The design world was left shocked last week as the hugely respected architect Dame Zaha Hadid died suddenly aged just 65. She suffered a fatal heart attack last Thursday (31st March) while in a Miami hospital being treated for bronchitis. A leading figure in the architectural industry, Baghdad born Zaha was known across the world for her boundary pushing projects, from her first major build commission the Vitra Fire Station, Germany (1993), to the iconic London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games (2011).
Widely regarded as the greatest female architect of our time, Zaha studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut before beginning her architectural journey at the Architectural Association in London in 1972. Zaha Hadid Architects was established in 1979 and quickly garnered a reputation for ground breaking projects across the world. The practice’s interests have always focused on the interface between architecture, landscape, and geology with striking results.
Her quest for complex designs that challenged stereotypical concepts were seen across many of the practice’s projects including the favored Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku (2013). Utilising the best in advanced design, material and construction processes, many of the practice’s building have been hailed as transformational architecture that challenges our concepts of the future, such as the Guangzhou Opera House in China (2010). Alongside working at her eponymous practice Zaha Hadid also held various academic roles including the Kenzo Tange Chair at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University and she taught studios at several universities including Yale.
Zaha Hadid had many accolades to her name, including becoming the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004. The RIBA Stirling Prize, the UK’s most prestigious architecture award, was won by her twice; firstly for MAXXI Museum in Rome in 2010 and then for the Evelyn Grace Academy. In 2012 Zaha Hadid was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and her other awards include the Republic of France’s Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale, amongst many more.
No stranger to making history, Zaha Hadid most recently was awarded the RIBA’s 2016 Royal Gold Medal, the first woman to be awarded the prestigious honor in her own right. ‘For three decades now, she has ventured where few would dare; if Paul Klee took a line for a walk, then Zaha took the surfaces that were driven by that line out for a virtual dance and then deftly folded them over and then took them out for a journey into space.’ Sir Peter Cook’s citation on the awarding of Zaha Hadid the Royal Gold Medal.
Known as a strong character, and regularly described as a ‘diva’ by the media, her work was not without criticism from fellow architects and the industry. Her victory in winning the competition to design the Cardiff Bay Opera House in 1994 was meet with widespread resistance, and Hadid famously hit out at the prejudice. She was never one afraid to speak her mind, and always stood by her decisions as demonstrated in this 2014 Guardian article. She vehemently defended her decision to work on the al-Wakrah stadium for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup despite there being concerns raised about the safety conditions for those working on construction connected with the sporting event.
One thing remains undeniably true about Hadid, and that is her vast and important contribution to contemporary architecture as we know it. Her impact on the industry will be hard to surpass, and her passing has left a hole in the industry that is unlikely to ever be filled again.
A female face in the sea of a male dominated architectural industry; neither Zaha’s sex nor her nationality are what ultimately defined her. It was her supreme talent and enthusiasm for modern architecture that made her stand out in today’s society, and will ensure that her name lives on not only in the buildings she left behind but in her impressive legacy and global significance.