vastly more successful. But in terms of media magnetism, Hadid had the X-Factor. She was the only architect to whom both of the conflicting words “radical” and “fashionable” applied perfectly. Her early work, based on drawings, was jagged and radical; her more recent architecture was more parametric—more flowing. In both modes, Hadid’s was an original talent.
Her aura—and the fact she would rise to stardom—were obvious from the moment her late arrival interrupted Richard Rogers’s welcoming speech at the 2000 Venice Biennale arts exhibition. Hadid’s oscillations between shy uncertainty and sudden declamatory speech contributed to her now-legendary manner. There was the megaphone she would sometimes use, and the fact she once instructed a portion of her staff to leave her Clerkenwell office because it felt too crowded. As I witnessed myself, there was a very particular way she liked her assistants to deliver her demitasses of espresso, and her firm instruction to her co-director, Patrik Schumacher, to eat more potatoes while both were lunching in a restaurant.
Born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1950, Hadid moved to London in 1972 to study at its Architectural Association (its blue English Heritage plaque announces that “most of the world’s greatest architects studied here”). She set up her practice in London in 1979, a city with culture that she loved from the first.
In the 1980s, her competition designs for the Cardiff Opera House and Hong Kong’s Peak Leisure Club featured fractured lines of perspective that came at you like tracer-fire. They owed a great deal to the brilliantly experimental Russian Suprematist and Constructivist art of the 1920s, from artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Aleksander Rodchenko and El Lissitsky. This influence is absolutely clear in the deeply unsettling angles of her first completed building in 1993, the small fire station at the Vitra furniture factory at Weil am Rhein, Germany.
In 2005 the vast BMW Central Building near Leipzig was completed: a compaction of planes which included a production-line with BMWs passing above the canteen on tracks. In my opinion her most interesting building, externally at least, was the MAXXI art museum—the last building she designed with drawings rather than sophisticated computer modelings.
After belatedly winning the Riba Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects this year—eight years after gaining the profession’s ultimate Oscar, the Pritzker Prize—the chairman of selectors, Peter Cook, quipped: “Her methods and perhaps much of her psychology remain Mesopotamian and not a little scary: but certainly clear.”
Hadid’s buildings divided opinion with a cleaver: were the massive concrete swerves and folds of her architecture—which required massive amounts of steel to hold them up—masterfully original spatial compositions, or simply computer-aided fantasias? In Britain, that question could be applied to buildings including Maggie’s cancer support centre in Kirkcaldy and London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
Overseas, Hadid’s Heydar Aliev Museum in Azerbaijan—a series of vast, meringue-like ripples—remains her most sensationally vast design. Hadid despised what she called “minimal existence” architecture. She certainly pursued the maximal. The designer even created furniture, footwear and objects luxe; the Liquid Glacial Table, previously valued at £240,000, has transparent acrylic swirls, like water going down a plughole into its table-legs.
Hadid’s architecture gradually evolved into more flowing forms recalling sand dunes, folded rock strata, and even the sensual 1950s architecture of the Brazilian genius, Oscar Niemeyer, whom she greatly admired. The Investcorp extension at St Anthony’s College, Oxford—designed, in part, as an homage to her late and much loved brother, Foulath—looks fluid and beautifully made.
Until relatively recently, she fretted that she had not received substantial recognition from her British peers because she was a woman. I was at her table when her Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg failed to win the Riba Stirling Prize in 2006. “It’s because I’m a woman,” she told me. The angst stopped when she won the Stirling Prize in 2010 and 2011, for the MAXXI Museum in Rome, and the Evelyn Grace Academy in south London. She received the Pritzker Prize in 2004 and was appointed as a Dame of the British Empire in 2012.
“We now see more established female architects all the time,” she said after winning the Riba Gold Medal. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the challenges are immense.” The challenge faced by her practice, now led by Patrik Schumacher, will be even greater as it attempts to push through the 60 “live” projects in process at the time of Zaha Hadid’s death.