#WCW: Remembering Groundbreaking Artist and Architect Zaha Hadid

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zaha hadid
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Bouchet and Paul McCarthy

A little over a year ago, the world lost one of its foremost architectural pioneers when Zaha Hadid passed away from a sudden heart attack at the age of 65. She was central to the “digital architecture” movement, which she created years before computer modeling and rendering were possible. Given her immense contributions to the fields of art and architecture, her fiercely independent and feminist nature, and her influence in the realm of fashion, we have chosen to dedicate this month’s #WCW to one of the world’s most visionary women.

Hadid’s life began in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1950 – although it was a much more cosmopolitan version of the city than we know today. Her parents were wealthy, and her father was the leader of the country’s National Democratic Party, which advocated for secularism and democracy. Her higher education was first earned at the American University of  Beirut in 1968, just a few years before the Civil War.

Afterwards, she moved to London to attend the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in 1972, and was granted British citizenship in 1989. Throughout her scholastic career in London, Hadid had trouble finding her path since what she envisioned for architecture had not yet been invented. Uniquely, she painted her buildings instead of sketching them, which allowed her to use paints to demonstrate the fading and diminishing of lines as they moved through space. This would later come to play on how she crafted her strange and brilliant “biomorphic” designs.

Hadid’s first big break came with her Malevich’s Tektonik design, for which she won the Diploma Prize at AA in 1977. The building was a striking 14-story hotel that stretched over the Hungerford Bridge in London, with pieces of the structure pockmarked along the South Bank. It was deconstruction and invention at a level never seen before, and it earned her wide praise and respect among her peers.

Malevich’s Tektonik was so revolutionary that it moved Aaron Betsky of the Cincinnati Art Museum to tell The New Yorker, “You can’t underestimate the impact that her project had. It really was one of these very rare moments when a fissure opens up in architecture, and a different way of seeing emerges. We no longer have to be bound by gravity. We don’t have to accept reality – she will unfold her own reality.”

Hadid’s architectural reality unfolded at what seems like a snail’s pace as her design work was piecemeal until another breakthrough in 1997, when she was commissioned to build the Cincinnati Art Museum. In the meantime, she was a highly sought-after lecturer at Harvard University, curated exhibitions for the Guggenheim Museum, and participated in major design competitions.

During this 20-year period, the only building she brought to completion was a small but amazing fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, which offered sharp angles and jutting facades. However, new technology developed, providing benefits that would change Hadid’s career and bringing her to a level of fame she could only have dreamed of before.

Zaha Hadid and Karl Lagerfeld
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Computer modeling significantly enhanced Hadid’s ability to carry out her vision. Where her paintings and drawings before did not functionally make sense, the reliance of modeling on mathematical formulas solved the issue of function. Furthermore, by painting her buildings before rendering them digitally, she allowed for natural instincts to drive form, which is why her work evolved from the angular shapes we saw with the German firehouse to the soft, fluid shapes exemplified by the Maxxi Museum in Rome.

By painting her buildings before rendering them digitally, she allowed for natural instincts to drive form.

Suddenly, she was more in demand than she could keep up with and had to grow her team from five to 300 members, taking over the whole building of the modest Clerkenwell location where she established her business. Known as the ‘Queen of the Curve’, her marvelous creations were meant to blend naturally with their surroundings, appearing in undulating and asymmetrical shapes crafted from curved laths or splines that required complex formulas to render them digitally.

Asymmetry is one of the most exciting aspects to her work, especially considering architecture’s long tradition of symmetry. Consider that most buildings you will enter have a clear front and back – Hadid’s do not. In fact, some report feeling disoriented when first entering a Hadid structure due to its lack of clear entrances and exits. Her intent was to create lines that felt realistic for how people navigate their environments, so her rooms seem to disappear around corners.

Although Hadid, as both an Arab and a woman, faced plenty of conflicts born of sheer ignorance, she did not let her status as the first woman to win a Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004) or a RIBA Gold Medal (2016) define her path. In fact, a journalist once asked her, “How does it feel to be the first woman to design a public building in the city of the emperors?” in reference to her Maxxi Museum design. She responded, “I don’t know. I’ve always been a woman. I don’t go around thinking of myself as a woman on a daily basis.”

Rather, she thought of herself as an artist – one who was just as adept at translating her creative vision to large-scale objects as she was to smaller objects like furniture and jewelry, which she also designed. While Hadid herself was not a style icon – although she was known for her signature cape-and-leggings combination and sculptural jewelry – her designs were quite influential in the field of fashion.

Not only did she collaborate with Pharrell Williams on designing shoes for Adidas, but her work has also directly influenced collections by brands like Milly and Darmaki. In an interview, she famously stated, “Architecture is how the person places herself in the space. Fashion is how you place the object on the person,” proving her keen awareness as to fashion and architecture’s organic relationship to people.

In our first posthumous #WCW gallery ever, we highlight the incredible artistry of Hadid’s pioneering designs with a gallery of her most vivid creations.

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