Ahead of the curve

Iraqi-Briton architect Zaha Hadid was a path breaker who designed eye-popping spaces

NEW YORK • Zaha Hadid, the first woman architect to win the Pritzker Prize and whose soaring structures left a mark on skylines and imaginations around the world, was not just a rock star and a designer of spectacles.

The Iraqi-Briton, who died in Miami on Thursday aged 65, also liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity. Geometry became, in her hands, a vehicle for unprecedented and eye-popping new spaces, but also for emotional ambiguity.

Her buildings elevated uncertainty to an art, conveyed in the odd ways one entered and moved through those buildings and in the questions her structures raised about how they were supported. Her work, with its formal fluidity - also implying mobility, speed and freedom - spoke to a worldview widely shared by a younger generation.

"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."

Hadid’s projects include: d’Leedon condominium in Farrer Road, Singapore.

Hadid "contracted bronchitis this week and suffered a sudden heart attack while being treated in the hospital", her office, Zaha Hadid Architects in London, said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi paid tribute, describing her death as a loss for the "whole world". She "served the world through her creativity, and in losing her, the whole world has lost one of the great energies that served the community", he said in a statement.

Strikingly, Baghdad-born Hadid never allowed herself or her work to be pigeonholed by her background or her gender.

Architecture was architecture: It had its own reasoning and trajectory. And she was one of a kind, a path breaker. Apart from winning the Pritzker in 2004, architecture's highest honour, she was also the first, on her own, to be awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, Britain's top architectural award, last year.

Hadid’s projects include: Maxxi museum in Rome, Italy.

Inevitably, she stirred nearly as much controversy as she won admiration. Most recently, after winning the competition to design a new stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, her firm was fired by Japanese authorities over accusations about looming cost overruns, a decision she declared unjust and political.

Cost overruns also plagued other buildings, including the Maxxi museum in Rome and a parking garage in Miami whose construction was eventually cancelled.

She provoked protests from human rightists when her US$250- million cultural centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, forced the eviction of families.

A commission to design a stadium in Qatar - a sensuous plan that observers likened to female anatomy - became, in truth unfairly, a lightning rod for critics who decry the treatment of foreign labourers by the government there.

She sued for defamation one critic who falsely reported that 1,000 workers had died building her stadium - before construction had even begun. She won a settlement and an apology.

Hadid’s projects include: Artemide Genesy floor lamp.

Last year, she walked out of a BBC radio interview after angrily denying there had been deaths on the site.

She was born to an industrialist father who was also a politician. She studied mathematics in Beirut before going to the Architectural Association in London, a centre for experimental design where her professors included Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. She established her own practice in London, Zaha Hadid Architects, in 1979.

In 1994, her first real commission came along, a fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany. It inspired a design of typically outsized imagination: a winged composition, all sharp angles and protrusions.

I am non-European, I don't do conventional work and I am a woman. On the one hand, all of these things together make it easier. But on the other hand, it is very difficult.


  • Milestones

  • • Born in Baghdad on Oct 31, 1950

    • Studied mathematics at the American University in Beirut before attending the Architectural Association in London

    • Worked at architect Rem Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam before setting up Zaha Hadid Architects in 1979

    • Completed her first project, the Vitra fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, in 1994, which drew controversy

    • Became the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004

    • Won Britain's top architecture award, the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) Stirling Prize, for Rome's Maxxi museum in 2010 and the Evelyn Grace Academy in London the year after

    • Made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012

    • Became the first woman to win, in her own right, the Riba Gold Medal, Britain's top architectural award, in 2015

    • The Heydar Aliyev Center, which she designed in Baku, Azerbaijan, won the Design Museum's Design of the Year Award in 2015

    • Last year, her US$2-billion (S$2.7-billion) design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic stadium was scrapped amid spiralling costs and complaints over the design

Architects were impressed. The firefighters, not so much. They moved out and the station became an event space.

In 1994, she won a competition to construct an opera house in the Welsh capital, Cardiff. However, the design was also scrapped amid fierce local opposition.

She went on to design the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany; the Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain; and an opera house in Guangzhou, China, whose rock crystal-shaped design she likened to "pebbles in a stream smoothed by erosion".

Her sources were nature, history, whatever she thought useful. Her design for the Maxxi alluded distantly to Baroque precedents and became one of the rare modern buildings in the city to vie for attention with its numerous historical sites. It was a voluptuous and muscular building, multi-tiered, with ramps that flowed like streams and floors tilted like hills, many walls swerving and swooning.

It took years before she won major commissions in Britain, where she had became a citizen and established a thriving office.

Her Aquatics Centre in London, built for the 2012 Olympics, was a cathedral for water sports, with an undulating roof and two 50m pools. It has become a city landmark and neighbourhood attraction, bustling with children and recreational swimmers.

Queen Elizabeth II honoured her with a damehood in 2012 and, last month, she was awarded Britain's Royal Gold Medal, joining architects Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Frank Lloyd Wright in receiving the architectural honour.

Survived by an older brother, she leaves unfinished, a building along New York's High Line Park and a 60-storey building in Miami.

She embodied, in its profligacy and promise, the era of so-called starchitects, who roamed the planet in pursuit of their own creative genius, offering miracles, occasionally delivering.

"She was bigger than life, a force of nature," as Dr Amale Andraos, dean of Columbia University's architecture school, put it on Thursday. "She was a pioneer."

She was. For women, for what cities can aspire to build and for the art of architecture.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Ahead of the curve'. Print Edition | Subscribe