Ask the average person to name a celebrated female architect and they’d struggle. They’d probably be able to name one or two men — Norman Foster, maybe Frank Gehry or Le Corbusier — but a single woman? That’d be a chin-scratcher.
Which is a ridiculous travesty, given than the late Zaha Hadid is arguably the single biggest influence on modern architecture. If you’ve seen ‘Black Panther’ — this year’s biggest film so far — then you’ve seen that far-reaching influence at work. Hadid’s wild, sensual, futuristic aesthetic was a huge influence on those stunning Wakanda cityscapes, as Hannah Bleacher, the film’s production designer admits. “Zaha’s work was voluptuous, curvy, no hard edges,” says Bleacher. “The spaces feel both very large and very intimate at the same time.”
Born in Iraq and privately educated in the UK, Hadid made her name as architecture’s rule-flouting rebel. Her creations could be starkly angular, sexily curvaceous, alive with movement or blissfully serene, but they always looked like they’d been beamed down from outer space. She wasn’t one for compromising or following trends — she followed her own path, cheerfully dividing opinion as she went.
Cookie-cutter steel-and-glass buildings are so often hurled up into the skyline with precious little imagination to prop them up. Hadid, however, filled her vision of the built environment with magical, otherworldly shapes, whether she was working on utilitarian projects — a bridge, a fire station or a port terminal — or something grander, like a museum or an opera house. And bucking the idea of ‘mellowing with age’, Zaha’s designs actually got wilder and more daring as she got older.
See, for example, the sprawling London Aquatics Centre that Hadid designed for the 2012 Olympics, which looks like a swimmer in the throes of the butterfly. Then there’s the astounding Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, described by one critic as being “as sexy as Marilyn’s blown skirt”. And there’s the Galaxy SOHO, looking like four vast eggs dropped into the centre of Beijing. With its swooping, interconnecting walkways, the SOHO was accused of destroying the city’s architectural heritage by some preservation groups. You can’t please all the people all the time, as Zaha knew all too well.
In 2004, at the age of 53, Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritker Prize — awarded for careers of singular achievement within architecture — and in 2016 also became the first woman to receive the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects. To put that in perspective, the first medal was awarded all the way back in 1848.
Zaha Hadid is widely regarded — by many, if not everybody — as the greatest female architect of our time. Whether you’re a lover or a hater, there’s no denying that her rebel spirit is something that our cities could do with a lot more of right now.