She was architecture’s comet, shooting out of the firmament as if from nowhere, and now just as suddenly gone, vanished, the likes of her luminous talent not to reappear again for generations.
Zaha. She died Thursday morning, suddenly, just 65, of a heart attack while being treated in a Miami hospital for bronchitis. She was scheduled to lecture at Yale this coming Thursday, where she was teaching a design studio on the high rise. Her topologically streaming Maritime Terminal in Salerno, in the works for a decade, opens later this month at a ceremony to be attended by Italy’s prime minister. Now she won’t be there wearing her tetrahedral plastic cape and her fuzzy fur ring, or something else equally as funny, outrageous, and perfect. It won’t be the same. Zaha added Zaha to everything she touched.
She stored all her medals in a cabinet out of sight in her blazing white apartment in London. There was the recently awarded gold from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the first given to a woman practicing solo. In 2004, she was the first woman to win the Pritzker. In 2012, she was “knighted” a Dame of the British Empire. The Queen, perhaps understanding best what it’s like for a woman to have and hold power in a dominantly male world, elevated Zaha long before the starched British architectural establishment could face her towering talent and award her the RIBA medal.
You can’t count the number of magazine covers she occupied or the students she inspired or the lectures she gave or the number of people who just adored her. One young man, spotting her along the Grand Canal in Venice during a Biennale, at which she was a regular over the years, kneeled at her feet, ripped open his shirt, handed her a pen, and asked her to engrave his chest with her autograph. She was a storm in an energy field of her own creation that swept up thousands. Just check out today’s flood of comments on Facebook.
Her aristocratic parents (her father was Iraq’s finance minister during the country’s brief democratic regime) didn’t quite know what to do with this growing force of nature. She refused to wear the frilly dresses they bought in Baghdad, so they hired a seamstress to sew up Zaha’s own confections. She liked the mid-century Italian furniture her parents bought for their Bauhaus-styled home, the first Modernist house in Baghdad. Inspired, she designed her own bedroom suite of furniture, and her parents had a craftsman build it. Other clients liked it, so he copied and sold her designs to others. She was enrolled in a Catholic school run by nuns for the daughters of progressives intent on educating them to become professionals. Later her parents sent her to boarding school in Switzerland: “They thought they could turn me into a lady,” she said, rolling her preternaturally huge eyes, speaking in her smoky voice with calligraphic cadences that rolled consonants over into mellifluous vowels.
She went on to study math at the American University in Beirut, where you could find her on Saturday nights in clubs: She loved to dance. She enrolled at the Architectural Association in 1972, where Rem Koolhaas, her mentor, locked her up in a studio so that she would focus on learning how to draw. There in 1977 she won the first of her architectural awards, the Diploma Prize, given only to one graduating student. She lived in a small mews house which, after the AA, became her first studio: She entertained her friends from the stoop, singing sultry songs in her sultry voice, every inch a chanteuse, but singing satire.
The Zaha comet burst onto the scene in 1983 when Arata Isozaki rescued her entry for The Peak, a competition to design a sports club in the heights above Hong Kong, from the pile of schemes that had been rejected before Isozaki arrived. Zaha never designed or drew down to her audience, and even the professional jury could barely understand the cryptic drawings of what looked like Zeus’s fistful of splayed shards thrown from the side of the mountain. An elevated roadway ran through the dislocated stack, sweeping over a pool.
This building was not an extrusion of repetitive floors: Each floor shifted. Abstract but not Modernist, it was something else, perhaps geological. Like rock crystals. No one had seen anything like it before. Nobody knew about emerging chaos science or even knew the word fractal. The jury debated for days until, finally, the sponsor of the project and competition asked the jurors to come to the front window. He had usually driven his Rolls to the proceedings, but there in the drive was his Lamborghini. He said, “I want the project to look like that.” The opponents threw in the towel, and the sponsor called Zaha in London asking to speak to Mr. Hadid.
Scores of architects had entered the competition, so the news spread internationally, catapulting Zaha into the eye of the profession: It caused a sensation, no less than a new form of beauty, perhaps even a paradigm shift. One architect, perhaps her first enemy, threatened to sue the developer because he felt the vision wasn’t buildable. Finally the issue was moot: The family of the developer encountered severe financial difficulties, so the project died. But arguably the Peak launched her career, and with it, the great expectations that surrounded Zaha from the start.
Early on, in 1980, with her entry for the Irish Prime Minister’s Residence competition, she hit a rectangle with a triangle and generated architecture in the exploding fall-out. An architect can never really design outside her temperament and character, and Zaha, as a person, was not afraid of conflict and the unexpected consequences of collision. Recently she walked out on an accusatory BBC interviewer who was aggressively wielding erroneous information. She sued the New York Review of Books for defamation over an article that accused her of indifference to a thousand workers who had supposedly died on a construction site for Al Wakrah soccer stadium in Qatar. In fact the building was not yet even under construction. The Review settled out of court, and she donated the money to a workers’ organization.
In a long list of increasingly numerous projects, her buildings were a portrait of Zaha through and through: complex, detailed, sweeping, confident, disciplined, wild. Koolhaas said that the buildings were simultaneously powerful and fragile. That was true, but it also described Zaha. Always, the buildings were as generous as she was, offering public spaces inside and out that were gifts of welcome, and ownership, for the public. She had the heart of a socialist and believed that though the disadvantaged might live in modest homes, they should at least enjoy elevating public space. She architecturalized urban space, and urbanized architecture, cultivating public space outside while sweeping it into the buildings with ramps and promenades.
Arguably it was a blessing that she didn’t get to build for almost a decade after The Peak, but focused on research for competitions carried out through drawings, paintings, and models in her lofty studio in a Victorian school room (her 400 employees now occupy the entire school). So when she was commissioned for her first major project, the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, she was prepared, and the design was a sophisticated, successfully executed vision that put to rest any lingering accusations that Zaha was a paper architect, and the architecture, unbuildable. The forced perspectives of its three main horizontal concrete prisms zoomed like airplane wings to different, contradictory vanishing points, creating a subtly thrilling sense of spatial irrationality that drew on the Suprematist vision that had been her foundational inspiration since graduate school.
The successes picked up pace, eventually accelerating. The sculpturally suave ski jump in Innsbruck, whose skin flowed around its tower like a chignon; a series of tram stations, housed in bubbles of translucent glass, also in Innsbruck; and an angular, leaning intermodal transportation interchange in Strasbourg, formed the basis of the portfolio that earned her the 2004 Pritzker.
In 2005, she went on to build the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, its elevated shape the result of a grid deformed by a computer; the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome, more baroque and sweeping than Bernini; and the Aquatics Center for London’s 2012 Olympics, whose form abstracted the movement of a swimmer doing the butterfly stroke. Her American projects included the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, a jumbled stack of prisms scaled to adjacent buildings; the dramatically angular Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, with a quilted stainless steel façade, and a split-level, dynamically contoured condominium development adjacent to the High Line in Manhattan.
Asia loved her. Guangzhou commissioned her for its Opera House, its auditoria looking like rocks smoothed over by rivers flowing through the grounds; the Galaxy SoHo office and entertainment complex in Beijing, composed of bread-loaf shapes linked by outdoor corridors streaming on many levels. In Seoul, Korea, she lifted the volume of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a cultural center, to form monumental public spaces, while greening the roof to form a public park. Always the public good.
Her portfolio spans the gap between analog and digital design, the computer smoothing the fragmentary nature of her designs into flows of form and space. The most complex were tours de force of engineering that advanced building technology.
Many of the projects were triumphs; some were masterpieces. All entered the public realm as icons, and not incidentally as topics of discussion. But anything as radically new as her work provoked opposition, including the inevitable scolds who believed that her democratically motivated designs had no social agenda, and that they didn’t respond to program. I headed the competition for Michigan’s Broad Art Museum as a non-voting member of the jury, and just yesterday, an official told me that their stunning building works perfectly: They have no complaints. Armchair critics seem to think that if a building is as beautiful as Zaha’s, it can’t be practical, and that ugly buildings must be practical because why else would they be ugly? Her efforts are often misunderstood and falsely accused by the lesser talents whose position she displaced, and of course by the bean counters.
There were setbacks to Zaha’s march to infinity. In Wales, she won the competition to design Cardiff’s opera house twice, and lost it twice to shenanigans that gave new meaning to the expression welshing. The Japanese Prime Minister recently canceled Zaha’s project to design the stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because of cost overruns, without acknowledging that Zaha had substantially increased the size of the stadium per the clients’ requests, and without attempting to open the bid beyond two pre-selected contractors. The two competed in a closed, counter-productive, unnecessarily expensive process.
Zaha was sometimes called the most talented female architect alive, and by some even the most talented woman architect of all time. But that boxed appreciation ghettoizes and diminishes her, and women, too: she was quite simply one of the most inventive architects ever. She created her own language, and everything she touched turned to intelligent beauty.
Her death does not signal the end of an era. She helped open an era that continues. She changed the field, she lived large, she belonged to the world.
And Zaha, wherever you are, just know that we loved you.