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Zaha Hadid: funny, fierce and irreplaceable

Paul Finch
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One can only guess at what we will miss as a result of Zaha’s premature death, writes Paul Finch

We recently lost two architectural journalists to illness: Martin Spring, former co-owner of Architectural Design and a trenchant critic for more than 40 years; then Charles Knevitt, an old pal who had a unique career in our world, editing trade magazines then translating to Fleet Street (Sunday Telegraph and Times) before engaging with the world of community architecture and the Prince of Wales.

So, already in sombre mood, it was with profound sadness that I learned of the unexpected death of Zaha Hadid last week. The last time we talked was when she launched Peter Cook’s new building at the Arts University in Bournemouth, where she was chatty and cheerful, complaining only about a painful knee. She had agreed to speak at the World Architecture Festival later this year, and I was looking forward to a promised gossipy lunch to discuss it.

Zaha was a great party-giver and a generous host. No one who was there will forget her 60th birthday dinner, which took place in Burlington Arcade stretching to apparent infinity; to celebrate becoming a Dame she transformed a room in the Royal Academy by the diagonal placement of long tables; only recently the world turned out for the party in Marylebone to mark her Gold Medal.

Zaha changed the face of architecture with her blend of deconstructivism allied to digital precision manufacture, creating extraordinary pieces around the world. Double curvature was not unique to her work but it was exploited memorably in projects both large and small. She won the Pritzker well before the Gold Medal, though the idea that she was rejected in Britain for being Iraqi-born and a woman is not as clear-cut as some have suggested.

The disgraceful episode involving the collapse of the Cardiff Bay Opera House lottery project, won in competition, probably had more to do with South Wales local politics than attitudes to feminism, though her background didn’t help. It is sometimes forgotten that the Cardiff project was also rejected by the Lottery authorities for funding – just like the Günter Behnisch cultural centre in Bristol and Danny Libeskind’s Victoria & Albert extension. All three were radical architectural propositions that proved too much for London’s cultural commissars.

Zaha’s architecture was exciting and shocking, and still is. From the moment her Hong Kong Peak entry won an international competition in 1982-3, we all knew that here was an unmistakable talent. Eventually she took the whole world by storm, not least because of her enduring collaboration with Patrik Schumacher, to whom one can only extend the deepest sympathies.

Her architectural legacy is already established, but there are many buildings with her unmistakeable influence under construction or about to start. The tragedy is that Zaha won’t be there to see them. Her influence will outlast her, however, and the diaspora of good designers who absorbed her ideas will guarantee that certain attitudes – to landscape and stratification, the reconciliation of parametric planning with a refined aesthetic, the pushing of production possibilities – are likely to continue along, I hope, with a practice which will continue to flourish despite her absence.

The AJ occupied premises opposite her then quite small offices in Bowling Green Lane in Clerkenwell in the early 1990s. We sent over champagne when she won Cardiff – happy times. People who worked on that job continued to be invited to Zaha events for years afterwards, loyalty being one of her engaging characteristics. She was as vulnerable as she was tough, as funny as she was fierce. She is irreplaceable.


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