Unparalleled: How Zaha Changed Architecture

Zaha continually challenged the preconceived limitations of architecture.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

In March 2016, the news that British-Iraqi architect Dame Zaha Hadid had passed away was met with an outpouring of grief — not just from the architectural community, but from everyone who is passionate about design. Architizer’s founder Marc Kushner perfectly summarized the feelings of so many within the profession: “She is amongst a handful of architects that truly transformed the field within my lifetime. In doing so, she became as well-known as her buildings. To the world, she was Zaha.”

For more than three decades, the 2004 Pritzker laureate was a quintessential pioneer, challenging the preconceived limitations of architecture and its ability not just to enclose and shelter people, but to amaze and inspire them. Zaha’s buildings epitomize the architect’s longstanding love of experimentation, testing new materials, spatial compositions and construction techniques with a perpetual goal in mind: to enrich people’s lives through beautiful designs.

A young Zaha; via Arch2O (left) and the Architect’s Newspaper (right)

Zaha was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and her interest in architectural design can be traced back to her experiences of the beautiful landscape and vernacular buildings of the country’s southern Sumer region. “My father took us to see the Sumerian cities,” she told Jonathan Glancey of London’s Guardian newspaper in 2006. “Then we went by boat, and then on a smaller one made of reeds, to visit villages in the marshes.”

“The beauty of the landscape — where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings and people all somehow flowed together — has never left me,” she continued. “I’m trying to discover — invent, I suppose — an architecture, and forms of urban planning, that do something of the same thing in a contemporary way.”

Zaha Hadid and colleagues at the Architectural Association in 1983; via Alain Elkann

Zaha’s academic ambitions brought her to Lebanon to study mathematics at the American University of Beirut. Her passion for math and its plethora of creative applications remained strong as she moved into the realms of architectural design, arriving at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1972 and coming into contact with a particularly influential professor: Rem Koolhaas.

During the next five years, Koolhaas clearly identified that Hadid was not your average student: together with fellow tutor Elia Zenghelis, he offered young Zaha a position within his fledgling firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. At this point, this newly graduated architect’s unwavering self-belief and fierce tenacity came to the fore — qualities that would take her to unprecedented heights within both the profession and the public sphere.

Zaha Hadid in her London office circa 1985; via Wired

Speaking to The Huffington Post in 2015 about her negotiations with the Dutch firm, she laughed: “Diplomacy! Not my best talent! I don’t play up to people. I remember Rem Koolhaas when they asked me to join OMA, and I said, ‘Only as a partner.’ I mean, honestly! I had just finished school. And they said, ‘As long as you are an obedient partner.’ I said, ‘No, I am not going to be an obedient partner.’ That was the end of my partnership!”

It wasn’t long before Zaha spread her wings, launching her own practice in 1980. Throughout the following decade, the architect worked to exert her influence within academic circles, running the Kenzo Tange Professorship at Harvard Graduate School of Design, teaching at the AA and — significantly — having her striking drawings displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art within an exhibition entitled “Deconstructivism in Architecture.”

Vitra Fire Station, Weil am Rhein, Germany; © Christian Richters, via Architecture.com

It wasn’t until 1993, though, that she made her first indelible mark on the built environment. The completion of the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein represented a breakthrough moment for the architect; her first realized project garnered international attention for its convention-busting form, an exhibition in deconstructivism defined by soaring planes of exposed concrete. This startling structure was the first in a long line of buildings by Zaha that would become instant urban landmarks, and showcased a boldness that would become the architect’s calling card.

Soon, clients were coming to Zaha in search of an immediate icon for their city, and the architect became renowned for her ability to deliver theatrical, attention-grabbing projects on a consistent basis. Zaha triumphed over her former mentor in 1997, beating Koolhaas and a host of other star names in a design competition for the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another seminal moment came when she won the commission to design the Museum of Arts of the XXI Century in Rome.

© Paul Raftery

© Paul Raftery

MAXXI Museum, Rome, Italy; via The Architectural Review

As with the Vitra Fire Station, Zaha gladly broke with convention in the Italian capital, conceiving a fluid composition of open, light-filled spaces that would allow for the museum’s ever-changing program of exhibitions. The dynamic building took a decade to complete, and by the time it was inaugurated, Zaha Hadid Architects had established itself as a go-to firm for major cultural projects.

While deconstructivist principles remained present in her work, Zaha began to cultivate an evermore recognizable style through her experimentation with parametric design in the late 2000s. Together with partner Patrik Schumacher, she adopted progressively more curvaceous forms within her projects, harnessing the power of emerging software to create sinuous forms with distinctive silhouettes: Guangzhou Opera House, the London Olympics Aquatics Center and the Galaxy SOHO in Beijing, China, all display Zaha’s characteristic flair.

Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan;© Hufton + Crow

Completed in 2012, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, could be considered the architect’s magnum opus. This parametric marvel — a joyous breaking wave of pure white cladding and glistening glass — constitutes an architectural set piece akin to Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. While Zaha’s firm faced criticism for working within “dictator states,” the architecture itself — futuristic and organic in equal measure, irresistibly flamboyant — will stand as a testament to her unflinching desire to push the limits of design, constantly blurring the boundaries between architecture, engineering and art.

It is perhaps fitting that Zaha should last be with us in Miami, a city where her firm is in the midst of one of its most ambitious projects to date. The soaring exoskeleton of One Thousand Museum is currently under construction within Miami’s developing cultural district, taking Zaha’s signature curves — quite literally — to new heights. Progress on projects such as this will be seen through by her dedicated team, and great care will undoubtedly be taken to ensure Zaha’s visions are delivered with the utmost quality — she would expect nothing less.

Zaha Hadid (1950–2016); image © Steve Double

What made Zaha unique, and how did she make such a lasting impression on the world of architecture? The answers to these questions lie in the duality of her extraordinary talents.

She was not only a talented architect, but also a highly astute businesswoman. She was not only an innovative designer, but also a staunch advocate for Arab women within the profession and beyond. She delivered not only iconic buildings, but also a sense of identity for urban environments in search of a cultural catalyst. It was this combination of qualities that propelled Zaha to architectural stardom, and her personality remains manifested in a plethora of landmark projects across the globe.

In that 2006 interview with the Guardian, the architect’s quip on the dedication required to be successful within the profession now appears prophetic: “If it doesn’t kill you, then you’re no good.” This kind of remark was typical of Zaha’s unparalleled determination to succeed, encapsulating her fervent desire to achieve more with each passing project. As the world comes to terms with her death, one thing is clear: while Zaha may have departed, her legacy will live on through her remarkable buildings for decades to come.

Top image: Zaha Hadid in her London office circa 1985; via Wired