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‘Under Schumacher, Zaha Hadid's architectural DNA will live on’

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Joseph Giovannini assesses her life and legacy, from Boyarsky’s AA protégé to winning the Pritzker

Death in itself is hard enough to fathom, but the sudden, premature demise of Zaha Hadid at 65 is particularly ungraspable. She lived and worked so large, always on her own terms, that it seemed she would simply skip it, just not bother, on her way to an infinity of her own making. She was too busy, too inventive, too spirited, and already ubiquitous anyway, a magnetic field of her own reaching everywhere on the globe. She died with 60 active projects in a dozen countries in her 400-person office on Bowling Green Lane in London. There was just too much on the table.

But a heart attack did suddenly claim her early in the morning last Thursday in a hospital in Miami while she was being treated for bronchitis. She had been brought there by her office partner of long standing, Patrik Schumacher, and her personal assistant, Luisa Alves. 

The heliotropic Hadid had a pied-à-terre in Miami to which she retreated when she had the time. She clocked the hours when the sun would shine on her balcony overlooking the ocean so she could take in the rays. The Iraqi-born, London-based architect thrived on intensity, including the intensity of the sun remembered from her homeland.

Daughter of an Iraqi finance minister, she was schooled by nuns in Baghdad and at private schools in Switzerland before taking her undergraduate degree in mathematics at the American University in Beirut. Hadid was already a citizen of the world when she landed at the Architectural Association in 1972 at the age of 22. There her unusual talent quickly earned her the protective attention of director Alvin Boyarsky, while she was taught by Léon Krier, and then Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, who introduced her to the work of the Russian avant-garde and insightfully insisted that she learn how to draw.

‘We can’t carry on as cake decorators,’ she liked to say

In her beautifully painted, intensely coloured fourth-year project, she injected a 1923 arkitekton by Malevich with a hotel programme and sited it on Hungerford Bridge. With it she won the Diploma Prize, given to only one graduating student. The Suprematists remained a lasting influence and inspiration for Hadid, who resolved to realise the promise of a vision that had been aborted, isolated and ignored in Stalin’s gulag. The Bauhaus survived Hitler and thrived outside Germany in Britain and the USA, but the Russian avant-garde remained little known or celebrated. 

But coming into architecture at the height of Postmodernism — ‘We can’t carry on as cake decorators,’ she liked to say — Zaha was not about to become an historicist. Suprematism, and particularly Malevich, were an influence rather than a rule, and eventually she took Suprematism to places where even its founders might not have ventured. In any event, the Suprematists, having had little chance to build, hardly left clearly charted territory. And the way forward was particularly treacherous, since these mystics of space espoused irrationality in the most gravity-bound of the arts: El Lissitzky wanted to build -1 and Malevich skipped the third dimension to speculate on the fourth: on his canvases, he lofted oblique planes into white infinities. Just how do you build on that? 

The arts proceed at different speeds; painting is faster than architecture. Always committed to architectural research and innovation during her entire 39-year career, Hadid forged invention early on through drawing and painting, often citing ‘the influence of painting on architecture’. After a brief period as a partner in Office for Metropolitan Architecture, she opened her own office in 1979, and taught at her alma mater, the AA. She entered competitions, sending paintings as well as drawings in the submissions. 

Hadid attracted criticism early on by those who called her practice ‘only a painting studio’, but she was investigating fundamental issues that would give her work a profundity lacking in practices merely built on images published in magazines. Her research and invention were her own. In small, little-known notebooks that she tucked beside her office desk – and which she rarely shared – she drew page after page of organisational patterns: bundling, aggregation, jigsaws, tagliatelle, bubbles, multiple ground planes, folding, amoebas, flow. These were not vignettes of buildings sketched during travels, nor even thoughts about how a building might turn a corner (she wasn’t interested in boxes anyway, so she wasn’t much interested in corners). 

Cardiff Bay Opera House: Zaha Hadid’s 1994 winning competition design

Cardiff Bay Opera House: Zaha Hadid’s 1994 winning competition design

Cardiff Bay Opera House: Zaha Hadid’s 1994 winning competition design

Her flamboyant persona – the shoes, the capes, the sculpted jackets with cantilevered lapels – captivated the image-driven press but threw them off the scent: she was, on one level, a field marshal of organisation, fascinated by the many ways in which to structure a building conceptually. Her scheme for the Cardiff Bay Opera House (1995) was a necklace with pendant crystals; her garden pavilion in Weil am Rhein (1999) was a bundle of strands – ramps, stairs, bridges – that emerged from, and merged back into the landscape.  

She was captivated by fracture and fragmentation: she hit one geometry with another and the resulting explosion replaced mono-directional gravity with omni-directional, anti-gravitational forces no longer accountable to the ground. She changed the age-old architectural narrative, and buildings flew: she even dreamed they flew. Her forms were vectorial, and spaces within flowed. She ambitiously said – some thought preposterously and pretentiously – that she wanted to reinvent the floor plan and, by releasing buildings conceptually from gravity, she did. As Daniel Burnham once advised young architects, she made no little plans. 

At first a secret weapon of the AA, where she taught after she was graduated, she soon became an architect’s architect through the publication of her competition entries. The most famous, of course, was The Peak, her 1983 proposal for a sports club on the heights above Hong Kong, a scheme that became a phenomenon attracting wide attention, acclaim and controversy. Hadid splayed a stack of long prisms exploding from the hillside like a geological projectile: the scheme was so advanced, as though generated in the non-gravitational space of the screen, that some computer engineers plugged it into the computer to test the computer’s capacities, not the design’s. 

To critics who said it was unbuildable, she simply pointed to the engineered highways all around

To critics who said it was unbuildable, she simply pointed to the engineered highways all around us. The prescient design anticipated Zaha’s later turn to the computer, which would have a transformative impact on her already computational vision. 

But for 15 years, before the transition, she pushed analogue methods to productive extremes. She sketched breathtaking watercolours with gestural strokes that captured fleeting movement; she invented paper wall reliefs, particularly building sections, that projected designs forward from the flat plane of paper into the third dimension; she built models out of wire and acrylics with a transparency that revealed outside and inside simultaneously; she did X-ray line drawings, often overlaid or juxtaposed beyond easy intelligibility. To understand the often-cryptic drawings, you had to earn access, as though it were a late Joycean text. It was a little like relating to Zaha herself. She was never easy to read.

And then there were her magisterial tableaux, paintings that were Rubensian in scale and energy, but highly abstract. She would plant and rotate her designs in imaginary cityscapes, viewing the building from shifting angles. She distorted and rubberised the overall field, as though visualising her Suprematist interpretations within the warp of Einstein’s space-time continuum. 

Warp, distortion and accident invaded her designs 

Following a Russian avant-gardist modus operandi, or perhaps just because she was Zaha, she made things strange. Warp, distortion and accident invaded her designs like an invisible, defamiliarising ether. She was one of the first to introduce mechanised accident in her designs when she walked over to the photocopier and slid the design over the glass as the tumbler of light scrolled under the drawing. The result resembled the smears Francis Bacon painted across faces. 

The core of her vision developed during a 10-year period of intense research when she built virtually nothing. But, unlike Garbo, she didn’t want to be alone. She wanted to build, and finally did with the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, another sensation, but one that proved the buildability of her vision. Here her interest in painting translated into plays of perception, with each of the three leading horizontal volumes contoured in warped forced perspective tapering to different, contradictory vanishing points. Space and form no longer agreed, and no longer constituted a cogent whole.  Space was conflicted, indeterminate and irrational, and it played perceptual tricks on the eyes. 

The Fire Station broke the ice, and gradually the commissions came. With each building, she exceeded expectations, almost as though competing with herself. The list of triumphs is well rehearsed.  

Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku by Zaha Hadid

Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku by Zaha Hadid

Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku by Zaha Hadid

Among the buildings conceived largely by analogue methods were the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, the MAXXI in Rome and The Broad Art Museum at Michigan State. With the computer were conceived the Guangzhou Opera House, the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Baku, the SoHo Galaxy office and entertainment complex in Beijing, the London Aquatics Centre, and the Innovation Tower in Hong Kong. Generally, but not always, the designs followed the basic principles of open form, flowing space, defamiliarisation and complexity, but with the great difference that the abrupt ruptures of fragmentation ceded to the graduated differentiation of flowing forms. Angles turned into curves. Instabilities quieted. 

Honours followed: she was the first woman to receive a Pritzker, in 2004, the ceremony happening in St Petersburg in Catherine the Great’s theatre in the Hermitage, not far from where Malevich taught. In 2012, at Buckingham Palace, Princess Anne, representing the Queen, made her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. And finally, almost embarrassingly late but just in time, RIBA awarded Hadid its Gold Medal. 

Over the decades, her designs disrupted the profession by their compelling example and daring success. Some architects imitated her work, but wiser architects understood the underlying principles and attitude and, liberated from the homogeneity of the normative and the totalising hegemony of regularised structure, they found their own individuality. In America one sees her influence in airports in San Francisco and towers in Manhattan. The gift of her vision was liberation from Cartesian geometry and architecture unbound.

Zaha Hadid's Maggie's Centre in Fife

Zaha Hadid’s Maggie’s Centre in Fife

Zaha Hadid’s Maggie’s Centre in Fife

Of course, her huge success bred resistance and the new fundamentalists espousing social issues and environmental politics often misinterpret Hadid’s work as formalist and élitist. They fail to understand that a concern for public space underlies almost all of Hadid’s architectural designs. Like Hadid herself, her buildings are infallibly generous, inviting the public onto articulated ground outside, which flows into the buildings via promenades, ramps and stairways. That the buildings are beautiful does not preclude environmental responsibility. Certainly Hadid has built her fair share of secular cathedrals for the public – cultural centres, museums and performance spaces – but she also designed the Evelyn Grace Academy in London for students in a disadvantaged community, and she gifted her design of a Maggie’s Centre in Scotland. 

The loss for the profession, and for her legion of friends and admirers, is great: this marginal figure doing crazy, wild, impossible stuff had become a pillar of the discipline. 

But she was an architect through and through, and she designed and structured her office into an edifice, so that, under the guidance of Patrik Schumacher and the many colleagues who have worked with her for decades, the office will be able to continue her tradition of brilliant and radical innovation. 

Over the years they all learned to think as Hadid thought, which means they also learned to think for themselves. The innovation will continue and her architectural DNA will live on as it evolves.

Joseph Giovannini is an architect and critic who has written extensively for the New York Times, The New Yorker and The Architectural Record 

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