"I just do what I do, and that's it."—Zaha Hadid.
Except that's not it. Zaha Hadid, the British Iraqi architect, was a secret romantic in a cynical age. That quote of hers is a flippant one that belies a profound body of work—it sums up the possibility of creation, the optimism of making something artistic happen. To think that she'll never do it again is arresting. She died yesterday at the age of 65 from a heart attack in a Miami hospital, where she was being treated for bronchitis. She had only just got started.
Her architecture embodied an idea of progress. Rem Koolhaas, former teacher and colleague, said that she was "a planet in her own inimitable orbit." She was un-copyable, yet she leaves so many poor imitators behind. Over the past 30 years, Hadid developed a style more recognizable—and more imitated—than any of her contemporaries. She became the global go-to for fuck-off art galleries and experimental opera houses from Abu Dhabi to Guangzhou.
Her career still felt so new, which is maybe because it was—it's only been 15 years since her most significant works started appearing. She started her practice in 1980 after leaving Koolhaas's practice, OMA, but she didn't build anything until 1993. Her first building was the fêted Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany.
In architecture circles, Hadid was a member of the first name gang, and her fame was on the cusp of spreading into the real world. She had an unnerving charisma that would no doubt take her beyond the parochial world of design. She collaborated with Pharrell Williams, designed shoes and swimwear, and gave her name to a lifestyle collection.
Hadid took another step toward mainstream celebrity by storming out of an interview on Radio 4's flagship Today program."Let's stop this conversation right now," she barked, after Sarah Montague pressed her on the reasons why projected costs for the Tokyo Olympic stadium project had spiraled out of control. "I don't want to carry on."
It was the final straw. Montague had already raised the condition of migrant workers in Qatar, where the Hadid-designed 2022 World Cup stadium is being built, repeating the allegation that there have been 1,200 workers' deaths on the project—a number from a report that was withdrawn after Hadid filed a lawsuit against the New York Review of Books. The figure related to construction projects across Qatar, not Hadid's project alone, which hadn't even broken ground at the time of publication.
When questioned about the deaths of construction workers, she responded: "It's not my duty as an architect to look at it." When asked why the roof of her Olympic pool had to use ten times the amount of steel as the Velodrome to cover the same approximate span, she simply rolled her eyes.
This perhaps says more about architecture than it does about Hadid. There is no client with the kind of money you need to build big architecture who is not tainted. Behind every great building, there is a great fortune, and as Balzac said, "Behind every great fortune is a great crime."
Hadid showed us what the future might be like. When asked in an interview in Designboom in 2007 if there was anything that she was afraid of about the future, she answered, "Yes, the conservative values that are emerging." Through her work, you can see an intense and enigmatic expression of struggle. Architecture is a bad medium for self-expression, yet she expressed herself so fully that you can only assume she was a romantic, a true believer in something bigger.
The critic Herbert Muschamp wrote of Hadid's Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art: "The building's power is fully disclosed only to those who engage it with their feet as well as their eyes... You gain the dream sensation of breaking through a solid membrane into an alternative world." This is an ambition for many an architect, achieved by Hadid apparently through force of will alone.
The unreality of her work was perhaps pointing to something preternatural, transcendent. Denying reality while reaching for something more. One sometimes got the sense that she despised the banal fact of gravity, couldn't bear the dull thud of material reality.
A lot of people spend a lifetime trying to understand the world. A few just try to get the world to understand them. Zaha Hadid, perhaps more important than someone who was merely waiting for their time to come, instead witnessed the world adapting to her.