In March this year, the world was shocked to hear the news of the sudden passing away of the “architect diva” Dame Zaha Hadid, who suffered a fatal heart attack. This Iraqi-British architect was a legend in the architecture and design industries, with her name becoming synonymous with striking structures. Indeed, her work was so successful and visually astounding that she had become just as well known outside the architectural world.
As much as her achievements in the sphere of designs and structures, the diva also succeeded—indeed, excelled—in what is traditionally a man’s world. “Women are always told, ‘You’re not going to make it, it’s too difficult, you can’t do that, don’t enter this competition, you’ll never win it.’ They need confidence in themselves and people around them to help them to get on,” she once said, addressing the inequalities she saw in her own profession as well as the plight of many women with their hearts set on a professional career. In fact, Hadid broke many boundaries: she was the first woman and the first Muslim to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004.
Born in 1950, Hadid studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut before moving to London in 1972 and turning her attention to architecture at the the Architectural Association School, from which she graduated with the Diploma Prize in 1977. Her first notable collaboration was with iconic architects Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, with whom she became a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) also in 1977. Her work with OMA saw the first of a string of award successes, with their partnership in designing the new Dutch parliament building earning a top prize at the Architectural Design Competition in 1978.
Hadid then carved out a phenomenal career, establishing her own practice in London in 1980. As her career flourished, so did her reputation, notably in 1988 when she showcased an impressive set of architectural drawings at the “Deconstructivism in Architecture” exhibition curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigleyat at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Later in the mid-1980s, Hadid was given the coveted Kenzo Tange Chair at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, where she also taught, the Sullivan Chair at the University of Illinois, School of Architecture in Chicago, and many more.
With so many prestigious titles to her name and commanding such influence, Hadid was named among the Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful Women in 2007 and 2008. Meanwhile, in 2008, the Japan Art Association awarded her with the Praemium Imperiale. Other achievements include being recognised by the Institute of British Architects, UNESCO and TIME magazine. A naturalised UK citizen she was also created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012.
In tandem with her work, Hadid’s views on the world in which she found herself were also striking. “I don’t think that architecture is only about shelter, is only about a very simple enclosure,” she said in an oft-repeated quote. “It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think.”
This philosophy was reflected in the long list of stunning projects she completed during her lifetime. Hadid’s designs, along with her strong conceptual, historical and approach to nature’s form, always produced statements, not just buildings, in locations as far and wide as Asia and Europe. Notable examples include the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in South Korea, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery at London, the Messner Mountain Museum Corones in Italy, along with the upcoming new National Stadium in Tokyo, being built for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Dame Zaha Hadid—force of nature, champion of women’s rights and design visionary—is irreplaceable and she will be sadly missed. The woman who once said, “I always thought I was powerful, since I was a kid” certainly proved herself right, and the body of work and absence she leaves behind is a powerful testament to this foresight.
Text by Ria Iskandar