PRINT Summer 2016


Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid Architects, London Aquatics Centre, 2011, London. Photo: Hufton + Crow. © Zaha Hadid Architects.

WHEN I LAST SAW my friend Zaha Hadid, it was a few weeks before her death, at the Yale School of Architecture. We liked being together when we taught, so over the years we managed to arrange our schedules to be at Yale at the same time so that we could meet and greet and talk and drink and complain and have fun.

I first met Zaha many years ago, when she had just been announced to the world as the winner of the competition for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong. The drawings and paintings that she produced for her project were mesmerizing and suggested a new idea, a new world, for architecture. Her style was clearly grounded in Constructivism, a movement that had inspired me for years, but Zaha’s personal touch gave it a new freedom, a new engagement, a new opportunity. And wow.

At that time, I was working for the Vitra furniture company on their campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Rolf Fehlbaum, whose family owns the company, was enamored with the idea of creating a center of works by architects whom he found to be particularly interesting. Nicholas Grimshaw had done the first factory, and I was given the second factory and a small design museum. Tadao Ando and Álvaro Siza did buildings as well, and there was a small fire-station project that I, along with the others, thought would be perfect for Zaha. It would be her first built project, and we didn’t really know her yet, but no one was concerned about her potential lack of experience, since that could be filled in by the group of architects already working on the campus. In response to the commission, she made a sculpture that clearly came from the drawings that she had produced for the Peak competition—shafts of material colliding and forming space in a kind of edgy symphony. It was startling and engaging, and we all fell in love with both Zaha and her work.

From there she began to fly on her own. She did various small projects—a funny parking garage, a ski jump. In 2003, her contemporary art center in Cincinnati was completed, which created a fuss and more appreciation. When she won the Pritzker the following year, it cemented her status as part of the architectural upper crust, and, so to speak, she became one of the boys.

In the world of architecture, almost half of the graduates from architecture schools around the country are women. But they do not yet make up that proportion of practicing architects. They are not at the heads of offices. And while there are some women in very senior positions, leadership is still mainly male. Zaha was the exception, and she became a model.

She had confidence, talent, and a willingness to jump into the fray. She would not accept a secondary role. She was the whole show. She created an incredibly beautiful language of architecture that the world had never seen before. It was unique, and it was her voice all the way.

My work took me into the world of computers early on as I tried to find a way to use the clarity of those machines to keep the architect in the role of master builder, as the leader of the team directing the construction from the beginning to the end, rather than ceding control to a team of engineers and technical experts. These ideas resonated with Zaha and her longtime collaborator Patrik Schumacher, and they quickly took the computer into their world, too, and used it to create many exemplary buildings. Some of them I have not seen, as they are in faraway places, but I was in the right place at the right time to attend a swimming event at the aquatics center that Zaha designed for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. I was able to sit beside her as the great Michael Phelps swam in her building, and I watched her enjoy the fruits of her labors. The building is light and airy and welcoming and wonderful to be in—a powerful addition to the London landscape.

As Zaha’s career progressed, she became more and more prominent in the media, and her photogenic persona became recognizable around the world, to the point that people started to call her a diva. She did pose for the pictures, she did enjoy the attention, but that wasn’t her. I loved watching her with students as they gathered around and swarmed her, and she welcomed them with an elegance and dignity and caring generosity.

I was at the Venice Biennale a few years ago, walking down an alley, and I came across Zaha with reporters flocking around her. I thought I’d tiptoe by so I wouldn’t disturb them. I got about fifty feet away before I heard this voice call out, “Frank, Frank Gehry, come here, come here immediately,” and so I turned around and there she was, calling to me, and she pulled me into the swarm and introduced me. She said, “This is Frank Gehry, my friend”—no diva does that. She was a love. God, I loved her. I don’t want her to be gone. I want her to be my colleague forever.

Frank Gehry is the founder of Gehry Partners, an internationally recognized architecture studio based in Los Angeles.