The architecture world has recently lost a transformative female star, in the form of Zaha Hadid. She will be remembered not only for her breathtaking contributions to the built environment, but also as a force for equality in a field that is still very much a man’s world.
Born on Halloween in 1950 in Baghdad, Zaha Hadid attended the American University in Beirut before moving to London to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. In 1979, Hadid established her own architectural practice and had her first major commission, the Vitra Fire station, built in Germany in 1993. Hadid also designed the London 2012 Olympic Aquatic Center as well as the Guangzhou Opera House in 2011. She had designed stations, bridges, museums and had a global presence with works throughout the US, Europe and Asia. Furthermore, she was also the first woman to receive many accolades including the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Gold medal as well as the Pritzker Prize.
Through the use of gravity-defying structures and powerful lines, Zaha Hadid entirely redefined what contemporary buildings are supposed to look like. She famously said “there are 360 degrees, so why stick to just one?” Hailed as the “Queen of the Curve”, her most recent designs bring a softness to the normally-severe lines of modernism to create a sleek aesthetic that skirts the line between organic and industrial. Her designs are paradoxically delicate yet strong at the same time. They seem to defy the laws of physics (they seem like they should not stand at all) but therein lies her design prowess. But whether the undulating lines of the Guangzhou opera house or the bold angles of the Vitra Fire Station, her first major built commission, Hadid’s buildings are always unapologetically dramatic and glamourous.
I first learned of Zaha Hadid in my seminar on Modern Architecture in college, one of the first architecture classes I ever took. My professor could not emphasize enough that for a field still dominated by predominantly white males, her presence in that world was unprecedented. I will not say that it was refreshing to see a woman of color playing the game-it was downright revolutionary. This is not to say that there are no other female architects worth our attention but certainly none with the reach that Hadid had.
And this is certainly not to say that she was some martyr or smooth operator; in her time, she was a highly polarizing. She admitted that diplomacy was not her strong suit and that she would not play the game of trying to acquiesce others. Also an unabashed feminist, Zaha did not shy away from calling the London architectural scene out on its misogynistic attitudes towards women. Even as she was being interviewed for winning awards, she was still being lambasted by such publications as the New York Times and the Guardian, this time for not being fierce enough. Her words and actions were under constant scrutiny and judged harshly for either conforming or not conforming enough (which, I hope you’ll agree is a losing battle). Even at the height of her career, with accolades most architects can only dream of, she still felt as though she were ‘on the edge’ of the field. But one can not help but be amazed at her resilience and perseverance in a world that would do its best to not have her. She was at the helm of a 400 person company before I even learned how to walk-I can not help but be in awe of her accomplishments.
Zaha Hadid, as a Muslim and a woman, proved that she could excel in an academic field that was not made for people like her. Despite the forces working against her, simply by virtue of her identity, she became such an important figurehead for those who do not fit neatly into the boxes of those who have traditionally dominated the world of architecture. She was by no means perfect but afterall, well-behaved women seldom make history and it is this writer’s hope that her designs will be cemented in textbooks for generations to come.
Rest in power, Dame Hadid.