When British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid died unexpectedly at the age of 65 on March 31, it made headlines in a way that the death of few architects do. She was probably the most famous architect in the world, the embodiment of the starchitect. People recognised her distinctive swooping and curving architectural style; they would probably even recognise a picture of her – a larger-than-life presence in flowing black with dramatically made-up eyes, lips and hair.

They might also be aware of something of the controversy she tended to attract – the budget overruns, the unbuilt projects, the extravagant buildings for dodgy dictators. As something of an outsider, a woman and a foreigner in London, she attracted her fair share of accolades. In 2004 she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, pretty much architecture’s highest accolade; the year before she died, she became the first woman to be awarded the royal gold medal for architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Zaha Hadid
Zaha Hadid
Image: Mary McCartney

She had won the Stirling twice before, and was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012. Hadid was known as the “Queen of the Curve” for her use of organic and asymmetrical shapes, but her work was also more dismissively referred to as “blobitecture”. Her bold and unconventional forms sometimes seem to defy gravity with their grace and elegance; others attract derisive comparisons.

Her stadium for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was said by many commentators to look uncannily like a vagina (its real inspiration was apparently a dhow) and her unrealised Olympic stadium in Tokyo was referred to as “the cycling helmet” or “the potty”. Of course, being mocked is an occupational hazard among the avant garde. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York has been compared to a washing machine and Norman Forster has the Gherkin in London– nicknames that reflect affection as well as ridicule.

Hadid began her practice at a time when the modernist orthodoxies of the 20th century were stagnating. Her designs were complex and flamboyant, bold and unashamed. Their exuberant shapes and singularity of vision emerged in the wake of modernism’s late 20th-century failures, when the only alternative appeared to be regressive conservatism.

Hadid took geometry and abstract art, particularly the Russian avant-garde artists of the early 20th century such as Kazimir Malevich, and exploded them into three dimensions to create “new spatial concepts” in the words of the Pritzker Prize. Her architecture, infused with her grasp of mathematics,  was about pushing boundaries and experimenting with new forms and techniques.

Interestingly, while her recent work is characterised by curves, her earlier works are more angular: one of her very first buildings, the Vitra fire station (1993) in Germany, is all facets and straight lines. It’s worth noting that her rise was dogged with difficulties and her eventual success pays tribute to her persistence and conviction.

After completing her studies, she first worked for Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam. She started her own practice in 1979 and her breakthrough design in 1983 for a large resort called The Peak in Hong Kong, was never realised.

Messner Mountain Museum
Messner Mountain Museum
Image: Inexhibit

A decade later, her ambitious design for the Cardiff Bay opera house in Wales was also scrapped, causing her much heartache. She became known as the world’s most famous architect never to have built anything. (Not quite true, but the description reflects how the scale and ambition of her unrealised projects 
completely overshadowed her built works.) It was only in 2011 that she finally completed a major building in the UK with the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.

In the noughties, with the rise of the concept of the starchitect, Hadid’s practice truly gained traction. Projects such as the BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany, completed in 2005, were followed by ever bigger and more prominent commissions.

She finally got her opera house with the Guangzhou Opera House in China and really made her mark at home with the London Aquatics Centre for the London Olympics. With her success came controversy. She was criticised for accepting commissions from dubious clients.

The beautifully sweeping curves of the Heydar Aliyev Center  in Azerbaijan was commissioned by a dictator, and she built a house for a Russian oligarch. Her massive Galaxy Soho in Beijing was criticised for riding roughshod over heritage concerns. Other works were attacked simply for being egotistical and dismissive of their context.

The flamboyant shapes she constructed were very expensive to make – no doubt part of their appeal to certain clients, who wanted them as status symbols. Her extravagant use of materials to achieve the swooping roof shape of the London Aquatics Centre used 10 times more steel than the similarly sized Velodrome by Hopkins Architects. Budget overruns are another common theme.

The “cycling helmet” design for Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium was cancelled because of a blown budget (although Hadid argued she wasn’t to blame as her clients didn’t account for inflation and rising building costs). But then again, the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon ran to 14 times its original budget and has become the symbol of a city. Some of her projects – the London Aquatic Centre again – were denigrated for their practical failings.

MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art, Rome
MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art, Rome
Image: Iwan Baan

Apparently the view from certain back seats is obscured. Again, these types of failings are not uncommon among boundary-pushing designers: think of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Hadid said she designed in the belief that powerful and brilliant works of architecture contributed to society in meaningful and transformative ways. (Although many of her clients might not have shared that line of thought.) 

You could argue that Hadid was at the height of her career when she died – she was perhaps the world’s most in-demand architect – but that her reign was drawing to a close. Starchitects might be a phenomenon that belongs to a particular time. Hadid was un-doubtedly their queen, but, while the global superstars of design are still riding high, priorities such as efficiency and local context are becoming more urgent and may in time undermine their appeal.  

On the flipside, the enormous cost of her buildings ensures that there will be time for her legacy to find its rightful place after fashion’s pendulum has swung. And there is something to be said for “iconic” architecture – audacious buildings that can transform the life of a city even if, in The Observer critic Rowan Moore’s words, “the buildings now coming out of Hadid’s office are conservative types – stadiums, palaces of culture – dressed with modernistic styling.

They are monuments, for all their rhetoric of dynamism frozen.” Whether you believe that those swoops and curves were truly liberating or merely indulgent, there can be little doubt that Hadid reinvigorated architecture in a way few of her peers did, and even her detractors will continue to borrow her ideas.

BMW Central Building, Leipzig
BMW Central Building, Leipzig
Image: Helene Binet
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