Jonathan Bell | 14 Nov 2017
In many respects, the work of Zaha Hadid defines what we consider to be ‘architecture’, as opposed to simply building.
Way back in the early days of the web, I remember talking to someone who ran (what was then) one of the world’s most popular architecture websites. And what was the number one user search term? ‘Zaha’. For many burgeoning aesthetes, those two syllables were their gateway into a new world of design, unlocking a visual landscape that was both far-flung futuristic and a warmly wish-fulfilling evocation of yesterday’s world of tomorrow.
Zaha Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950, schooled in England and Beirut and eventually came to study architecture at London’s Architectural Association. In addition to the (definitely unusual) liberal and welcoming bias of her upbringing and education, the AA cemented her vision as an aesthetic one, albeit underpinned by the dizzying complexity and potential of mathematics. Throughout her life, charisma and character overshadowed Zaha’s ferocious intellect, yet she was always aware of how architecture tended to be reduced to the grand statement, the single line, the overarching image. Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), the practice she established in 1980, was an avant-garde affair from the start. Although it operated on the fringes of convention at a time when London was a global nexus for alternative culture, the ambition to build was never absent.
The grand dame of architecture and Wallpaper* guest editor, photographed at her home in London, July 2008. Photography: David Hughes
It was decades before ZHA’s projects turned from abstract imaginings to a trickle, then a flood of built works. Zaha’s career almost faltered right at the start, with two high-profile commissions falling very publicly by the wayside. Her 1982 design for the Peak, a private health club in Hong Kong, wowed the architectural world through its presentation, a skewed explosion of geometry and rendered form that blurred landscape and structure, new and existing in a splintered collage of angles and perspectives. In the pre-digital age, this imagery was remarkable, referencing the dynamic beauty of futurism and cubism, the fractured intensity of deconstructivism yet remaining uniquely, defiantly original.
The Peak commission came when Hadid was barely five years out of London’s Architectural Association. It was a first flowering of an aesthetic honed and developed in the theoretical bubble of academia. Immediately after the AA, Zaha went to work for two of her tutors, Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis. Their new studio was called the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and its foundation marked a key shift in the transition from abstract, unbuilt ‘paper architecture’ to the physical reality of actually making things. ZHA was a similarly utopian operation, believing in the transformational power of form and space. Unlike her mentors, however, Zaha was less concerned with the creative possibilities of compromise and limitation. It was all or nothing.
As a Wallpaper* Guest Editor in 2008, Hadid created an original multi-part cut out artwork to run through the pages. Photography: Frank Hülsbömer
And so it proved at The Peak. The years that followed also had extreme highs and lows. ZHA’s first completed building, the famous ‘Fire Station’ at the Vitra Factory in Weil am Rhein, was tempered by controversy. The dart-like, tapering structure pushed concrete form-making to new limits, but reactionary grumbling that the 1993 building never served its original purpose (it’s now a gallery at the Vitra Design Museum) blunted its impact. Worse was to follow. The following year, the studio unveiled its ambitious scheme for a new opera house in Cardiff Bay. ZHA won the design competition and set about translating their ‘glass necklace’ into buildable form. As budgets rose, public and political will slipped away and in 1996 the project was abandoned. The rejection rankled – it was the one time Zaha cited blatant prejudice again the work of a female, foreign architect.
Unlike her mentors, however, Zaha was less concerned with the creative possibilities of compromise and limitation. It was all or nothing.
For a while, it looked as if the Zaha Hadid train was derailed. Critics underestimated her tenacity. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, visionary clients around the world committed themselves to her designs. Two of her best buildings from this era channelled a new maturity, both in terms of urban place-making and programme, with angular and fluid forms enhancing the sense of procession through the space, creating buildings that were as dynamic, poised and dramatic as Zaha’s art. The Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati and the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg were concrete – literally – realisations of the commercial potential inherent in the Hadid aesthetic.
Along the way, there were increasing numbers of collaborations, installations and limited editions. Companies like Established & Sons and Swarovski played a vital role in shaping the studio’s approach, allowing experimentation with materials, forms and – most importantly of all – processes. Zaha always had to walk a frustrating path between detractors and imitators, but the truth of the matter is that her approach, born of art, shaped by history and theory and deployed through sheer hard work, had been effectively normalised by the time of her death. If there’s one criticism of ZHA’s work it’s that this signature ‘iconic’ could so easily be parlayed into trophyism, allowing everyone from oligarchs to philanthropists, industrial giants to rulers-for-life to sprinkle on a little bit of the Hadid magic. Every avant-garde is condemned to lose its left-field status.
London 2066, by Zaha Hadid
A word about technology. ZHA’s ascent to global powerhouse went hand in hand with the evolution of CAD and CAM technology. In particular, the rise to prominence of Patrik Schumacher, who joined ZHA in 1988 and eventually became the practice’s co-director, bolstered the studio’s academic and technical credentials. Schumacher’s ultra-dense musings on parametricism were ZHA’s theoretical foundations, as technology finally caught up with Zaha’s fluid conceptual mind. An analogy might be to think of a building like a spreadsheet – alter a single cell’s values and there is an instant, automatic cascade of change to accommodate it. A modern building is also a dense table of figures and rules – the brief, the program, the restrictions of the site, the strength and qualities of the materials, the budget. The only way to translate such sculptural fluidity into physical form is to link these values together, making an aesthetic virtue of massive complexity, and facilitating the creation of interlinked structures, services and surfaces.
The complexity has certainly been rendered on a massive scale. From Guangzhou to Miami, Saudi Arabia to Singapore, Zaha’s architectural achievements were truly remarkable, especially since she didn’t realise a building until her early 30s and her death, at the age of 65 in March 2016, no doubt deprived the world of many, many more unimaginable and amazing things.
Featured in the April 2015 issue of Wallpaper*, Vladislav Doronin’s $160m Hadid-designed space rocket/private home. ‘People told me it couldn’t be built,’ says Vladislav Doronin of his $160m home. ‘The builders said it couldn’t be built. At times, I thought it couldn’t be built. But Zaha, who is a strong woman, very intelligent, very smart – a genius, in fact – insisted.’ Photography: Daniel Stier
At the time of her death the studio, archaically located in a former Victorian school building in Clerkenwell, employed several hundred people, with ongoing projects in practically every corner of the globe. That workload hasn’t faltered, and many posthumous works are still underway. In November 2017 the firm announced a creative partnership with the Chinese design group Arcplus and the massive global firm Wilson Associates, effectively packaging up architectural design with engineering and interiors to lure clients who might once have been deterred by the ‘artistic’ temperament of the practice.
Will it spell the end of ZHA’s reputation for untrammelled creativity? Perhaps. Zaha began her career as an artist, and compromises were always hard-fought. Yet when they inevitably came, you still had to look hard for the rough edges, such was the bravura, overwhelming form-making.
Notable Zaha Hadid buildings
Hadid’s first built project was the fairly modest (in size, at least) Vitra Fire Station in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, completed in 1993. Photography: Christian Richters
London Aquatics Centre, built for the 2012 Olympic Games, 2005 – 2011. Photography: Hufton + Crow
Hadid’s design for the Sleuk Rith Institute will be the office's first project in Cambodia and its first ever wooden construction
Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza in Seoul, South Korea, 2007–2013. Photography: Virgile Bertrand