Zaha Hadid, a Titan of Contemporary Architecture, Dead at 65

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Zaha Hadid
Zaha Hadid; image courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects

The architecture world is in shock at the sudden death of Zaha Hadid, a titan of contemporary building. She suffered a heart attack while being treated for bronchitis in a Miami hospital.

Hadid was just five years out of The Architectural Association, an influential school in London, when she stunned her peers with her 1983 winning design for The Peak, a leisure club on Victoria Peak overlooking the Hong Kong Harbor.

With this project, described by Joseph Giovannini on this DnA as “an explosion or a geode or some kind of rock crystal that had been expelled from a mountainside”, she “invented a new form of beauty,” inspired by a love of math and Russian Supremacists. She went on to become one of the most sought-after architects in the world, and role model to many. 

The Peak, Hong Kong; image courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects.
The Peak, Hong Kong; image courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects.

That project was not built, and for the next decade Hadid was largely a high-profile, “paper architect,” advancing formal experimentation in competition-winning schemes that were often dismissed as unbuildable.

In the 1990s that changed, with the commission from adventurous architecture patron Rolf Fehlbaum, manager of the furniture manufacturer Vitra; he commissioned her to build a fire station on the Vitra campus near Basel in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

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Vitra Fire Station, 1993; courtesy Vitra

That lead to increasingly large, and numerous commissions — among them the 2003 Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati; the Maxxi Art Museum, Rome, 2009; and the Olympic Pool for the 2012 London Olympics, now a beloved resource in London’s poor East End.

She also worked at the small scale, on sculptural furniture, shoes, products, jewelry, and, recently, a line of luxury homeware in Harrods.

Hadid’s yen for fluid, non-orthogonal forms coincided with the emergence of computer aided design and construction, promulgated widely by her firm, especially her vocal business partner, Patrick Schumacher, as “parametric design.” This enabled the creation of ever more swooping structures that, writes the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman, “liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity. . . and elevated uncertainty to an art.”

Zaha shoes
Shoes by Zaha Hadid were as experimental as her buildings.

Along the way she invited controversy, most recently from human rights activists protesting the removal of families from the site of a cultural center she designed in Baku, Azerbaijan. She was also charged with being emblematic of look-at-me “starchitecture” by some in a new generation more interested in grassroots design processes, social engagement and aesthetic restraint over formal experimentation.

But she inspired tremendous admiration, for the force of her work and the force of her conviction, not to mention her vivid personal style. Hadid starting designing her own clothes when she was a small child and always made an entrance, wearing, writes Giovannini, creations like a “tetrahedral plastic cape and her fuzzy fur ring, or something else equally as funny, outrageous, and perfect.”

Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan
Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Sitting atop a profession dominated by men, she was the first, solo, woman to win the Pritzker Prize and the RIBA Gold Medal for architecture; she was also knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012.

As a result, she was especially revered by women,  even as she refused to be defined by her gender. She told DnA in 2003 after the completion of the Cincinnati Art Museum, her first US project, that perhaps she made headway in the boy’s club because she was “oblivious to these problems” (of professional exclusion), despite the fact that “many people tried to hint at me but I didn’t listen.”

If there was a Mount Olympus of architects, she would be on it.

Above: Joseph Giovannini, Tom Wiscombe, Craig Hodgetts, Ming Fung and Emmanuelle Bourlier discuss Zaha Hadid and her legacy on this week’s DnA:

Below: Zaha Hadid spoke to DnA in 2003, on completion of her art museum in Cincinnati.

Following are just some of the many remembrances of Zaha Hadid, following her untimely death:

Joseph Giovannini, Architect Magazine  

Michael Kimmelman: New York Times

Aaron Betsky: Architect Magazine

Julie Iovine: Wall Street Journal

Carolina Miranda: Los Angeles Times

Thomas de Monchaux: New Yorker

Clive Wilkinson: Recollection on Facebook