“Some people think I just lock myself in a dark closet and pass drawings under the door,” said Zaha Hadid, who passed away yesterday at the age of 65 in Miami. The year was 2006, and she was addressing a symposium at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation: upwards of 300 eager studio drones, a smattering of historians and critics, and design geeks of assorted provenance had packed the auditorium to hear the person who—at 56, two years after being the first woman to win the coveted Pritzker Prize—was then the undisputed heavyweight champion of a variety of visually hyperactive architecture fast on the ascent in the design world.
Her methods, she insisted, were not so obscure as had been made out, though anyone watching her on the stage that evening could be forgiven for mistaking Hadid for some kind of rare architectural demiurge, a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an Issey Miyake crop jacket. Ever since she arrived on the American scene with MoMA’s Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition in 1988, Hadid had cultivated this persona so assiduously, and inhabited it so fully, that it seemed curious at first that she would come all the way uptown only to kick against that image in front her most ardent admirers. But of course she would: that’s what icons do—most especially architectural ones. They create an image, and then spend the rest of their careers in tension with the very public who bought into it.
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"Zaha." There aren’t too many designers known inside the profession as well as out by their first names. Rem perhaps (her former boss), and once upon a time Mies, but scarcely more. It was her last name, however, that was the more formative: in central Iraq, the Hadids were one of the first families of Mosul and a major force on the Sunni political scene. Her father, Muhammad al-Hajj Husayn Hadid, was a founding member of the progressive National Democratic Party, a finance minister in the first post-monarchy government, and his influence and position assured their daughter a first-rate education in Baghdad, followed by Switzerland, the UK, the American University in Beirut, and then the Architectural Association in London. The family’s wealth and connections helped sustain her in the early days after founding her practice in 1980, and it was almost certainly a familial quality of character—a willful independence, a reflexive forward-march attitude—that compelled her to keep going when her designs were declared unbuildable, to keep turning out her abstracted future-fantasies at a time when historically minded postmodernism was the voguish thing in architecture.
The Hadids made her, but only Zaha made Zaha. She had help, of course, from a number of quarters. The Constructivists and Suprematists of the early Soviet period had been largely written out of the official history of architectural modernism after the Second World War, their antic ingenuity (to say nothing of their politics) being held in conspicuously low esteem by the cool corporatists of the International Style. To turn to them in the 1980s, as Hadid did, was transgressive enough in its own right; to insist, as she did, that the Russians’ fractured forms and colliding planes could be taken further, pushed to the limits of structural plausibility, seemed, at first, like sheer provocation.
And then they started to get built: first the Vitra Fire Station in Germany, with its outrageously cantilevered marquee; then the Bergisel Ski Jump in Austria; followed by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Farsighted clients like BMW, for whom Hadid created a sinuous sliver of an office building in Leipzig in 2004, proved that she was not just a “paper architect.” Institutions like the Guggenheim, which staged a wildly successful retrospective of her work in 2006, proved that her work had broad appeal. The masses did the rest, conflating her exotic buildings with her personal exoticism—as they perceived it—to make Hadid, with Koolhaas and Frank Gehry and a handful of others, among the first to receive the ill-starred “starchitect” monicker.
Woman principals, to say nothing of Muslim woman principals, are sparse on the ground in architecture, and doubtless the mystique that seemed to attach itself to Hadid early on had a great deal to do with who she was and where she came from. The way she navigated her own celebrity, however, allowed her to sustain that mystique even when the work—the polyhedral Guangzhou Opera House, the cowry-like (and ultimately canceled) Tokyo Olympics stadium—went over budget or simply over the top. Designer Ifeanyi Oganwu was a young associate in her London office, and in his time there he says he “quickly learned that inventing the future is serious work”: Hadid was tireless, and she branched out far beyond architecture to produce an endless stream of products, clothing, even jewelry with the same sensibility as her buildings. The intellectual motive behind it all was always a bit murky; plainly it had something to with the accelerated confusion of contemporary life, with the multiform potential of digital technology (the limiting agent for realizing her complex geometries) to reshape the physical environment. But in the end it’s in the sheer accumulation, the tables and the high-rises, the floors giving way seamlessly to buildings giving way to cities, that we find the only justification for Hadid and her enduring quasi-cult. What she was doing was creating was a world, continuous and entire, and it was one a lot us wanted to live in.
Her unfolding of that world is now effectively at an end. Younger than Rem, fully twenty years younger than Gehry, Hadid’s death came as something of a shock, and even those who have longed for (and worked to hasten) the decline of “personality” architecture must now reckon with the inevitable loss of some of the remarkable personalities who engendered it. Whatever else she did—and however she did it—Zaha made history, and now she belongs to it.