Zaha Hadid, 2004 Pritzker Laureate, has changed the world forever, but left it on 31st March. Blueprint contributing editor Herbert Wright honours her genius.
Zaha Hadid, a titan amongst architects and designers, has gone. What an extraordinary force she was. Her sci-fi-like forms grew from the abstract into iconoclastic gems and flights of fancy on a gargantuan scale, and all along the way, they never failed to surprise and challenge anyone who saw them. But they were also working buildings made with craft and practical, meticulously considered solutions for their users. Her product design created some of the most prestigious furniture, accessories and more, and transcended the contemporary. Not least, her work demonstrated what a woman can do with sheer determination, imagination and style.
The news of Zaha Hadid's death in Miami is shocking, unexpected and deeply sad. For Blueprint magazine, it is particularly so: we have a long history of working with her and her practice.
Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950 and after studying in Beirut, she trained and later lectured at the Architectural Association. She worked with Rem Koolhaas, another visionary Pritzker winner, in Rotterdam. Constructivism and Suprematism were fundamental inspirations, clear to see in drawings for unbuilt projects as early as 1977. But it was New York that really put her on the map. Not with her first show at the Guggenheim in 1978, but ten years later, when Philip Johnson curated the exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture at MOMA. Hadid was on show with the likes of Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Koolhaas. Johnson had used MOMA to put the International Style into architecture's lexicon in 1932, and hadn't lost a knack of spotting the up-and-coming. When he celebrated his ninetieth birthday in the Four Seasons restaurant that he'd designed for the Seagram Building, Zaha Hadid was invited. In the group shot, she stands in a white designer coat, already the grand dame, contrasting yet blending with some of America's most distinguished dinner-jacketed architects. That was 1996, and Hadid was still virtually a paper architect. The first built structure, the extraordinarily angular fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, was only finished in 1994. Has concrete ever been so near to flight as it is there?
Vitra Fire Station, Weil am Rhein, Germany. Photo: Christian Richters
She followed with a project for Blueprint. In 1995, our magazine's stand at the Interbuild exhibition at the NEC, Birmingham, would have been an eye-opener even if had not been in a mundane trade show environment. Steel-supported planes folded into a tilting, trapezoid frame which apparently floated off the floor except along one edge. Although ultimately a mere temporary stand, the Blueprint Pavilion won the Critic's Award - Architecture for that year.
Blueprint Interbuild Stand 1995. Image: Helene Binet
For a long while after, the UK always seemed to be waiting for a Hadid building. There was disappointment. Her radical Cardiff Bay Opera House, designed in 1995, was cancelled. The practice she had established in 1980 had survived a long time on little more than air, imagination and will, relentlessly churning out competition entries. When the commissions were mounting in the 1990s, they were from abroad, and they were winning prizes. London, at least, was temporarily graced with the strangely psychedelic Mind Zone in Richard Rogers' Millennium Dome in 1999, and the first Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2000, a light canopy folded in triangles - bright, refreshing, unexpected.
She had studied mathematics, which she once told me was 'the mix of logic and abstraction'. She thought Malevich must have seen Arab calligraphy; such was the abstraction she recognised in it. 'The calligraphy you see in architectural plans today is to do with the notion of deconstruction and fragmentation in space', she said in 2013, but that was explicit way back in her earliest designs. The scattering, fractal visions of her 1983 design for The Peak in Hong Kong, and her paintings like London 2066, for Vogue in 1991, seemed like things seen through an alien eye. To conventional architects as much as to a person in the street, her language sounded alien too. The first time I saw her, giving a lecture at Kings College in 2004, she liberally scattered phrases like 'multiple morphings and distortions... top tonic topography... fluid organisation... space which becomes pixelated...'
London's Aquatic Centre (2011). Photo: Hufton + Crow
By this time, she was in a design and practice partnership with Patrik Schumacher. He had joined the firm in 1983, and Hadid once admitted she had long ignored him. But while her visions had roots in the abstract, his mind probed into the possibilities of the toolbox to enable them - advanced software and big computing power, to create what he called the 'digital design universe'. In the 1990s, Schumacher hailed a new paradigm of Parametricism. No more repetition and rigidity of form, but rather a fluidity, a dynamic curvilinearity and malleability, just as in nature, in which he said 'our aesthetic sense recognises deep order'. Hadid and Schumacher made this shared vision physical.
Guangzhou Opera House (2010). Photo: Virgile Simon Bertrand
Strangely, the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati, opened in 2003, is unique in the portfolio for using a cubist composition of parallel rectilinear blocks, albeit in unpredictable configurations, to define its form. Instead, curved and folded forms became the hallmark, from furniture like the Glacial Table (2012) to landmarks like Guangzhou Opera House (2010) or London's Aquatic Centre (built 2011, but its ideal form revealed in 2013 after the removal of Olympic Games' seating wings). We may have become disenchanted with terms like 'trophy building' and 'icon', but these structures boosted their cities, transformed their images, thrilled users and visitors, and etched themselves into the public eye - and they still remain as bold as when they emerged from the imagination. Zaha Hadid's practice has produced a score of such buildings.
The Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, with its sublime curvature and spatial drama writ big, both inside and out, is surely one of the twenty-first century's seven contemporary architectural wonders. The more modest Serpentine Sackler Gallery is almost a companion piece. Both were completed in 2013 and emerged from Hadid and Schumacher's interest in tensile and thin-membrane structure. They had presented their research and design work on the subject at the Venice Biennale 2012, simultaneously honouring figures like Frei Otto and Félix Candela.
The Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku. Photo: Hufton + Crow
Inevitably, there were controversies - about migrant worker deaths in Qatar, to which she insisted an architect has no power over its government, and her football stadia there which had been compared to vaginas ('Everything with a hole in it is a vagina?' she responded to Time magazine. 'That's ridiculous'). Japan U-turned on her National Stadium for Tokyo, but the fact remains Japanese judges awarded her the 2012 competition against nine other finalists including big Japanese names, and she was prepared to address subsequent cost and design issues.
The last Zaha Hadid project Blueprint covered was the Messner Mountain Museum. It draws together ideas from across her career, yet has no precedent in form or function. It is modest in size, and the amazement it generates is as much from the nature it spectacularly reveals, in the mountains around it, as in the flowing internal space it carves into rock. In 2015, she and Schumacher could still surprise us.
Messner Mountain Museum Corones. Photo by Inexhibit
Zaha Hadid in person, favouring the fashion of Issey Miyake, was always elegant. In conversation, her answers were sometimes lugubriously delivered, but always sharp. There was something simultaneously royal and sassy about her presence. She had mystique and radiated a deep femininity. And she was smarter than almost everyone she ever dealt with, who were mainly men. But above all, she had an intense, tangible genius for design that has left its mark across our planet - elements from a better future, in the here and now.
Photo: Giovanna Silva