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Zaha Hadid recognised with AJ100 Contribution to the Profession

Zaha Hadid
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Pioneering architect Zaha Hadid has been honoured for her contribution to the profession by the AJ100

More than 1,700 employees were asked to nominate one person they thought should be recognised for their services to architecture, and Hadid was the overwhelming winner. This vote took place before her sudden death in March which sent shockwaves through the profession and prompted tributes from prominent figures including Norman Foster, David Chipperfield, Amanda Levete, Phyllis Lambert and Eva Jiricna.

Widely regarded as the greatest female architect the world had ever seen, Iraqi-born Hadid changed the face of architecture.

Despite global fame, she initially struggled to find recognition in the UK. Throughout her 39-year-long career she built just a handful of projects in the country where she chose to open her office back in 1979.

Hadid, described by RIBA president Jane Duncan as a ‘formidable and globally influential force in architecture’, won the Stirling Prize in both 2010 and 2011 with her MAXXI Museum in Rome and the Evelyn Grace Academy in London respectively.

In 2004 she became the first woman to receive a Pritzker Prize and finally, just in time, the RIBA handed her the Royal Gold Medal last year, marking a long-overdue welcome into the architectural canon.

At the time of her death she was working on more than 36 projects in 21 different countries from her 400-strong office on London’s Bowling Green Lane.

With so many projects yet to complete, the full impact of Hadid’s built legacy is yet to be fully apparent.

Grand Buildings Trafalgar Square (1985) by Zaha Hadid

Grand Buildings Trafalgar Square (1985) by Zaha Hadid

Grand Buildings Trafalgar Square (1985) by Zaha Hadid

AJ100 practice leaders pay tribute

Norman Foster: ‘She evoked fierce loyalty with clients, her team and her friends’

Norman Foster

It took a cycle trip across Europe and a visit to the Venice Architecture Biennale this last May to bring home to me a true awareness of the collective sense of loss following the death of Zaha Hadid. Of course, she created great buildings and was a dear personal friend, but her impact went far beyond the world of architects and architecture.

My bicycle journey had an overnight stay in Wolfsburg with an opportunity to see Zaha’s Phaeno Centre – a commanding early work skilfully meshed into an adjoining canal bridge. Over dinner that evening I sat next to a doctor from California whose eyes welled up at the mention of Zaha’s name – such was her influence as a role model and the sadness of her passing away. Zaha had touched this person’s heart even though her world was far removed from that of design.

The next week in Venice found us talking over lunch with friends, coincidentally three past directors of the Architecture Biennale. My wife Elena and I waxed lyrical about our visit the previous evening to the opening of the exhibition of Zaha’s work in the imposing 16th-century Palazzo Franchetti on the Grand Canal. We marvelled about the richness and depth of Zaha’s prodigious talents that were showcased by an extravaganza of models, paintings, drawings and videos. 

We left clutching the trio of books on her work produced for the show by the Fondazione Berengo. One of them concentrated on her parametric research and the related application of robotics. Spread across two pages there is an image of her beautiful sculpture Arum in the 2012 Biennale, based on the development of curved surfaces that can be manufactured from folding sheet materials. It is part of a wider installation, which I recall studying with some surprise at the time – impressed by a rigour that I had not associated with her works. This interest in research, form-finding and order runs counter to much in the popular perception of her work.

She was driven, totally dedicated to architecture and generous with a big heart

The theme of research, in this case of space, is echoed in the paintings of Zaha, which dominate another of the books. In her own words they – ‘allowed us to see a project from every possible and impossible perspective … These [were] very elaborate, complicated drawings … [they] did their job at the time … the work could not be done just through a simple set of plans and sections only.’

The third book is devoted to recording 32 of her completed works in photographs and text. These alone are by any standard a body of significant works. But the book only tells a part of the story of her meteoric rise to success and international acclaim. Twenty years ago when I introduced Zaha to Elena, marking the beginning of our wider friendship, there was little in the way of completed works. Her first project, the Vitra Fire Station, was only finished in 1993. Her studio was small, Zaha occupied one room with a glass wall between her and a small but dedicated team. The subject that dominated their conversation was her paintings. Today her legacy is 41 built works in 15 countries and around 18 more works in progress. Over an entire career she worked on an astonishing 950 projects in 44 countries.

Zaha, the private person, was different from her public persona. She evoked fierce loyalty with clients, her team and her friends – she was driven, totally dedicated to architecture and generous with a big heart. Private house commissions are notorious for straining the relationship between client and architect. In a previous tribute I described how, through a chance social encounter, I met the owner of the only house she completed. He talked of her with pride, counted her as a friend and later emailed me with ‘before and after’ images, comparing her renderings with the built end results. These ranged from outside views in a forest landscape down to the most intimate details of bedrooms and wardrobes.

Zaha cared deep down about her craft - she worried as much about the placing of a cluster of her white marble benches in the garden of our family home as she did about the adverse publicity of the Tokyo Stadium. She called me, like others, for advice on how best to respond to this unjust saga.

In Venice over that lunch with friends, we reflected that the great loss to the world will be the contribution that she and her studio could have made if her life and career had not been so tragically and prematurely cut short. But our conversation was dominated far more by the gap left by Zaha the person – her larger than life personality whose dominating presence added another dimension to our lives. These qualities are wonderfully inseparable from the works themselves.

Norman Foster, founder, Foster + Partners

Ken Shuttleworth: ‘She never turned to creating architecture that wasn’t wholly hers’

Ken Shuttleworth

Zaha Hadid and I had very different ideas about architecture, but I have been a lifelong admirer of hers. To me, she embodies the spirit of absolute determination. When she first started out, nobody was doing what she was doing, but she didn’t let that stop her. Although she wasn’t accepted by mainstream architecture at the time, it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of talent, and her drawings were always fantastic. 

I can’t help but be reminded of Jan Kaplický, who was similarly dogged in pursuit of his vision, never giving in to critics or naysayers. Like Jan, Zaha stuck to her guns and never diluted her vision in order to see her buildings built. She never turned to creating architecture that wasn’t wholly hers. 

She embarked on more than 20 years of convention-bending, awe-inspiring architecture

She finally achieved breakthrough with her Vitra fire station in 1993. Despite its initial snags, the building was an announcement to the world that Zaha Hadid does not back down. From that point on, she embarked on more than 20 years of convention-bending, awe-inspiring architecture that turned her into a household name. It’s only fitting that this year Zaha was the first woman to be awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in her own right, rather than in a partnership, and I was so pleased that she received such a prestigious honour. 

I’ve always admired her work in concrete. The material lends itself well to her organic forms and allows for an honest expression of a building’s structure. I especially admire the MAXXI in Rome, the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio, and the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg. 

My own personal encounters with Zaha were always very friendly. When Make lost out to ZHA on the London Aquatics Centre, I wrote her a letter of congratulations, and she graciously wrote back, thanking me. I also remember a pleasant conversation we had about her buildings, after her talk with artist Brian Clarke at the Tate Britain in 2014. 

Zaha will of course be remembered for her buildings – rightly so – but we must also remember her remarkable tenacity and self-belief. Sometimes these are the only things that keep us going, and she had them in spades. Her numerous awards and recognitions are now a testament to something fundamental that all architects can learn from: never give up. Zaha certainly didn’t. 

Ken Shuttleworth, founder, Make

Patty Hopkins: ‘Architecture needs a Zaha’

Patty Hopkins

Zaha and I didn’t coincide as students at the Architectural Association. She arrived after I had left, but one soon heard stories, on the architectural grapevine, of this emerging enfant terrible whose definite views and Russian Constructivist influence had persuaded Alvin Boyarsky to let her go her own interesting way. And we soon began to see her amazing paintings and drawings exhibited. Surely the AA was her first patron. 

Later I heard stories from Columbia University in New York, where our daughter was studying architecture, when Zaha was a visiting professor. I heard that she took her responsibilities to the students very seriously and how hard she worked at encouraging them to work harder; her lunchtime arrival at the studio, her furious critique of the work always achieving a better result; sometimes, if they were lucky, a delicious chicken and rice dish cooked for them in the little studio kitchen, to encourage work until midnight. 

These same young students and others would go on to work willingly in her studio, attracted by her personal charisma.

The experience of visiting the MAXXI Museum of Rome was unforgettable

Then one became gradually aware of complex and sophisticated buildings appearing worldwide, as though from nowhere. They had great impact and it was obvious that they were the culmination of years of investigation and study. 

Michael and I were invited to the opening of the MAXXI Museum in Rome, the first of Zaha’s buildings that we had visited. We were excited to see it and all our critical sensibilities were attuned. Would it measure up to the general acclaim? It did! The experience was unforgettable – of ascending by fluid ramps to the reception, surrounded by Michael Craig Martin paintings, and then descending to the lower ground floor, where a giant continuous zigzag dining table responded to the plan of the building. This was a great example of the total environment she aimed to create with furniture, light fittings and cutlery of her own design. 

We will certainly never forget our visit to Zaha’s marvellously sinuous Galaxy Soho building in Beijing. We persuaded the security guard to let us in the evening before the grand opening, because we had to leave Beijing the next day. We had a great time exploring the empty building; then we realised we were completely lost. The vast building seemed to have been locked up for the night. After a long and increasingly panicky search for an exit, we eventually found someone to let us out. 

I’ve been reminded recently that, years ago, I was asked my opinion about Zaha’s architecture and my response was that architecture needs a Zaha every now and then. And I feel that now, even more than ever, when reflecting on her massive achievement, after her sudden early death. 

Zaha was a one–off! 

Patty Hopkins, founder, Hopkins Architects

Chris Wilkinson: ‘Her architectural legacy is in her drawings, paintings and innovative thinking’

Chris Wilkinson

Zaha was a tour de force, and her influence on the profession has been extraordinary. Her interest and use of complex geometry was ahead of its time but became ever more feasible with the introduction of parametric programmes and advances in construction technology. These enabled her to push the boundaries and show what could be achieved.

I admire the sculptural qualities of her architecture, sometimes curvaceous and at other times angular, but always exciting. I was blown away by two of her curvilinear sculptures, temporarily housed in the Villa Foscari near Venice, which exerted a science-fictional presence in the beautiful rooms of Palladio’s 16th-century villa. The contrast of form and materiality was so preposterous, but it seemed to work. She also had a painterly approach to the presentations of her conceptual ideas, which was dynamic and appealing. In this time of super-realistic computer-generated images, I am always drawn to the more personal touch. This was evident in her early competition entry for the Peak in Hong Kong, which must be one of the most dramatic architectural submission ever presented. My memory of the Cardiff Opera House competition-winning scheme was also of the paintings rather than the architectural drawings.

Of course, Zaha Hadid Architects has produced an excellent body of built work around the world, but I can’t help believing that her real architectural legacy is in her drawings, paintings and innovative thinking.

Chris Wilkinson, founder, WilkinsonEyre

Simon Allford: ‘She was committed to constructing her ideas’

Simon Allford

Zaha’s star shone very brightly, lighting up the architectural sky and more distant planets.

Even before she built anything, she was never a ‘paper architect’. She was committed to constructing her ideas and, as a one off, her ideas for building space were communicated through the most extraordinary paintings: Zaha was a ‘painter architect’.

From my first years as a young architectural student, I would travel down from Sheffield and walk the AA Show. I was both astonished (and admonished!) by much of what I saw but in particular by the work of her unit. It was the early 80s and she was already a force to be reckoned with. I remember that as I embarked on my finals, my father gave me a small green pamphlet in an AA series entitled OMA 1978-81. ‘I think you might enjoy this,’ he said, and I did, obsessively studying The Extension to the Dutch Parliament – The Hague, which was credited then and in the subsequent Planetary Architecture 2 to a certain Z Hadid.

I have rarely met a group of people more committed to her than her architects and assistants

My father [the late David Allford, senior partner and chairman of YRM] was a Modernist who saw her work as part of the continuum of architectural enquiry into a brave new world. Through his great friendship with Alvin Boyarsky and the AA he knew Zaha well. He had a large office in Hong Kong so she went to him when her painted vision of a new architecture flying out from the Peak was declared the winner of the global competition of the day. If she had got the go-ahead, he would have been more than happy to help her build the paintings, and later he signed her British citizenship papers. When Alvin died my father chaired the search committee for the impossible task of replacing him. It was crucial Zaha was involved, but his only proviso to her, over lunch, was that she commit to see it through – she couldn’t walk out! Zaha honoured the deal and at the end she threw an extraordinary feast of her own. My father thanked her with the most strange and exotic bouquet of plants that he could find – Zaha inspired admiration and affection and responded with fierce loyalty. 

Difficult, disdainful, dismissive and extremely direct, Zaha was also funny, and this lethal combination furthered her fame. Everyone has a Zaha story. A huge number are about her raging at someone in the office. Some are true, many apocryphal, but I have rarely met a group of people more committed to her than her architects and assistants; they admired and adored her. This trusted resource reinforced her courageous commitment to building her dreams.

The fighter in her was always there. She reacted brilliantly to the scandalous rejection of her early competition-winning schemes. The painter architect went on to build up a highly tuned professional office of more than 400 people, building the paintings around the world and to great acclaim. She became famous in our world and the greater world beyond as she changed forever both professional and public perception of where the boundaries of architectural activity and architecture might lie. Ignore the often mealy mouthed obituaries. Zaha triumphed.

So she leaves us with an extraordinary and extended legacy of great paintings, stories, memories and buildings. She was a global heroine, who won the Pritzker Prize, and was hugely pleased to be a Dame and finally to win the Gold Medal. She was a princess who became a queen; indeed, at its opening, she greeted us all from her throne at the Aquatics Centre. They said she had a bad leg; I believe she just wanted us to kneel and so we did!

Beyond my conversations with Zaha at various events, we always enjoyed an extended flurry of text messages. It might start with architecture and would then move on to life. She would ask after family and for a picture of my daughters and remind me that Miami was a lot warmer than London. Regardless of place or time she was a great and swift correspondent.

So, selfishly, I very much regret that we never had the dinner we planned. That of course is my loss and a marker of the respect and affection I reserved for her. I will miss her as a person and as a presence.

Simon Allford, founder, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Mark Middleton: ‘Zaha was seen as an ambassador for British architecture’

Mark Middleton

I only ever met Zaha Hadid once, but I heard her speak many times. It’s a measure of her stature that you did not need to know her well to feel the tremendous influence she had on our profession in the UK and throughout the world. 

Arguably architects are nothing without a legacy and architecture is meaningless without realisation. There was a time when Zaha was in danger of ending up like the Italian futurist Antonio Sant’Elia; influencing many but building little. We are lucky that she found clients who believed in her and gave her the opportunity to turn her architecture into reality. Although her built work will be considered her legacy, I believe her influence can be seen in three other distinct ways:

As an architect she forged a trajectory for an architectural expression where the plasticity of skin and surface became everything. Her visions would not have been possible without the advances in computer modelling and manufacturing processes, making her simultaneously a great innovator, but also completely of her time. 

She was the living proof that the male-dominated hegemony of our profession can be broken

Secondly, as a British designer working internationally, Zaha was seen as an ambassador for British architecture. She helped to keep our country at the forefront of the profession globally, while inspiring the perception among clients and students alike that London is the epicentre of world architecture. 

Finally, as a women in architecture she was a role model for many young female architects. She was the living proof that the male-dominated hegemony of our profession can be broken. She was a cultural icon, role model and influential architect who inspired all with her strength, tenacity, passion and vision. 

Mark Middleton, managing partner, Gimshaw Architects 


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