Ode to Zaha Hadid

An explosion of innovation within the world of architecture.

By Michael Isenbek

Famed architect Zaha Hadid may have passed on, but her glass-ceiling-shattering indomitable spirit lives on with every innovative element she applied to concrete, steel and glass in her works.

Born on October 31st 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq, to an upper-class family, Hadid’s educational pursuits soon had her headed abroad, first to boarding schools in England and Switzerland, then to the American University of Beirut in Lebanon to study mathematics. During this early period of her life, a desire to become an architect began to bloom, and finally bore fruit when she returned to England to enroll in London’s legendary avant-garde Architectural Association (AA) institute in 1972. It is here that she studied under revered architects Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, and found an affinity with the Constructivist movement, a revolutionary Russia-era architectural style that blended abstraction, geometry, and futurism. In a short while, though, Hadid would transcend movements and create her own style. 

As revealed in an excerpt from the book Zaha Hadid: The Complete Works, published by The Telegraph, Koolhaas called Hadid “a planet in her own orbit” at her graduation in 1977, and Zenghelis declared, “[we] called her the inventor of the 89 degrees. Nothing was ever at 90 degrees. She had spectacular vision. All the buildings were exploding into tiny little pieces.”

After graduating, she worked with Koolhaas and Zenghelis for a time in the Netherlands, but returned to the U.K. and officially made it her new home country, becoming a naturalized citizen, and then in 1980, Hadid opened her own eponymous architectural firm in London.

Her big ideas didn’t immediately translate into marquee architectural projects, and remained on paper alone, so she taught, initially at her AA alma mater. Teaching would become a connecting thread throughout Hadid’s entire career, even as she achieved rest-on-her-laurels levels of fame. Her most prestigious academic positions included chairs and guest professorships at Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia University, the University of Visual Arts in Hamburg and the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Her first major work to exist in reality was the Vitra Fire Station, completed in Weil am Rhein, Germany in 1993. As described in her official archive at zaha-hadid.com, the fire station “defines rather than occupies space…an ‘alert’ structure ready to explode into action at any moment.”

Hadid’s first brush with fame, interestingly enough, was with a major failure. She won a British competition for the opportunity to design the much-ballyhooed Cardiff Bay Opera House — what followed was an 18-month ordeal, which climaxed with the project being canceled. But this spate of misfortune wouldn’t last. There would be a string of successful commissions and green-lighted projects, leading to awards and plaudits from organizations near and far. The culmination of these achievements was the landmark win of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004. This award is seen as the profession’s highest honor and the architecture world’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. And Hadid was the first woman to receive the prize.

In a retrospective of her career to that point, the Pritzker organization assembled a list of, as they called them, “some of her seminal built works” for which she is “well-known.” Vitra Fire Station was mentioned, along with the Mind Zone at the Millennium Dome in London, which was an architectural journey through brain functions; a ski jump in Innsbruck, Austria, which melded mountain topography with structure; and the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, a public space filled with evocative walls, ramps and walkways.

Post-Pritzker Prize, Hadid’s continued success led to Queen Elizabeth II naming her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012, and she subsequently earned the Royal Gold Medal in 2016.

Though Hadid was a longtime U.K. denizen, she maintained a Miami Beach residence and she is making a major mark on the architecture of the Downtown Miami area even after her untimely passing in 2016. Begun in 2013, and now approaching completion, is the centrally-located One Thousand Museum Residences, a trademark Hadid creation taking shape that is just as much a sculpture as it is a 60-plus-story luxury condominium — crystalline glass enrobed in a flowing exoskeleton with expansive views of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. 

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