The woman who would be King

Text | Aasim Akhtar

Visuals | As Mentioned

Issue 44

If we talk of Zaha Hadid, we must celebrate the return of the cult of personality in architecture. For years this was criticised, declared a thing of the past and certainly politically incorrect as a concept. Yet this was a suspect rejection of the essential incentive of power, identity and by implication the condition of style without which the art was merely a series of polite whispering moves. Zaha Hadid was above all a personality and a wonderful power. Out of this came her original and inimitable style as an architect. Her creative talent was inseparable from her comet-like dynamic – a presence that whizzed through all the astonished provinces of architectural paranoia and procedure. Now that she built, the speed of trajectory was augmented but was not apparently dented. Like very few other prodigies she remained interesting and inventive. 

Zaha Hadid’s architecture has often been called planetary. Looking at her paintings, you can understand why. Three Dimensional forms hover like spaceships in weightless space with neither front or back, top or bottom. Through their spatial relationships on the canvas, however, they form a series of motion-spaces that are dynamically intertwined. As in a Cubist painting, the observer has to climb hand over hand from one vista to another. The main view of the traditional perspectival vision dissolves into a sequence of takes spread over the picture plane like a folded landscape. Yet as the project proceeds from sketch to building, the spaceships start approaching the ground. Landing the building, then, becomes a prime manoeuvre of architecture. The traditional dualism of figure and ground starts to falter. The building is no longer an isolated object placed on a neutral plane. Merging the weightlessness of planetary architecture with the ground’s gravitational groundforce, this space invokes the ‘heavy hovering’ so eloquently pictured in countless science-fiction movies, that archetypal shot of the landing of extraterrestrial spaceships on earth. Just before landing, the spaceship stops briefly to rest motionlessly in mid-air. And in a final hesitant moment, the space between the earth and the UFO seems to vibrate vividly.

In almost all of Hadid’s projects you can witness the same stunning scenario of a mass slowly sinking on to the ground from above. But instead of firmly settling down, it penetrates the earth with stilts. Startled by this invasion from without, the earth begins to stir and eventually breaks up, its surface gaping wide open to reveal hitherto unseen spaces. The spatial articulation of the ‘artificial territory’ is inseparable from its programming. Hence the action on the ground is carefully prolonged and gently pushed inside and throughout the building. It is here that Zaha Hadid goes decidedly beyond the modernist agenda. It even figures as one of the ‘Five Points of Modern Architecture’ by Le Corbusier, significantly termed ‘liberation from the ground’, as if the ground was a danger from which the architecture had to be saved. Accordingly, LeCorbusier advocated the raising of the building above the ground, but like any singular solution that is turned into a recipe, it was soon to show its limits. Isolating the building from its surroundings threatens to alienate the ground and make it an orphan territory. Hadid, in a complementary attempt to update and eventually fulfill the aspirations of modernism, puts all her energies into activating this ‘urban ground floor’, but quite contrary to modernism, her architecture does not grow out of the ground; instead it approaches it from above. Zaha Hadid’s practice occupies a former school in Clerkenwell, an area of London that still bears the scent of Dickens. It’s an 1870s building designed by the architect E R Robson who was unquestionably formulaic. Today the high, plain, light rooms are crammed to bursting with Hadid’s 200 or so employees. Though they are of every conceivable race, their youth, their sombre clothes, their intense concentration link them. There is little sound other than the click of keyboards and a low murmur from earphones. It is though they are engaged in a particularly exigent exam. 

If there is such a thing as a physical manifestation of the dubious concept called the knowledge economy, this is it. Ten minutes’ walk from the practice is Hadid’s apartment – austerely elegant, a sort of gallery of her painting and spectacularly lissome furniture. It’s a monument to Zaha the public architect rather than Zaha the private woman. Her route from home to work might almost have been confected as an illustration of the abruptness of urban mutation. Here is another London: stock bricks and red terra cotta, pompous warehouses, run down factories, grim cottages, high mute walls, a labyrinth of alleys, Victorian philanthropists’ prison-like tenements, toytown cottages, neglected pockets of mid-20th-century Utopianism, apologetic infills, ambiguous plots of waste ground. It is neither rough nor pretty, but it has a sinewy character. It may be ordinary, but it is undeniably diverse. 

The daily stroll through this canyon of variety is surely attractive to an artist whose aesthetic is doggedly catholic, each of whose buildings seems unsatisfied with being just one building. Hadid inhabited the world of architecture all her adult life, for many years as a perpetually promising aspirant, a ‘paper architect’ who got very little built but still won the Pritzker prize – the Nobel of architecture – which raises the question of whether architecture is divisible from building, of where the fiction of design stops and the actuality of structure starts. Today, she is this tiny, powerful milieu’s most singular star, and its only woman, its only Zaha. Inevitably, she stirred nearly as much controversy as she won admiration. She provoked protests from human rights advocates when her $250 million cultural centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, forced the eviction of families from the site. 

A commission to design the stadium in Qatar became a lightning rod for critics who decry the treatment of foreign labourers by the government there. Hadid filed a defamation suit against one critic who had falsely reported that 1,000 workers had died building her stadium – before construction had even begun. She won a settlement and an apology. Zaha Hadid was born in Baghdad on 0ctober 31, 1950. Her father was an industrialist, educated in London, who headed a progressive party advocating secularism and democracy in Iraq. Baghdad was a cosmopolitan hub of modern ideas, and it clearly shaped her upbringing. She attended a Catholic school where students spoke French and where Muslims and Jews were welcome. After that, she studied mathematics at the American University in Beirut. In 1972, she arrived at the Architectural Association in London – a centre for experimental design. Her teachers included Elia Zhengelis and Rem d Koolhaas. They “ignited my ambition,” she recalled, and “taught me to trust even my strangest intuitions.” Hadid’s intuitions led her to the Russian avant-garde and its leaders, Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich. Her graduation project at the AA, called Malevich’s Tektonik, was a proposal for a hotel atop Hungerford Bridge over the Thames. For a while she worked at Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam – a cutting-edge firm and crucible for young gifted architects. By the 1980s she had established her own practice in London. During these years, Hadid turned out an astonishing, super-refined variety of futuristic drawings and paintings. She used her art to test spatial ideas that she couldn’t make concrete without the aid of computer algorithms. She soon developed an insiders’ reputation as a leading theoretical designer of groundbreaking forms with unrealised projects like the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales. In 1994, her first real commission came along, a fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany. It inspired a design of typically outsize imagination: a winged composition, all sharp angles and protrusions. Not one to compromise or concede much to those who called her works impractical, indulgent and imprudent, Hadid made the most of the commissions. When her Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, opened in 2003, Herbert Muschamp, the then architecture critic for The New York Times opined: “It is the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War.” Projects followed, like the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany; the Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain; and an opera house in Guangzhou, China, whose rock crystal-shaped design she likened to “pebbles in a stream smoothed by erosion.”

Hadid’s sources were nature, history, and the utilitarian. Her design for the MAXXI – a modern art museum in Rome – alluded distantly to Baroque precedents, and became one of the rare modern buildings to vie for attention with its numerous historical sites. Like the fire station, it isn’t entirely practical, but it is a voluptuous and muscular building, multi tiered, with ramps that flow like streams, floors that tilt like hills, and walls that swirl and swoon. It took years before Hadid won major commissions in Britain, where she eventually became a citizen. Her Aquatics Centre in London, built before the 2012 Olympics, was a cathedral for water sports, with an undulating roof and two 50-metre pools. The death of Zaha Hadid at 65 in Miami, Florida, reverberated through quarters of the architecture world like a seismic sweep. A month after her death, on the long approach from the sea at Salerno, the ancient and gracious Italian city south of Naples, the maritime terminal created by Hadid heralded her posthumous legacy. The flowing, horizontal silhouette of this all-concrete structure, bracketed fore and aft by leaning walls, stood out from the heavyset classic buildings that adorned the waterfront. At the end of the day, she was a woman architect who never wanted to be called a woman architect. But clearly, she broke new ground by being a woman, by not being Western, by being educated all over the world – there is, indeed, so much that she enabled. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *