Sunday, April 3, 2016

R.I.P. Zaha Hadid

Dame Zaha Hadid, DBE, 1950-2016 (photo by Mary McCartney)

The news shocked the design world this past Thursday: Acclaimed Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid died suddenly of a heart attack while undergoing treatment for bronchitis in a Miami hospital. Hadid was only 65 years old. Despite her relative youth, she left behind a remarkable legacy of both theoretical and built work. Her provocative portfolio includes the Guangzhou Opera House in China (2010), the London Aquatics Centre designed for the 2012 Olympic Games, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan (2013), and the Messner Mountain Museum in the Italian Alps completed last year. 

A Pritzker Prize laureate and RIBA Gold medalist, Zaha Hadid was nothing if not a consummately audacious and confident form-maker. I first became aware of her considerable talent when the jury awarded its top prize to her entry in the visionary1983 competition for The Peak in Hong Kong. I remember initially being baffled by her drawings for the project: visually disorienting and unbound by the rules of conventional perspective, they brashly demanded examination and interpretation. The radical abstraction of the Russian Suprematists and the vocabulary of the Constructivists had clearly influenced her work. Indeed, Hadid’s design for The Peak was a bravura expression of what El Lissitzky referred to in his definition of Suprematism as the “illusion of irrational space, with its infinite extensibility into the background and foreground.” The undeniable antecedents notwithstanding, I recognized what others would also appreciate: Zaha Hadid was an original.

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, Baku, Azerbaijan

During the 90’s, the work generated by Hadid’s atelier gravitated away from aggressively angular forms (perhaps best exemplified by the Vitra campus firehouse in Weil Am Rhein, Germany) toward sensuously swooping and curvilinear volumes. In part the product of the firm’s pioneering use of parametric modeling, Zaha Hadid Architects’ dynamic, fluid, seemingly weightless, and technologically inventive designs have defined many of our current notions about the architectural avant-garde. That such remarkable work has actually been built is astonishing. 

At its best, Hadid’s design vocabulary was responsive to place (the Messner Mountain Museum being a case in point); on the other hand, its signature quality was also its greatest shortcoming. It derived its power from its global application and de facto branding as a distinctively personal style. She never allowed a genuinely organic solution to any specific design problem usurp the primacy of her aesthetic vision. Regardless, the fantastical quality of her projects has inspired a generation of architects and will enthuse generations more to believe in the power of architecture. Such poetry is a much-needed tonic for the 99% of architects like me who labor anonymously and assiduously on far less spectacular commissions. 

Guangzhou Opera House (file via Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

By all accounts, Hadid was herself bold, immodest—at times imperious—and unquestionably larger than life. For better or worse, she may have been the world’s most influential “starchitect” of recent years. Certainly, the “Queen of the Curve” inspired legions of imitators; however, none has yet to surpass her virtuosity or intellect.

Hadid’s canonization as one of architecture’s sainted is assured, but I’m left wondering whether she will truly be remembered as a meaningful contributor to the betterment of our planet or instead harshly recalled as an extravagant auteur indulging the dreams and egos of wealthy patrons. I do suspect history will eventually pronounce her the latter, and likewise judge her starchitect peers—Gehry, Koolhaas, Ingels, Calatrava, Libeskind, Prince-Ramus, et al—with similar contempt, as fellow fiddlers in the orchestra as Rome burns.

I intend no disrespect for Zaha Hadid. Her substantial accomplishments will forever survive her passing. It’s just that our world has rapidly moved past the point where we can afford the kind of profligacy and excess her most celebrated projects emblemize. May we never forget how she pushed architecture’s envelope, but let us also acknowledge how her death should likewise spur serious and timely reflection about its future as a discipline in the service of humankind.

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