LISBON – Zaha Hadid will always be known as “queen of the curve.”
An Arab woman, she made it to the very top of a profession whose upper ranks remain dominated by Western men. While many of the tributes that have flowed since her death last Thursday have focused on her buildings, her dedication to teaching and mentoring young architects has often gone unsung.
“Your success will not be determined by your gender or your ethnicity, but only on the scope of your dreams and your hard work to achieve them,” Hadid wrote in a “postcard” to her younger self, penned just weeks before her death, as part of a BBC project for International Woman’s Day.
Zaha Hadid, the British-Iraqi architect who died at age 65, was a towering figure in world architecture whose buildings have become landmarks across the globe, gracing cities from Glasgow to Guangzhou, Abu Dhabi to Zaragoza.
“She was a great architect, a wonderful woman and wonderful person,” said fellow architectural great Richard Rogers, following the announcement of Hadid’s death from a heart attack in Miami. “Among architects emerging in the last few decades, no one had any more impact than she did.”
Hadid’s transition from Baghdad schoolgirl to global architectural superstar was remarkable.
In 2004 she became the first woman and the first Muslim to win the Pritzker Prize—architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel.
It wasn’t just her background and gender that made Hadid an outsider in what she often called the “boys’ club” of international architecture.
Her vision of sculptured buildings with fluid lines, asymmetrical forms and light-filled spaces was often controversial and earned her many critics, yet she emerged as one of a handful of architects whose fame moved beyond the rarefied world of avant-garde, high-tech building design to become a mainstream media celebrity.
Iconic buildings like the wave-roofed Aquatics Centre built for the London Olympics in 2012; the opera house in Guangzhou, China; or the nerve-center of BMW’s car production plant in Leipzig, Germany, helped elevate Hadid to “starchitect” status—a global household name.
Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950. Her father was a businessman and progressive politician, her mother an artist. She attended schools in Britain and Switzerland before enrolling at the American University of Beirut to study mathematics.
She has recalled her time studying in the Lebanese capital as among the happiest in her life, a carefree period where she enjoyed the Beirut nightlife, weekend trips to the Bekaa Valley, and skiing in the northern mountains.
In 2006, she returned to Beirut to receive an honorary degree from her alma mater and that same year she won a competition to build the university’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. The building’s jagged, irregular geometry has been a landmark on campus since its completion in 2014, although some faculty members have complained about the building blocking their scenic views.
“Zaha is a shining example of an Arab woman who made a global impact in an area traditionally dominated by men. Her designs are instantly recognizable in some of the most prestigious locations in the world; and AUB is very lucky to have one of them,” Fadlo R. Khuri, the university’s president, said last week. “Zaha Hadid’s name is sure to live on as long as human beings discuss architecture.”
From studying math at AUB, Hadid saw a natural progression toward architecture as a discipline in which she could combine her scientific and mathematical talents with the artistic background she had grown up with in Iraq.
“My parents instilled in me a passion for discovery and they never made a distinction between science and creativity. We would play with math problems just as we would play with pens and paper to draw—math was like sketching,” she told CNN in an interview last year. “I am forever grateful to my parents for introducing me to art and science in a way that drew no boundaries between them.”
Despite her commitment to a resolutely modernist style and innovative use of computer-based architecture, Hadid recognized the influence of her Middle Eastern roots on the curving lines of her designs.
“There is certainly a kind of flow in Islamic art and architecture where lines of calligraphy and elements of engineering extend from the carpet to the walls and ceilings and then to columns, roofs, and domes. They form a wonderful spread and there is a relationship between all of the elements,” she told the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in 2014. “My interest in architecture began mainly when I was studying mathematics at university. During that time I observed the link between logic, math, architecture and abstract shapes in calligraphy.”
The 1970s found her at the Architectural Association in London, where she studied under the renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Hadid quickly established herself as a stellar student. In an insightful comment from the mid-70s, Koolhaas, her then-tutor (and future colleague and rival) said, “Zaha’s performance during the fourth and fifth years was like that of a rocket that took off slowly to describe a constantly accelerating trajectory. Now she is a planet in her own inimitable orbit.”
After her studies, Hadid set up her own practice in London. Her career, however, took time to leave the launching pad. Often her radical, futuristic designs won praise, but found few takers brave enough to translate them from drawing board to glass and stone.
Hadid’s first signature building was completed in 1993, a fire station for the Vitra furniture company’s design center in the German city of Weil am Rhein. Its angular, multi-level construction won plaudits, but it was almost another decade before she exploded onto the global scene with the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati. New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp lauded this as “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War.”
Commissions then came thick and fast: Rome’s MAXXI museum of 21st-century art, whose fractured white planes provide a radical counterpoint to the city’s classical heart; the zig-zag outline of Glasgow’s Riverside Museum; the spaceship-like Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany; the sweeping, aluminum-clad swirl of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul; Abu Dhabi’s rippling Sheikh Zayed Bridge.
Hadid’s fame reached rock-star proportions. More awards headed her way—she won Britain’s Stirling Prize for the year’s most significant building in both 2010 and 2011, for the MAXXI and a London school. Time magazine named her among the world’s 100 most influential people in 2010.
Throughout her career, Dame Zaha, as she became after being honored by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 2012, continued to teach—eager to pass on her passion for building to a new generation.
“I always thought teaching was very important. You learn from what you teach, and show people they can achieve beyond what they thought possible,” she said last year. She added, however, “I don’t think you can teach architecture, you can only inspire people.”
Hadid taught courses at various U.S. universities including the architecture schools of Harvard and Yale, and gave regular masterclasses at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.
Among her students at Yale was Ma Yansong, a rising star whose works include the twisting Absolute Towers near Toronto and the horseshoe-shaped Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort in his native China. Ma was quick to express his appreciation for his former teacher.
“My mentor Zaha Hadid’s life was an inspiring story of fighting for independence, equality and respect, while battling for progress and change. She loved and embraced the world with sensitivity and criticality,” he told the ArchDaily website. “As her student 15 years ago, I was inspired and encouraged by her strengths and visions, and she will always continue to inspire both myself and everyone who experiences her work.”
With fame came controversy, and Hadid frequently faced criticism. Her plans for an opera house in Cardiff, Wales, were blocked after complaints from politicians. Although recognized as one of her most beautiful and innovative designs, the startling white curves of the Haydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, triggered protests from campaigners concerned over human rights there. She was also accused of destroying heritage in Beijing when traditional homes were demolished to make way for her vast, futuristic Galaxy Soho commercial center.
In September Hadid walked out of a live BBC interview angered by questions over worker safety during the construction of her Al Wakrah stadium for the 2022 soccer World Cup in Qatar, and her design for the 2020 Olympic stadium in Tokyo which was scrapped by the Japanese government last year amid complaints over costs.
The media highlighted a supposedly “prickly” personality. Hadid wondered whether gender didn’t play a role. “Would they still call me a diva if I were a guy?” she once mused.
Hadid’s supporters brushed aside the controversies as an inevitable consequence of her global reach. After her death, eulogies poured in from around the globe, hailing Hadid as the world’s greatest female architect.
“She was an individual of great courage, conviction and tenacity,” said her friend and colleague Norman Foster. “It is rare to find these qualities tied to a free creative spirit. That is why her loss is so profound and her example so inspirational.”