News of the death of Zaha Hadid, at the age of 65 in Miami, USA, has shocked the architecture community in a similar way to the unexpected early death of James Stirling, at 66, more than 20 years ago. Here was an architect living high on the fuel of a super-charged international career, with commissions rolling in to her London-based office of some 400 staff.
The trajectory of Hadid’s career is inseparable from that of London and its transformation into a hub of international culture and capital over the last 40 years. Iraqi-born and internationally educated, Hadid arrived in London in 1972 to study at Alvin Boyarsky’s Architectural Association, her tutors Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis recognized her talent and she was invited to be a partner in the fledgling OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) upon her graduation in 1977.
Starting her own office in 1979, Hadid was known for her virtuosity in old fashioned pen-and-ink drafting and her stunning paintings of architectural fantasies inspired by the Russian constructivists and suprematists of early modernism. The weightless planes and volumes of these images established Hadid as one of the foremost ‘paper architects’ of the 1980s, one who sustained her practice through an orbit of North American and European lectureships. The 1988 de-constructivism exhibition at MoMA, New York, placed Hadid within the firmament of stars such as Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry. Curated by Philip Johnson, who had also defined the ‘international style’ of modernism at the MoMA exhibition in 1932, the 1988 exhibition set this fragmented language of super-modernity against the historicist post-modernism prevalent at the time. As is often the case with such architectural idioms, the link between theory and ‘style’ was tenuous at best.
Built work for Hadid’s office remained elusive until the completion of the angularly sculptural – but apparently dysfunctional – Vitra factory fire station at Weil-am-Rhein in Germany in 1993. The building has since become an exhibition space. Her 1983 competition win for an exclusive sports club on ‘The Peak’ in Hong Kong foundered due to a lack of money on the part of the client and her win in the international competition for the New Cardiff Bay Opera House in 1994 remained unbuilt due to a lack of nerve on the part of local government and the millennium funding commission. This was perhaps her greatest unrealized project, the perceived elitism of Hadid’s Opera House resulted in her spiky internationalism being rejected in favour of the lumpenly provincial Millennium Centre, eventually built in 2004. Cardiff had in fact rather unwisely just missed the ’90s ‘starchitecture’ phenomenon of iconic cultural buildings leading the regeneration of ex-industrial cities. With the opening of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in 1997, the Basque city of Bilbao was firmly put on the map of international cultural tourism.
Hadid’s later career really took off from the turn of the century onwards and commissions started to reflect new centres of wealth with projects in the Middle East and China, including the Guangzhou Opera house of 2010. The earlier acute angles of her hand-drawn ‘de-constructivist’ phase gave way to the fluid and melted shapes of parametric computer modelling. The impetus for this came from her foremost collaborator since the late ’80s, German architect and AA lecturer Patrik Schumacher. Hadid’s formidable character and reputation perfectly suited the flamboyant double curvatures and seemingly gravity-defying shape generation of this era. The role of London as the centre for engineering excellence also played its part in realizing this complex spatial language in built form. The late engineer Peter Rice, famous for his input into many important works of the high-tech canon of Foster and Rogers, was an early supporter. Unlike early high-tech however, Hadid’s work never set out to be utopian or technocratic in its extension of the modernist project. Companies and governments would seek her out for the strikingly dynamic image of the 21st century her work epitomized.
From the time of her first built work in the United States in 2003, the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Centre, Hadid’s office entered its most productive phase. Late recognition in the UK followed with commissions including the Olympic Swimming Centre in Stratford, London, and awards including The Riba Gold Medal in 2015, the first woman to receive the prize. (She was also the first woman to receive the Pritzker prize in 2004.) Some of her best work was in Germany and Austria, notably the fluid concrete brutalism of the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg built in 2005 and the scintillating glass canopied stations for the Hungerburgbahn funicular railway in Innsbruck of 2007. Here the fluid monocoque conception of the architectural form was closest to the plastic treatment of a single material that other projects struggled to achieve in reality without considerable complexity and cost. Critics of Hadid’s work have highlighted the apparent ambivalence of her projects with regard to history, urban context, budget or local culture and politics. This is to misunderstand Hadid, as her work can best be considered as ‘haute couture’ for a globalized elite, one that will continue to be in demand.