Superstar: Zaha Hadid's unique achievements
Zaha Hadid, who died in March 2016, was one of the greatest – and most controversial – architects of our time
If you look up the word 'architecture' on Google Images, it won't be long before you come across a building by Zaha Hadid, perhaps third or fourth after the Parthenon or the Sydney Opera House, then followed by several more. You will also find buildings that look as if they were designed by her, but are actually some of the very many imitations across the world.
It is one sign of the way she epitomised the contemporary idea of what an architect is: she was a maker of spectacular forms whose attraction lay in the degree to which they transgressed previous ideas of what is possible in the construction of buildings. Her designs aspired to hover and fly. They avoided the rectangular at all costs – in her earlier work she favoured acute angles and oblique lines, later she preferred curves that went in all directions. Often they were indeed barely possible, and intensely demanding of budget, practicality, physics and of the people whose jobs it was to be concerned about such things. Her buildings' many OMG moments also come with some WTFs, when the ambitions of her imagination stumble over hard reality, and end with painful or clumsy details.
The design, construction and inhabitation of a Zaha building could be deemed an extreme sport. Her architecture is therefore a display of willpower – to which the millions of online clicks it gets are in some way responding – and willpower was one of Hadid's most conspicuous qualities. She overcame huge obstacles in the first two decades of her career, such as having projects cancelled, mistrust of both her architectural and personal style, rank prejudice, and the great difficulty of the challenges she set herself. Through all this she never compromised her way of practising architecture. Nor did she retreat behind her style: she was always investigating ways in which it could develop. She also overcame her own diffidence.
Those who knew her as a student at the Architectural Association recall how she would present her astonishing drawings almost carelessly, scattered on the floor, as if embarrassed. It took the encouragement of people such as her tutor Rem Koolhaas to realise how exceptional her work was and is. "She is a planet in her own inimitable orbit," he wrote at the time. "That status has its own rewards and difficulties: due to the flamboyance and intensity of her work, it will be impossible [for her] to have a conventional career."
If there was little sign of reticence in her later years, it was not because the shyness had gone, but because it was well hidden. She always had passion, expressed as rages and tears. If she could sometimes seem from afar to be a bit of a monster, her friends and colleagues all stress her generosity, warmth and concern for others.
The Dutch artist Madelon Vriesendorp, who has known Hadid since her student days, recalls how "she was always concerned about my wardrobe, always thinking 'that dress would look good on Maddy'." Serious as she was about life and work, she also appreciated its frivolities. Vriesendorp recalls singing along with her to Alicia Keys, "singing really high. We laughed so much: she had such a laugh always. There was shouting, screaming, crying, then laughter."
The greater significance of Hadid's unique talent and personality was her contribution to architecture. She burst onto the scene in the early 1980s, a particularly nervous and apologetic time for the profession, with work that was neither. It was explosive, dynamic, dazzling and – although it owed much to Russian Constructivism of the early 20th century – was not really like anything that had been done before. She sparked a big bang of freedom and ideas that other architects are still exploiting. For me, the most interesting quality of her work was its potential for creating new relationships between aspects of city and life: in her unbuilt opera house proposed for Cardiff, for example, audience, performers and passers-by would have encountered each other in unexpected ways. In her MAXXI museum in Rome, a new public place is created, charged by its interaction with spaces of art. The angles, the curves, the flying planes, dramatic in themselves, were at their best a means to this end.
In the last 15 years of Hadid's career a tipping point was reached. Her office, which in the mid-1990s might have closed for lack of work, employed hundreds of people to meet demands from all over the world for stadia, airports, theatres, condominium towers and luxury villas. She also translated her striking forms into products as diverse as jewellery, furniture and cars. She attracted as much controversy as ever, cutting short an interview on the BBC when she was wrongly accused of complicity in the deaths of hundreds of construction workers in Qatar. She became a celebrity, the living epitome of the 'starchitect', iconic in work, person and personality.
"She liked basking in some kind of glamour," says Vriesendorp, "but of course it wasn't always glamorous.
There were always people telling her she was so wanted, and it's always disappointing when those people don't tell the truth. So she wanted to hold more to her old friends." Zaha Hadid was a woman and an Arab in a business dominated by white men. Too many of her obituaries have placed these facts at the top, calling her such things as the greatest female architect in the world. So she was, and it was part of her achievement to have broken past the barriers erected against her. But it diminishes Hadid to qualify her work by gender and race. Man or woman, white or not, she was one of the most exceptional architects of all time.
This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of ELLE Malaysia.
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