Architect. Arab. Woman.
When Zaha Hadid passed away in 2016, she left an extensive portfolio of architectural works that were equally admired and criticized across the world. The British-Iraqi architect was known for having a bold personality accompanied by an even bolder design ethic. Although criticized for her approach to deconstructivism, Hadid received a myriad of prestigious awards, including the Stirling Prize (equivalent to literature’s Booker Prize) from the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was also the first woman to win both the Pritzker Architecture Prize and Royal Gold Medal – a female pacesetter with landmark buildings from London to Hong Kong.
Born in Baghdad, Hadid was schooled in London and Switzerland, setting the tone for her global lifestyle to come. She attended the American University in Beirut to study mathematics before pursuing architecture in London. Following her training, Hadid turned from student to teacher, working in Rotterdam for her former university professors at the Architectural Association School. Once naturalised as a British citizen, Hadid opened her own business – Zaha Hadid Architects – which today is comprised of 400 staff and 950 projects in 44 countries. Hadid’s architectural achievements include the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 London Olympics, Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum, and the Bergisel Ski Jump in Austria.
Not only did Hadid excel as a practitioner, she also thrived as a mentor, passing her learnings on to budding architects. She taught in Ivy League institutions including Harvard and Columbia, as well as internationally in Hamburg and Austria. When describing her work and its impact, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times said, “her work, with its formal fluidity — also implying mobility, speed, freedom — spoke to a worldview widely shared by a younger generation.” Hadid’s passion to showcase futuristic, modern design, in turn ignited that same passion in the younger generation as she shared it. After her untimely death, British writer Deyan Sudjic wrote an obituary for the architect in The Guardian, describing Hadid as “a dedicated teacher, enthused by the energy of the young.”
Hadid was a citizen of the world, and her work transcended any one culture or tradition. Whether by the marshes of Southern Iraq, the supremacist work of avant-garde Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, or the naturally occurring shapes of the landscape, Hadid’s work was inspired by an emulsion of experience, rather than any one country or place. In summarising these sentiments, Iranian Professor Hamid Dabashi said: “Hadid took a fistful of everything that was good and beautiful in her homeland… and with it, she signed her signature on every corner of the globe she visited.”
She was a proud architect before anything else, but her identity as an Arab woman meant that she was consistently breaking barriers set by pre-existing standards and traditions in the industry. No stranger to prejudice or discrimination, Hadid once stated, “I used to not like being called a woman architect. I am an architect, not just a woman architect… but if it helps younger people to know they can break through the glass ceiling, I don’t mind that.”
Hadid had to push many boundaries before she could become a pacesetter, but her headstrong personality allowed her to fight for her place in the industry and transcend stereotypes. Although dubbed ‘Queen of the Curve,’ and subject to both reverence and admonishment, Hadid undoubtedly left a mark on the field of architecture, and remains the first and only woman to win the Royal Gold Medal for Architects – a prize steeped in history and grandeur.
Hadid not only reshaped architecture and how the public perceives it, but redesigned the industry as a place in which women can succeed and excel. Her strong brand lives on in her name and in her company, which reports 40 percent female employees. In an industry where 70 percent of women drop out due to a lack of role models – a figure estimated by a 2014 study by the San Francisco division of the American Institute of Architects – the loss of Zaha Hadid will be felt immensely.