The world’s first female starchitect – Zaha Hadid


The world’s first female starchitect – Zaha Hadid challenged traditional ways of making architecture. Now her legacy – the price of innovation, lives on. By Rachel Tewliss

For over three decades Zaha Hadid ventured into the outer limits of the design cosmos where few would dare. Controversial and highly experimental, her creative genius broadened the horizons of what is possible in art and construction. Indeed the world of architecture lost a visionary star with her untimely passing this March in Miami at the age of just 65.

Born in Baghdad in 1950, Hadid’s love of form was evident from an early age. A dedicated student, she opted to study mathematics at the American University of Beirut before launching her architectural career in London at the Architectural Association. By 1979, she had established her own practice in London – Zaha Hadid Architects – and quickly gained a reputation across the world for ground breaking theoretical works including the Peak in Hong Kong in 1983, and Kurfürstendamm 70 in Berlin in 1986.

It was the compelling design of her first major build commission however, that truly earned her international recognition - the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein in Germany which she undertook in 1993.

Notable projects from that stage took on a bigger global reach spanning Italy the Maxxi: Italian National Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome (2009), the UK - the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games (2011), through to the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku (2013) in Azerbaijan.

Hailed as works that ‘transformed ideas of the future’ - the Rosenthal Centre of Contemporary Art in Cincinnati (2003) and the Guangzhou Opera House in China (2010) achieved critical acclaim but it was closer to home that one of her proudest projects - the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London - came to fruition. Completed in 2013, the building not only served to underpin an already blossoming relationship with the Gallery, thanks to her design of the inaugural Pavilion in 2000, but it also set the wheels in motion for what is now one of the capital’s most cherished annual arts Programmes with huge acclaim.

If a trademark style was ever to be attributed to Hadid – it would perhaps be her curvilinear designs and laser-sleek geometry; design accents which clearly mark the ‘transition tussle’ from the 20th to the 21st century. Indeed her later and most significant works - some of which are still underway – truly pushed the boundaries of this evolution.

“Zaha’s projects were marked by a profound understanding of early 20th Century avant-garde artists and architects,” explains US architect Brian Kuper. “She wanted to redevelop and make relevant again the formal investigations of Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism, and her projects express those utopian ideals. For many, this pushed the boundaries of acceptable artistic representation. Controversy went with the territory. In many ways it gave expression to her design aesthetic.”


A case in point was the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, which raised sharp questions about the propriety of visionary architects accepting commissions from regimes known for human-rights abuses. Hadid’s suggestive swelling curve of a concert hall, which was named the Design of the Year for 2014 by London’s Design Museum, was preceded by forced evictions and expropriations, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

Characteristically however while Hadid may have stood her ground on design as both a cultural and political statement – she placed no central importance on her status as a woman architect. “I used to not like being called a woman architect. I’m an architect, not just a woman architect,” she told CNN. And yet: “Guys used to tap me on the head and say, ‘You are okay for a girl.’ But I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.”

Today, her legacy lives on with a highly successful studio - Zaha Hadid Architects under the leadership of her partner, Patrik Schumacher. The studio’s vanguard efforts have resulted in a staggering almost one thousand projects throughout the globe, in every scale, from urban design schemes to objects and furniture design. Buildings are never bland or mundane, but moreover assertive statements of a particular view, that the world may indeed look different.

Some of Hadid’s most important designs are also still under construction or have yet to be built, including a breakthrough residential skyscraper in Miami, the One Thousand Museum Tower, and the Iraqi Parliament Building in Baghdad, where she also designed Iraq’s Central Bank. Her only New York project, 520 W. 28th Street, is slated to open in 2017.

As to the footprint made by her life’s work, Stirling prize winner Amanda Levete comments: “She was an inspiration. Her global impact was profound and her legacy will be felt for many years to come because she shifted the culture of architecture and the way that we experience buildings. When my son was very young, Zaha showed him how to write his name in Arabic. It was the moment I realised the genesis of her remarkable architectural language.”

Adds architect Sir Peter Cook: “In our current culture of ticking every box, surely Zaha Hadid succeeds, since, to quote the royal gold medal criteria, she is someone who ‘has made a significant contribution to the theory or practice of architecture … for a substantial body of work rather than for work which is currently fashionable.’

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