As her first building in Dubai, The Opus, opens this month, the legacy of the trailblazing Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid, who died in 2016, very much lives on in her buildings – the dazzling, audacious, operatic edifices she considered symbolic of a hopeful future. Jonathan Glancey looks back on the career of one of architecture’s most enduring stars
“A planet in her own inimitable orbit.” This was how Rem Koolhaas, the celebrated Dutch architect, described Zaha Hadid at the time of her graduation from London’s Architectural Association. In the mid-1970s, Koolhaas was one of the Iraqi-born architect’s tutors at this radical architecture school. Setting up her own practice in London in 1980, Hadid went on to become a far brighter fixture in the cultural firmament than a planet alone.
By the turn of the 21st century, it was clear that ‘Zaha’, one of the few architects to be widely recognized by a forename alone, was not simply the best known female architect of all time, but also one of history’s greats.
By 2001 her architectural odyssey had transformed her from a planet into a star, around which bright clusters of architects, designers, clients, critics and fans revolved. At the time of her sudden death at the age of 65, in Miami at the end of March 2016, Hadid’s studio was Britain’s fastest growing architectural practice, with offices in London, New York, Mexico City, Dubai, Beijing and Hong Kong.
She had won the Pritzker Prize – architecture’s Nobel – been made a Dame (the female equivalent of a British knight) and, in 2015, she was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, a gift of the Queen made in the country she had chosen as her home 30 years before. The buildings she dreamed up, shaped and saw built are as compelling today as they will be in years to come. Some are pure architectural sorcery, among them the BMW Central Building, Leipzig, Phaeno Science Centre, Wolfsburg, Bergisel Ski Jump, Innsbruck, the Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, MAXXI museum, Rome, and the Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku.
Functional and yet unprecedented, these are dynamic, sweeping and even unashamedly voluptuous designs. “I’m an architect,” Hadid said, “so I create forms. What’s the point of an architect who doesn’t?” As Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Centre shows, Hadid brought fresh energy and glamour to contemporary architecture, offering hope, excitement and new forms of beauty to people and cities crying out for buildings that would put them on the map: designs that said “we can do great things, too”.
Here in Baku is a building, rising from the site of a former Soviet tank factory that appears to roll out of the ground, as if formed from a single continuous gleaming surface with no obvious beginning and no inevitable end. Although derived as much from mathematical logic as intuition, the forms of her buildings could be theatrical, baroque and truly operatic. One of my most abiding memories of Zaha Hadid – the public figure – was her entrance into the lobby of the dazzling new Guangzhou Opera House in 2010. I watched from the balcony as she swept in like some Queen of the Night, surrounded by ever-tighter circles of fans and admirers. It was as if some legendary diva was holding court.
The only other architect I have seen treated with similar adulation was Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer. Appropriately, perhaps, Hadid was influenced by Niemeyer’s bold handling of concrete and the powerful forms of his memorable designs in Brasilia. When I went to see Niemeyer on the occasion of his 100th birthday, workers chanted “Oscar! Oscar!” from building sites as we waited for the taxi that took us to lunch. Puffing on a small cheroot, Oscar spoke admiringly of Hadid.
In public, Hadid was as unmistakable as her buildings. She dressed to draw attention. As a student in London she was fond of a pink-feathered coat by the French lingerie designer Chantal Thomass. She even wore it to Brezhnev-era Moscow, on a trip to find out more about the Suprematist art and architecture that inspired her early work. “I walked across Red Square in those feathers”, she told the Daily Telegraph’s Caroline Roux. “I don’t think they’d seen anything like it.”
She chose to wear the latest and most outlandish designs of Issey Miyake, Prada and Comme des Garçons. She designed a range of pumps for the Brazilian shoemaker Melissa and science fiction-style stacked boots for United Nude. She styled jewellery for Georg Jensen and collaborated on designs for furniture, handbags, jewellery and vases with the likes of Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, Lalique, Chanel, Atelier Swarovski and David Gill.
For all her flamboyance and sheer presence, few would have guessed that Hadid was essentially a shy and private person, although acerbic, gossipy, fierce, loyal and funny, too. She could seem so brave and sometimes brusque as if she was in complete control of her world, and yet she attracted detractors like few other architects. These were those unable or unwilling to come to terms with her swooping, soaring, gathered, rolled and folding forms.
Although Hadid and her buildings became hugely popular among a very wide and global audience, peevish criticism hurt her. “The very essence of Zaha Hadid,” Amanda Levete, herself an inventive architect who studied at the Architectural Association in the 1970s, told Dezeen magazine, “is that she was a real romantic, very sensitive but a warrior, too.” She needed to fight, for Hadid was not just a woman in what has long been a man’s world, but always a foreigner in Britain, where she lived from 1972.
In 1994, willfully philistine Welsh politicians, among other hostile critics, annihilated one of the first of her radical schemes that looked as if it might be built, a competition winning design for an opera house on Cardiff Bay. This was a body blow to Hadid. Not only had she poured her heart and talent into the project, but she had also teamed up with Arup, the magisterially competent building engineers, who had no doubt whatsoever as to the practical nature of her luminous design.
Hadid herself – a controversialist as well as Levete’s “warrior” – had yet to learn the degree of tact architects so often need to win commissions. In an interview with Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times in November 1995, for example, she said of her critics, “Give them time and space to understand. The problem is that people in this country have seen so much garbage for so long they think life is a Tesco. When the highest aspiration is to make a supermarket, then you have a problem.”
From the beginning, however, it was clear that Hadid was unlike any other architect. It was not simply her upbringing in 1950s Iraq – a progressive country then – nor an education that spanned a Catholic school in Baghdad, Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, the American University of Beirut and the febrile Architectural Association in London’s Bedford Square, but her fascination with revolutionary design. Shortly after her death, Rem Koolhaas told Dezeen, “I see her work not necessarily as an exciting form of Western architecture and a development of Western architecture, but really something fundamentally different.”
Koolhaas was angry at the time of Hadid’s death, not simply because he felt her work was often misunderstood but because “of the short-sighted criticism in which the architectural press acts as a kind of Amnesty International in terms of judging local conditions more than local situation, and is therefore fundamentally hostile to making contributions to other cultures that are not as perfect as we supposedly are in the West.”
Hadid’s own belief was that architecture tends to outlast political regimes of all colours. What she was designing and building for, she said, was the people who would use those buildings, people for whom her compelling designs were concrete symbols of hopeful futures. When, in 2014, the New York Review of Books claimed that 1,000 workers had died on the building site of Hadid’s Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar, even though work had yet to start on the project, she sued for defamation, and won. Remarkably, the BBC’s Today programme repeated this false claim more than a year later in a live interview with Hadid on the occasion of her receiving the Royal Gold Medal.
Incensed, she walked out. Like other great architects Zaha Hadid was an artist. She found beauty in unexpected landscape that informed her work in profound ways. “I don’t design nice buildings,” she told me when I was writing a profile of her for the Guardian. “I don’t like them. I like architecture to have some raw, vital, earthy quality. Some winters ago I flew from New York to Chicago in the snow. At sunset, the landscape and cityscapes became no colours other than starkly contrasted black and white, while the rivers and lakes were blood red. Amazing. You wouldn’t call that a nice landscape, but it had the quality of light and life I would love to get into our buildings.” She did.
Photography courtesy of Getty Images and ME by Melià
A version of this story appeared in the autumn 2016 issue of Baku magazine.