Zaha Hadid (1950–2016)

Zaha Hadid, 2015. Photo: Mary McCartney.

LONG BEFORE GAINING WORLDWIDE RENOWN for the London Aquatics Centre she designed for the 2012 Olympics or her MAXXI Museum in Rome, which opened in 2009, Zaha Hadid was at the vanguard of architecture. She was celebrated from the very start of her career, with her student thesis, Malevich’s Tektonik, in 1976–77—a concept for a fourteen-story hotel on Hungerford Bridge across the Thames, in which her architectural language was already inspired by Suprematism—and then as a legendary professor at the Architectural Association in London. In her initial years of teaching, in the early 1980s, she inherited the renowned Diploma 9 studio from her teachers Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas, and she used it over the next six years to investigate and reinvigorate what she considered the unfinished project of modernism. Her earliest exhibitions of her own work at the school included projects such as 59 Eaton Place, the concept for a townhouse in Belgravia, London, that created distinctive vertical zones of striated space, and began to hint at the unique visual style she was developing. Her “Planetary Architecture Two,” in particular, which was presented as an exhibition and then as drawings within a folio series in 1983, already featured her characteristic visual language. Such a language resided in what a contemporary critic called “energetic spatial fluidity; in the fact that the space she creates stretches instantly toward the infinite, racing toward the sun, as it were, in a shameless celebration of the potential triumph of modern man; an unfashionable modernism which makes one think of early Niemeyer or of the flagrant audacity of Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon.” Indeed, as Hashim Sarkis would later point out, Hadid’s language was derived from the dynamic floating, overlapping planes and purist geometries of Suprematism but nevertheless “tends toward inscription, toward a kind of kufic calligraphy compounded out of transrational elements.” Such a reference to Arabic calligraphy spoke at once to her debt to Suprematism and her Iraqi heritage, bringing a cultural specificity to an early language of modernism.

“Planetary Architecture Two” would be followed by two pivotal projects: Hadid’s entry in the famous competition for the new Parc de La Villette Paris, in 1982–83, and her entry for the Peak Project, Hong Kong competition, also in 1982–83, a luxury leisure club of protruding horizontal layers and floating voids, perched on the hills of Hong Kong. The latter would be featured in the 1988 “Deconstructivist Architecture” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The youngest of the seven architects in the exhibition, she was also the only woman, and her inclusion (her work occupied one entire wall of the small exhibition) no doubt added to her growing fame. And it is perhaps both of these projects that would go on to define her characteristically calligraphic painting and drawing, an explosion of striated space composed of stacked and layered planes, a gravity-defying architecture that was theretofore unseen—indeed, unimagined. Iconic works such as her paintings for the Peak Project or the delicate colored pencil drawings for Parc de La Villette would explore a complex composition in which surfaces hover and interlock, building merges with landscape, and architecture melds with topography. Such visions would come to fruition in her earliest commission, that of the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, which employed—now in built form—the jagged, dynamic lines of these earliest drawings. Other early buildings, such as the breathtakingly dynamic Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg (2005) or the Hoenheim-Nord Terminus and Car Park in Strasbourg, (2001), continued these radical explorations in a space of warped planes and tilted arcs—terms that Philip Johnson would use to describe the work in the deconstructivist show and still often used to characterize Hadid’s work.

From there her work would continue to develop: It would shift or, better, expand into an unprecedented fluidity of soaring structures and infinite space. This evolution was enabled by the integration of digital design technology into her studio, and her immersion in parametricism, the term for which was coined by her partner Patrik Schumacher to describe the kind of computer-generated forms that would come to define many of her later projects. Buildings such as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, the Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati, and such projects as the Guangzhou Opera House in Guangzhou, China; the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center; the BMW Central Building; or the unrealized Opera House in Cardiff, combined with her pioneering furniture design, evidence a fully mature work in which her early visions were now realized through the latest technologies and where her studio was producing buildings at an international scale. Her success was justly recognized with the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2004 and the RIBA Gold Medal in 2016. Yet all this was only a beginning; as she herself put it, she believed that the modern project is not only unfinished but “has hardly even begun.” At the young age of sixty-five she leaves behind a legacy that still probes the depths of our imaginations. Her earliest works were full of vision, of hope, of possibility for a future in which an architecture envisioned through the space of painting and drawing would express a better if not quite utopian world. That Hadid would begin to realize such a vision in built form is a testament to her unfathomable talent and a staunch belief in the power of architecture.

Tina Di Carlo, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, is a Ph.D. fellow at the Oslo School of Architecture.

For additional coverage of Zaha Hadid, please see our upcoming Summer print issue.