On the cusp of her architecture firm’s 40th birthday, we look back on the project that earned Zaha Hadid the name “Queen of the Curve.”
By Latria Graham
“I was very young—I was only 11 years old when I decided to become an architect,” Zaha Hadid says to a documentary crew that has come to speak to her about the opening of Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. “Of course when you’re very young, there’s only kind of a gut feeling—there’s no kind of reason. I was just intrigued by it and interested and of course, when you go to school, you grow up; you do other things.” Hadid is holding court in the center of one of the spaces she created. Cloaked in a black dress with geometric accents on the top, her presence in the all-white space is arresting. Here, in this brand new building in Baku, the capital and commercial hub of Azerbaijan, not far from the sea, Hadid tells the story of how she and the building she’s standing in came to be.
“I grew up at a time in the 60s when everybody was interested in a new world. It was after the wars, and if you look at all the work in Chicago, America, Brazilia, Europe or Middle East, there was an interest in architecture. I think that might be the reason why I became so fascinated with it,” she says.
Hadid’s parents originally hailed from Mosul, Iraq. Her father, Mohammed Hadid, was a well-known economist and leader of the Iraqi Liberation Party, a progressive group advocating for secularism and democracy in Iraq. At the time, Baghdad was a cosmopolitan hub of modern ideas, and she grew up in a liberal environment with progressive parents. For her, it was “a place of enlightenment and progress, where religious affiliation mattered little, and girls were expected to become professionals.” The Catholic school she attended welcomed Jewish and Muslim students.
Her mother, Wajeeha Sabonji, taught her how to draw, and it would become an integral part of her architectural practice. Hadid recalls happy memories of her childhood in Iraq, and she dates her love of architecture back to a childhood journey with her father where she studied the lifestyle of Marsh Arabs and their arched homes constructed of reeds.
“My father took us to see the Sumerian cities. Then we went by boat and then on a smaller boat 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 told The Guardian of that formative time in her childhood. She also explored the ancient Sumerian cities in the south of Iraq. Picnicking where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet, Hadid formed some of her first artistic ideas in the cradle of civilization. Back at home, she drew design inspiration from everything in her path—including the intricately woven Persian carpets of her home.
Inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, she studied math at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. She graduated in 1968, with a degree in mathematics. Then at 22, Hadid traveled to London to train at the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture, at the time, a center for experimental design. Fascinated by the Russian avantgarde, she began to study the work of Kazimir Malevich, and his influence can be seen in her early drawings. After graduation, she joined her teacher Rem Koolhas in Amsterdam at his practice, named Office of Modern Architecture, a cutting-edge firm and crucible for gifted young architects.
By 1979, she had established her own practice, Zaha Hadid Architects, in a converted school in Clerkenwell. In 1983, she won an international competition and its £100,000 prize, for her designs of the Peak, a vast leisure centre in Hong Kong. Hadid desired to transform the area around the hills of Kowloon by excavating the rocky hills in order to build artificial cliffs. Her reimagined topography interjected beams and broken glasslike fragments into the structure to separate it into numerous parts, to make it seem as if the mountain was affected by some powerful destabilizing force. Hadid’s composition of fractured geometries and idea to break the landscape into multiple perspectives demonstrates an approach now known as “deconstructivist architecture.”
The cliff-top resort at the top would be the pinnacle of luxurious living, and her renderings were a series of angular planes, without visible means of support, which translated the geology of the mountain on which they were sited into seemingly airborne geometry. Her drawings and paintings of the concept, now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, are considered high art on their own. Her proposal, a fusion of the high-traffic city of Hong Kong and the landscape around it, is one of Hadid’s first attempts at figuring out how to defy nature without destroying it. Over the years, much of her work was reliant on context, and her buildings often seem to underscore the connectivity between our environment, ourselves and one another. Construction for The Peak was cancelled because the developers went bankrupt.
Through her architecture, she sought to create new and heightened relationships between the inner and outer lives of her buildings, between the contents of an art gallery and the streets outside. She changed the way we see: Hadid does in painting what multiple cameras do in film and television, offering simultaneous angles as the viewer moves through space. Her firm gained a reputation across the world for groundbreaking theoretical works including her 1986 design of the Kurfurstendamm Office Building for West Berlin. Still, at this time, her work was strictly conceptual— she struggled to find backers for her avant-garde ideas, and even though her work won awards, none of her designs came to fruition. In Cardiff, she won the commission to design the city’s opera house—twice. Even though her proposal was lauded by design critics, the design commission rejected the concept, and local politicians did everything they could to ensure her work was never realized. “I’m a woman. I do strange stuff. I think it was all that intertwined,” she told the BBC. “There has been and there still remains—it’s a little better now—a stigma to the woman thing.”
Though Hadid became a British citizen in 1989 and even though she made the United Kingdom her home for more than 30 years, the country was slow to return the embrace. “For me, to be accepted as an architect,” she said with a thoughtful pause, “I’m not sure it’s fully done, not here, not in this country. I’m still considered to be on the margin, despite all these awards. I don’t mind being on the edge, actually. It’s a good place to be.”
Hadid’s existence in what she called the “boys’ club that runs British architecture” gave her a different vantage point and often a different perspective from the other creators around her. It also meant it would be years before her buildings would ever be constructed in the UK. “To this day, there is a certain world that I cannot be a part of,” Hadid explained during a Q&A session at Oxford after receiving the Royal Gold Medal. “And it makes it harder. If I’m doing a cultural building, I think it’s easier than if I’m doing corporate work or something that requires some schmoozing. You have to be part of the club, and I’m not. Maybe eventually it will change.”
In 1995, she contemplated leaving the world of architecture. But Hadid means “iron” in Arabic, and like the structures she hoped to one day see come to fruition, her dreams were unyielding. In the meantime, she taught—the Yale School of Architecture, University of Cambridge, Harvard University and Columbia University, all welcomed Hadid and her ideas on postmodern architecture, and her passion was in pushing the limits of design. “I am non-European, I don’t do conventional work, and I am a woman,” she once told an interviewer. “On the one hand, all of these things together make it easier—but on the other hand, it is very difficult.”
The view from the rooftop pool of Zaha Hadid’s One Thousand Museum residential tower in Miami, Florida
COURTESY ZAHA HADID ARCHITECTS
Technology finally caught up with Hadid’s imaginative designs and proved that her visions could be constructed. Revolutionary computer programs capable of rendering advanced threedimensional modeling techniques and innovative building materials meant that her work would finally make its way into the world. Hadid’s first completed building was a fire station near the German-Swiss border, for the Vitra Furniture Company, a noted patron of architecture. Inside the homage to Cubism, the walls tilt and break, a physical manifestation of being on high alert, as the workers in this station often would be. Sliding doors and moving walls were used in order to meet the functional requirements of the fire station housed within.
The work began to come more frequently, and she designed spaces large and small, like the Bergisel Ski Jump in Austria and The BMW Central Building located in Leipzig, Germany. Her buildings began to make demands, asking that visitors inhabit the space and explore the open aesthetic in order to investigate our beliefs about contextual space.
In 2003, when her vision for the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art opened in Cincinnati, Ohio, The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp called it “the most important building to be completed since the Cold War.” The building was also the first American museum designed by a woman. The radical creator mastered the fine art of breaking all the rules while expanding our architectural language and shifting the way that we experience buildings.
“We don’t deal with normative ideas, and we don’t make nice little buildings. People think that the most appropriate building is a rectangle because that’s typically the best way of using space. But is that to say that landscape is a waste of space? The world is not a rectangle. You don’t go into a park and say, ‘My God, we don’t have any corners.’ There are so many terrains in architecture that have yet to be explored,” Hadid said in 2014.
By that time, the architect was leaving her distinctive mark on cities all over the world. Over the years, her style changed, from the acute angles of the earlier work to complex curving forms, although the emphasis on dynamic spaces and on defying gravity remained. Her buildings often evolved from their surroundings or from the memories of her home country.
For the Signature Towers of Dubai, Hadid remembered the grasses in the marshes of her homeland swooshing and swaying, so she created tall buildings that look like dancing grass. She looked at stones in a stream and built the Guangzhou Opera House to look like the pebbles in the water. Inside the opera house, a singer onstage looks like a pearl in an oyster shell. Galaxy Soho complex in Beijing is a series of swirling buildings informed by photos of the stars and the galaxies that contain them. The structural silhouette of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Bridge is in the form of a wave, its steel arches rising from the concrete, cresting 60 meters above the water it is meant to emulate. In 2012, she completed the first building that visitors and athletes would see when they entered the Olympic Park: the London Aquatics Centre. Hadid’s signature curves make their way into the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, a visual narrative of rhythmic dramatic swoops, arcs and crescendos coming together to form a symphony of positive and negative space. Her buildings float and fly, muscular sensual compositions that refuse to take note of gravity. “I started out trying to create buildings that would sparkle like isolated jewels; now, I want them to connect, to form a new kind of landscape, to flow together with contemporary cities and the lives of their peoples,” she explained. With her visual flamboyance, she pushed the boundaries of what we expected from buildings and redefined architecture for the 21st century.
In 2004, Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, often described as the Nobel Prize of architecture. Her firm won the UK’s most prestigious architecture award, the RIBA Stirling prize, twice—once in 2010, for the Maxxi Museum in Rome and again in 2011, for the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton. The architect was made a dame in 2012 and won numerous awards during her career. In 2016, she was the first woman to win the Royal Institute of British Architect’s Royal Gold Medal award. The honor is personally approved by Her Majesty The Queen of the United Kingdom, and the medal recognizes an individual or group’s substantial contribution to architecture. Honorees are chosen based on their body of work rather than for one building.
In addition to her architectural projects, Hadid worked on several high-profile product designs with her partner, designer Patrik Schumacher, including chandeliers for Swarovski, the Iconic Bag for Louis Vuitton and trainers for Adidas. The ergonomic contours of her furniture, often inspired by her observations of natural phenomena like melting glaciers, made her a mainstay in the Italian brand Sawaya & Moroni’s showroom. Along the way, she challenged our preconceived notions about what household items needed to look like in order to serve their intended purpose. Vases, door handles, cutlery and tea sets all got the Zaha Hadid treatment.
The media dubbed her a “starchitect”—one of the soughtafter icons of world architecture who traveled the globe creating world-renowned attractions that delighted and astounded all who came in contact with her work. Her firm employed more than 300 people, and she completed more than 40 buildings that span the globe, with dozens more in the works. Hadid was sculpting her own universe—a place where sea and galaxies can exist in tandem. Rem Koolhaas once described her as “a planet in her own orbit,” and she had within her the raw elements to conceive and describe shapes beyond the grasp of the human mind and hand.
Not long after she received the Royal Gold Medal, Hadid died in the early morning hours on March 31, 2016 at a hospital in Miami, Florida. She was 65. She left behind a number of unfinished global projects, but now the architectural trailblazer’s spirit and passion for experimentation live on through her firm, which seeks to complete the work she started and to continue reshaping architecture for the modern age. Using her command of mathematics and desire to find fluid solutions to rectangular problems, Zaha Hadid Designs ensures that her soaring structures and stunning creations continue to delight and astound people across the globe.