David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen – if 2016 was the accursed year of back-to-back celebrity deaths, the world of architecture also lost its biggest personality with the untimely passing of Zaha Hadid in March, aged just 65. In an industry dominated by old white men and straight lines she was a forthright Arab woman who concocted her own inimitable universe of fluid surfaces and billowing curves. On the freedom of the page or screen she conceived a gravity-defying architecture that promised exhilarating new worlds yet sometimes struggled when those lofty ideas came crashing down to earth; when forced to deal with the realities of structure, use and context. An exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery (until 12 February) offers a fascinating window on to her explosive early paintings and drawings, before computers intervened, along with sketchbooks that revealed the embryonic origins of her otherworldly forms.
Her death marked a watershed moment. The passing of the starriest starchitect of them all – driven around town in her own black cab; lines of jewellery, yachts and handbags to her name – coincided with the completion of a number of long-delayed mega-projects that seemed to come from a bygone age, wrought on a scale of extravagance that is now unlikely to be seen again for some time.
Seven years late and ten times over budget, Herzog & de Meuron's spectacular €800m Elbphilharmonie concert hall was finally completed this year, standing like a great glass iceberg marooned on top of an old brick warehouse in the Hamburg docks. With its thousands of panes of double-curved glass, hundreds of hand-blown light fittings and a cave-like auditorium that appeared to be chiselled out from a great mountain of coral, it was a project of unparalleled intricacy and complexity, dreamed up with a level of ambition reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm's megalomania. With its breathtaking public deck and theatrical labyrinth of terraced levels that wrap up around the grand hall, it proved to be well worth the wait.
Unfortunately the same could not be said for a project of equal hubris that was completed in Athens this summer, looming like a concrete fortress on the waterfront, a blank cliff facing the ruined remnants of the 2004 Olympic campus. Designed by Renzo Piano, the €600m Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center combined a new national library and opera house in one gargantuan artificial hillside, with a public park that rambled up on to the sloping rooftop. The park was a welcome boon for the city, but the building felt like a familiar rerun of the usual Piano clichés, as a soulless complex of glass walls and wiry rigging, built on an agoraphobia-inducing scale. Gifted to the state at time when many other museums and cultural institutions were closing their doors – and requiring 900 staff to run it – the complex sadly remains unopened.
San Francisco's new cultural beacon was an equally mixed blessing. Rising above its neighbours like a contorted meringue, the USD$305m extension to the SFMOMA, by Norwegian architects Snøhetta, packed a huge amount of gallery space inside its bulging white envelope (making the building 40% bigger than New York's MoMA), but in the process it lobotomized the best bits of Mario Botta's original museum. Built to house the art collection of the founders of Gap, it provided a suitably bland world of blonde wood, plasterboard and Scandi details, akin to one of their flagship stores.
In London, the Tate showed how an extension to an existing gallery can feel anything but familiar. The GBP£260m Switch House, designed by the original architects of Tate Modern, Herzog & de Meuron, jutted up behind the majestic brick power station like an aggressive watchtower, containing a spiralling vertical journey from the stygian oil tanks in the basement to a thrilling crow's nest at the summit. In a moment of exquisite justice, it also transformed the neighbouring GBP£20m penthouse apartments (of a development that had threatened Tate's expansion), with their bleak still lives of mail-order luxury, into a captivating piece of voyeuristic installation art.
The Design Museum also unveiled its new premises this year, moving from Shad Thames to the swooping concrete tent of the former Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High Street. In a perfect diagram of the Faustian pacts of public-private partnerships, the original building was hemmed in on all sides by blocks of some of the most expensive apartments in London, sold to help pay for the museum. It feels like they got the choice of architects the wrong way around: Dutch provocateurs OMA were given the luxury flats, and forced to behave, while the king of hotel lobby minimalism, John Pawson, was left to work his insipid magic on the museum, and set about smothering its unique character with yet more blonde wood and plasterboard.
So long 2016. You offered us some diverting baubles of the boom, but you won't really be missed.
Main image: Zaha Hadid, Metropolis, 1988; © Zaha Hadid Foundation
Oliver Wainwright is the Guardian’s architecture and design critic. Trained as an architect, he has worked for a number of practices, both in the UK and overseas, and written extensively on architecture and design for many international publications. He is also a visiting critic at several architecture schools.