Zaha Hadid (1950–2016)

Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid in Steven Holl’s office, New York, 2005. Photo: Steven Holl Architects.

ON JANUARY 26, 2016, Zaha sent me a text saying, “Stevie Wonder, we must meet to celebrate forty years of friendship.” I hosted her and Thom Mayne at my apartment in the West Village two months later, on March 16.

I am still in shock over Zaha’s sudden departure from this world. I loved her deeply and valued our friendship beyond words. Here are a few projects in chronology:

The Launching Place—Unit 9, the Architectural Association London: Malevich’s Tektonik was made to sing, bridging the Thames. . . . Birds were astonished. Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas, and I lunged forward in our jury chairs.

Undulant ripple of the Museum of the Nineteenth Century climbing up and over. Struggling for independence in new space.

Irish Prime Minister’s Residence feeling the wall’s deep tendency to fly. Black and celadon green swirl with cobalt blue making new journeys from painting into architecture.

The mountain’s stratified layers explode into a suprematist geology; with the Peak, in Hong Kong, Zaha leaves this Earth in astonishing new space. Rhomboids fly toward unreachable centers. Floor plans leap and thrust, making a new right of way. An eye-wide hillside of tomorrow leaps with confident joy.

The World (89 Degrees): An amazing painting summarizing Zaha’s then seven-year journey. Already leaving our planet via paintings of astonishing architecture.

New York, Manhattan: A new calligraphy of plan departing from Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse for Manhattan correcting for the multilayered . . . compression and density, black with white flying lines, untwined confetti dream-level beginning.

Kurfürstendamm constraints become Berlin IBA Housing sheet-metal wedge-shaped lofts . . . stupor of yes and no. Stepping slowly into the physical from the painted dream.

Tokyo Tomigaya and Azabu-Jyuban releasing space in Blade Runner spirit piercing the Earth, slicing the landscape, toppling conventions . . . bird-future aleatory “breath light and air into the urban condition.”

Fire and ice of Moon Soon in Sapporo, Japan. Glacial tables drift across space. . . . A whirling fire swarms above. . . . Orange-red peeling, microspatial in a self-starred soul spiral.

Weil am Rhein Vitra Fire Station . . . the promise of new space in concrete full of inspiring detail! The hope of real joy of realization! The fire engine’s red lines written on the asphalt. We all attend this special opening. Philip Johnson is amazed and so influenced by Zaha he copies her geometry for a new pavilion at his Glass House.

“The Great Utopia”: Guggenheim design for an exhibition of Russian Suprematism and Constructivism circles back to Zaha’s launching place with Malevich at the AA in 1977.

Cardiff Bay Opera House, a winning competition design: a new bursting open of opera-house activities “like jewels in a necklace” bulging and joined together, dismantling taboos of architecture . . . flashing before the eyes then smashed by a pitchfork, niggling.

Luxembourg Philharmonic Hall, a landscape of volumetric compositions erupting in separate rounded volumes. A precursor of the opera house to be realized in Guangzhou.

Doha, Qatar, Museum of Islamic Art, a wholly original imagination of space and geometry . . . a landscape painting setting a new path for architecture like no other architecture to this day. Fluid and calligraphic.

Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, an urban carpet folding upward intersecting blocks of concrete. The push and pull of the paintings of Hans Hofmann.

MAXXI: Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome, a turning linear urban texture; vectors of movement drawn in concrete. The competition—among seven—was fierce. At the end of the presentations, Jean Nouvel, Zaha, and I met for dinner at one of my favorite Roman restaurants, carved into the foundation of a two-thousand-year-old theater. I made a toast prediction: “The winner of this competition is sitting at this table!” I lost the competition by one vote but made a speech in praise of Zaha at the MAXXI opening in October 2009.

Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg, Germany: For science diagonal volumes floating in the shadows . . . monolithic curvilinear concrete whorls . . . dissolving the block, sliced-cone rooms turn inside-out. . . . Spatial wormholes are driven through, taking science for a flight. Architecture? It is a beautiful gift to culture, not a profession.

“Poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise”

—Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre, 1973

Zaha was extremely loyal to all her old friends, paying visits to their studios, offering humorous critical remarks: “Stevie Wonder, that looks like a watermelon with a stick in it!”

When I walked inside the Guangzhou Opera House I was astonished at the liquid space of this large “house.” Photos cannot express the fluid theatricality of this spectacular space. The scala, that stalwart of opera-typology models, is nowhere in this rippling golden volume stippled with star points. The space renews the very idea of opera, giving it a twenty-first-century space of great acoustics and comfort. Instead of a choppy wood of Disney, a golden new fluidity.

Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan: Curvilinear stitches of landscape rise up pitching the curves in waves of open space. Everything is joyfully limp. Against the box blocks of Baku, this white cloud flashing with inner light, pointing to some new world in the distant beyond.

Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza, Seoul, Korea, a blurred zone of park space, plaza space, public space, and new spatial space.

Serpentine Sackler Gallery, a floating fabric shapes space where light enters at the support structure. A cloud overhead opens through the hole, the sun shines in.

She said she did not really enjoy a big office. Dissipation? The swell and euphoric lift is eternal in the early and middle works.

Zaha’s space = a new optimism for twenty-first-century architecture. . . . The eclecticism launched by postmodern cynicism is over. She found a new path and forged it. Propelled by her teachers Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas, she swirled past them in inventive space.

Swept along, inhabiting radical spatial paintings of her own invention, she created in a very different way than the collage-sketch beginnings of Frank Gehry. When I asked her what she thought of Bilbao, she replied, “like a turkey popping out of an oven with foil peeling off.”

Her spatial horizon was much wider, aching for the light. Le Corbusier wrote in the last year of his life:

Over the years a man gradually acquired through his struggles, his work, his inner combat, a certain capital, his own individual and personal conquest. But all the passionate quests of the individual, all that capital, that experience so deeply paid for, will disappear. The law of life: Death . . .Thought alone, the fruit of labor, is transmissible.

Zaha’s spatial thoughts open doors to a new world . . . a ferry crossing from darkness . . . from oblivion of postmodern words . . . a new journey!

What space Zaha imagined! What cities, what marvelous geometries she invented! The most amazing architect of her day, and with such human kindness she lived her life—now suddenly gone—but her gifts will constantly move us in the new spaces of the transparent future.

Steven Holl is an architect based in New York and Beijing.

For additional Zaha Hadid Passages, see the Summer issue of Artforum magazine.