The first woman to win the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in its 26 year history, ZAHA HADID (1950-) has defined a radically new approach to architecture by creating buildings with multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry to evoke the chaos of modern life.
Born in 1950 in Baghdad, she grew up in a very different Iraq from the one we know today. The Iraq of her childhood was a liberal, secular, western-focused country with a fast-growing economy that flourished until the Ba’ath party took power in 1963, and where her bourgeois intellectual family played a leading role. Female role models were plentiful in liberal Iraq, but in architecture, female role models anywhere, let alone in the Middle East, were thin on the ground in the 1950s and 1960s. No matter. After convent school in Baghdad and Switzerland, and a degree in mathematics at the American University in Beirut, Hadid enrolled at the Architectural Association in London in 1972.
The AA of the 1970s was the perfect place for ambitious, independently minded would-be architects to flourish. Under Alvin Boyarski as director, it became the most fertile place for the architectural imagination, home to a precocious generation of students and teachers who are now household names, such as Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Will Alsop and Bernard Tschumi. It was a period when pre-1968 optimistic modernism was being abandoned amid economic uncertainty and cultural conservatism. In architecture too, democratic modernism was perceived to have failed and there was a swing towards historicist post-modernism and conservation. The AA’s theorists did the opposite. They rejected kitsch post-modernism to become still more modernist. Like snakes shedding their skins, they discarded the failed utopian projects of “first” modernism to think up a new modernism with a more sophisticated idea of history and human identity, an architecture embodying modernity’s chaos and disjuncture in its very shape.
You could call Hadid's work baroque modernism. She shatters both the classically formal, rule bound modernism of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier and the old rules of space — walls, ceilings, front and back, right angles. She then reassembles them as what she calls “a new fluid, kind of spatiality” of multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry, designed to embody the chaotic fluidity of modern life.
Hadid’s architecture denies its own solidity. Short of creating actual forms that morph and change shape – still the stuff of science fiction – Hadid creates the solid apparatus to make us perceive space as if it morphs and changes as we pass through. Her obsession with shadow and ambiguity is deeply rooted in Islamic architectural tradition, while its fluid, open nature is a politically charged riposte to increasingly fortified and undemocratic modern urban landscapes.
All of which would have been impossible without the advent of computer-aided design to allow architects almost infinite freedom to create any shape they wanted. Actually building these new kinds of spaces was another matter. Such melodramatic shapes required significant investment, both financially and in terms of engineering.
Slowly, curious clients emerged who were willing to spend money to realise Hadid’s peculiar new architecture. It was a stuttering start. Her first big success, The Peak, a spa planned for Hong Kong, was never built. Nor were buildings on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm, or an art and media centre in Dusseldorf. Hadid’s first built project, The Fire Station at the production complex of the Vitra office furniture group at Weil-am-Rhein on the German-Swiss border was a formal success but not a functional one.
Slowly it worked. Somewhat ironically, it was traditionally conservative Midwestern America that gave Hadid her real break. The Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio was a chance to try out her ideas on a large scale and to conceive a stunning new take on curating and museum experience, imagined as “a kit of parts”, she says, which curators can customise for each show. “It’s like an extension of the city, the urban landscape.” Literally so.
Her impressionistic new space was realised. The New York Times described it, without overstatement, as “the most important new building in America since the Cold War.”
Crucially, Cincinnati gave Hadid the confidence to win a stream of commissions for: a ferry terminal in Salerno, Italy; a high-speed train station in Naples; a public archive, library and sport centre in Montpellier; Opera Houses in Dubai and Guangzhou, a performing arts centre in Abu Dhabi, private residences in Moscow and the USA as well as major master-planning projects in Bilbao, Istanbul and the Middle East. Even in conservative Britain, her adopted home, Hadid has recently completed Maggies Centre, a cancer care centre in Kirkaldy in Scotland.
Undoubtedly, Hadid has cemented her reputation as one of the world’s most exciting and significant contemporary architects. By transcending the realm of paper architecture to the built form, Hadid is certain to complete many memorable projects in the future.