Known for swooping, avant-garde structures, British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid was arguably more artist than architect. As the world mourns her sudden passing, articles about her unique and often misunderstood vision continue to make her all the more intriguing.
The first woman to receive the Priztker Prize—architecture’s highest honor—was as much a triumph for women architects, as well as a recognition that Hadid was pioneer in her field. When she received her award in 2004, much fuss was made about her accomplishments as a woman, but the architectural critic, Joseph Giovannini decided to focus elsewhere--on her work, “Air is Hadid’s element: she floats buildings that reside aloft. At a time, in the early 80s, when architects were concerned about manifesting the path of gravity through buildings, Hadid invented a new anti-gravitational visual physics. She suspended weight in the same way dramatists suspend disbelief.”
Giovannini was onto something: Hadid's uncanny ability to change the way we see and feel space foreshadowed the discipline’s direction, making her a legendary figure for architects and non-architects alike.
Born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1950, Hadid came of age in an era when the Middle East was in love with modernity. She grew up in a Bauhaus-style home in an affluent Baghdad neighborhood, and later studied mathematics at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. Having always been intrigued by how the structure and style of a building could affect an individual as well as whole culture, she turned her attention to architecture—which took her to swinging 1960s London.
It was during this time that she was able to view her Arab heritage and culture through the lens of an outsider and begin to reconsider how architecture was not only a manifestation of culture or a historical marker, but also a way for an individual to influence and literally shape that culture. Hadid’s early fascination with Russian revolutionary architecture grew from her interest in how design could affect individual experiences while at the same time advance a government agenda.
Although she outgrew her Russian phase, Hadid remained a fan of avant-garde approaches to design. From her time as a student to her time as a practitioner, she never tired in challenging traditional modern architecture, which made her seem radical, deliberately provocative, and also someone worth watching.
Abstract cubist art intrigued her. She was convinced that abstractionism was the best way to capture multiple perspectives. Fascinated by speed and movement, both in how people moved through buildings and how a sight travels through light and shadow, she created buildings that seemed to be shaped by the movement inside and around them. A self-proclaimed post-modernist, she wanted buildings to evoke the chaos of existence.
Bringing her unique concepts to life was not easy for an architect who was determinedly unconventional and too willing to break the rules. Although she was a fearless trailblazer, she also was a divisive figure. Her unwillingness to compromise rankled clients, and her artistic vision seemed to disregard the laws of physics. Her buildings were often deemed “unbuildable.”
Yet, she managed to execute her vision—building soaring eye-popping structures that dominated sky, sea, and the imagination. Beyond the Pritzker Prize, her accolades were many, and her ability to push forward in a male-dominated field as an Arab woman made her work and reputation even more pronounced. But, if anything, it was her remarkable vision and ability to shift the culture of architecture in a new direction, one where beauty and post-modernism intersect to produce spaces that delight and enlighten. This will be her legacy.
To learn more about Zaha Hadid Architects, click here.