Appreciation: Zaha Hadid’s Architectural Audacity
Architecture & Interiors
Zaha Hadid was that rarity in the architectural word: a superstar architect who was a woman. And if that sounds like anything short of miraculous, just try naming another woman architect famous enough to be identified by her first name alone. Le Corbusier opted for a two-word pseudonym, but Zaha was architecture’s first single-name star. That she was also a non-Westerner, and a Muslim, to boot, made her rise to the pinnacle of her profession one of the more astonishing stories in contemporary architecture. All of which makes her unexpected death last week—a fatal heart attack at age 65—a tragedy of epic proportions for the same reasons that the death of any iconoclast is: when, we’re left to wonder, will we see anyone like her again?
There was, of course, no one like Zaha Hadid, and her gender was the least of the reasons why. Hadid, quite simply, upended notions about the built form in ways that had been unprecedented before her arrival, translating seemingly impossible dramatic swoops and soaring waves into fluid, technological masterworks. Everything from the laws of gravity to the limitations of material application seemed to be defied by Zaha Hadid’s most famous buildings—beginning with her first realized project, the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany (1993), and culminating in the instantly iconic, award winning Heydar Aliyev Center (2013) in Baku, Azerbaijan.
It was easy to believe that Hadid’s fondness for undulating curves was a statement against the rigidity of geometry, but it was the plainly geometric compositions of Russian Constructivist artists—specifically, Kazimir Malevich—with their sharp angles and floating planes, that first ignited her belief in a different kind of architecture, one in which beautiful abstractions could be translated into gravity-defying buildings.
But a groundbreaking career rarely comes without a price, and for Hadid, the lone woman atop the rarefied male-dominated milieu of architecture, the price was a string of personality-based adjectives. She was difficult, brash, intractable, aggressive, a diva, it was said, again again, as she kept racking up a string of ‘firsts’—first woman to win the Pritzker Prize (2004), first woman to win the RIBA Royal Gold Medal (2016)— criticisms, however true or false, that were suspiciously outsized in relation to her professional accomplishments.
Zaha Hadid herself was all too aware of architecture’s (and the world’s) double standard, but she was, thankfully, too busy building a world-class architectural practice to recoil (publicly, anyway) at being labeled (and, finally, eulogized) as a ‘female architect.’ As Tegan Bukowski, a young designer practicing at Zaha Hadid Architects, wrote last week, “Zaha did not want to be defined by her gender, and she didn’t define anyone else that way, either. In her studio, she offered my female colleagues and me a chance to prove ourselves equal to our male counterparts. She quietly created an environment where I could look around and see women in positions of power next to men, not in spite of them.” That, ultimately, may rank as Zaha Hadid’s most significant architectural contribution—an achievement for which only a woman, only Zaha, possessed the audacity.