Arts Remembrance: Architect Zaha Hadid — a Sci-Fi Design Diva — Dies At 65

Zaha Hadid’s futuristic designs will shape the imagination of generations to come.

Dame Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects/Simone Cecchetti

Dame Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects/Simone Cecchetti

By Mark Favermann

On March 31, 2016, star architect Dame Zaha Hadid died at the age 65. A pioneering woman who succeeded in a male-dominated profession, the Iraqi-born, British architect’s enormous passion and talent made her a colossus in the international world of design. Her iconic structures — both built and unbuilt — stand as signs of her prodigious talent and her very pronounced aesthetic. Her use of geometry was often poetic, resulting in structural narratives and visual descriptions that will resonate for years to come.

Hadid was the youngest of the older generation of current architect celebrities who followed where Modernism left off. However, because she didn’t take notice of criticism, either petty or sometimes major, she pushed further than many of her contemporaries. With the arrival of the computer and new forms of fabrication technologies, she was free to envision, and achieve, her fluid structural goals. In that sense, Hadid became a sic-fi design diva, teaching the world a more expansive visual and material vocabulary. Her work introduced the world to visions of new futures of such inspiring imagination that they could not be ignored. Her aesthetic influence was wide-ranging, from architecture and fashion to industrial design.

In 2004, Hadid was the first woman in her own right to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. She was the first Muslim to win the award as well. Being an Arab woman was problematic. In fact, the combination most probably generated additional prejudice against her. Early on, she faced formidable barriers and challenges while attempting to create ambitious and often controversial projects. In interviews, she often boldly stated that her work did not fit neatly into any stylistic box; she continually struggled with the male/female tension in the profession as well as with the vagaries and prejudices of both governments and social conventions.

She stated that she felt that one couldn’t actually teach architecture, but could only creatively inspire students. One of her closest professional colleagues was Frank Gehry. They both shared a passion for pushing the edges of design.

Firestation, Vitra Museum Complex, Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects.

Firestation, Vitra Museum Complex, Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects.

On learning of her death, architect Rem Koolhaus (her former teacher and once professional partner) stated that Hadid was “a combination of beauty and strength.” Lord Norman Foster remembered her “courage, conviction and tenacity.” Daniel Libeskind tweeted “Devastated by the loss of a great architect & colleague today. Her spirit will live on in her work and studio. Our hearts go out. ‪#zahahadid‬‬‬.” Others made the sad observation that Hadid was just beginning to get the wide recognition that she so deserved.

Born to an upper class Muslim family in Bagdad, Hadid was the daughter of a politically active, wealthy industrialist and a mother who was an artist. Both of her parents were originally from Mosul, Iraq. After studying mathematics at the American University of Beirut, she moved to England and received her architectural training at London’s Architectural Association. There she received the 1977 Diploma Award. This was just one of many prizes and prestigious firsts that she received. These included the Stirling Prize and the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) Gold Medal as well as the Pritzker Prize. A naturalized British citizen, she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012.

Because her sensibility bridged Western and Eastern cultures, she was credited with “liberating” architectural geometry. Her expressive and sweeping forms reflected the energy and changeability of contemporary life. She is a pioneer of what has been termed Parametricism, a stylistic approach that is considered a successor to post-modern and modern architecture and design. Hadid’s works are considered icons of this neo-futurist style, and it is an approach that she passionately defended, often igniting plenty of debate.

2022 FIFA World Cup Soccer Stadium Design for Qatar, Rendering by Zaha Hadid Architects.

2022 FIFA World Cup Soccer Stadium Design for Qatar, Rendering by Zaha Hadid Architects.

Among some of her most acclaimed works are the fire station at the Vitra Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany (her first commission), the Aquatic Centre for the 2012 London Olympics, the BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany, the Broad Art Museum in East Lansing, Michigan and the Opera House in Guangzhou, China.

Her most talked-about projects included the unbuilt Olympic Stadium in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics and the design for the World Cup Soccer Stadium in Qatar. The Tokyo Stadium was rejected by Japanese architects and governmental officials because it was too large and costly. She felt that her firm’s dismissal was rooted in an “anti-foreigner” bias and charged that the architects who replaced her copied her work. Critics wrote that the oval-shaped, partially covered Qatar Stadium looked like a giant vagina. There was a firestorm of reaction to this design. Also slave-labor issues regarding treatment of construction workers laid at her feet as well. In both cases, she felt that male-run firms would not have been treated the same way. She was probably right: has there ever been a public fracas raised by the phallic-shaped skyscrapers by male star architects? Or about related construction abuses around the world?

Hadid died of a heart attack in a Miami hospital, where she was being treated for bronchitis. Her demanding mantra was that architecture was a 24 hour a day profession. She never married or had children; she referred to the young members among her staff as “her kids.” Hadid loved conversation and entertaining, and thought of her close professional colleagues as “her family.”

An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002. He has previously written for The Phoenix, Art New England, American Craft Magazine, Boston Herald, Blueprint (UK), Design (UK), and Leonardo.

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