As the bravest and boldest designer to shatter architecture’s glass ceiling since Julia Morgan, Zaha Hadid has been called a diva more than a few times. This kneejerk sexism is an unfortunate result of architecture’s waning but persistent domination by men in practice. While my own architecture class and faculty was pretty evenly split along the gender line, many firms at the highest levels of practice are still lingering in a boys-only era. In the century since Julia Morgan first broke barriers into the profession, few female architects have solely achieved a level of success and renown in their field such as Zaha Hadid can claim. The first female Pritzker Prize recipient in 2004, Ms. Hadid stands out among a generation of architectural designers who reject pointless classicism and rigidity for orthography-eschewing plasticity, reconciling form in a world where the perpetual constant is change.
Hadid has risen steadily up the ladder of elite architectural education and practice. She was born in Baghdad and studied math at the American University of Beirut before attending the Architectural Association in London, where she was taught by the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Leon Krier. After school she went on to work for Koolhaas at OMA London, and had her first major burst onto the scene with a series of paintings for the Peak Leisure Club competition (1983) in Hong Kong. The vibrant, sharply textured composition of objects in her works defy quick recognition in lieu of nuanced comprehension, and helped provide an early visual justification for the emerging deconstructivist movement of the time.
The crux of Hadid’s anti-orthagonal philosophy is that the line – the geometric construct between two points, upon which all of architecture relies – is inescapable from its orbital roots within the body of the individual. Advancing the idea that modern space is borne entirely of optical perception, Hadid views the universe as a series of vortexes rather than a static grid, comprised of “fields of distributed tension where things are poised to erupt”. By emphasizing the spherical and tangential over the rigidly symmetrical, Hadid’s built works seek to place the eye back into the body of the individual and radically trace their velocities within and throughout a collection of static spaces.
The Vitra Fire Station (1994) in Weil am Rhein Germany is one of Ms. Hadid’s first permanent projects. This tiny lightning bolt of a building contains a modest program of garage and basic support spaces for the firefighters, housed neatly within a series of subtly canted and offset concrete walls. These shallow vertical obliques are anchored by a a sharply angled overhang springing out above the garage door, which dominates the approach composition and choreographs the movement of fire trucks into and out of the station. The daring design for this firehouse proved to be so popular that within just a few years of completion, the building was converted into the Vitra Design Museum and now houses a comprehensive collection of chairs and other industrial design pieces.
Another small but potent project of Hadid’s is the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck Austria (2002), whose main function as a ramp is supplemented by sports support facilities as well as a cafe and viewing terrace. I imagine that Ms. Hadid relished the chance to design a facility for a sport whose inherent velocity and defiance of gravity suits her own fixation with movement and speed. As she has said, “I almost believed there was such a thing as zero gravity”, a concept that all ski jumpers can probably relate to. In this vein, the peak of the ski jump spirals around 180 degrees and cants upward into a sleek steel box containing the public program and support requirements, propped atop a slender stair and elevator core. The asymmetrical profile and height of this skybox cuts a distinctive profile in the alpine sky while giving occupants panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
By the early aughts, Hadid’s bravado and well-established reputation among the architectural elite began to result in a growing roster of realized buildings, characterized by increasing scale and prestige. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (2004) is Hadid’s first permanent work within the United States, and was hailed by Time Magazine upon its completion as one of the most important American works of architecture to be built in decades. Although the CAC’s oblique arrangement of monolithic concrete masses and glassy interstitial volumes was a huge leap forward for Cincinnati’s architectural pedigree, the design is comparatively tame when viewed alongside Hadid’s subsequent projects from overseas.
The Phaeno Science Center and BMW Central Building, both located in Germany, give an idea of Hadid’s potential when working with a grander program and budget. The Phaeno Center is comprised of a generously scaled, horizontally slung exhibition space perched above ground level on a series of vortically cast structural piers. The main exhibition volume is enclosed by a subtly faceted concrete perimeter wall, punctuated by an erratic pattern of rounded windows that evoke futuristic starship imagery. Another daringly angled building is the BMW Central Plant, whose design is deliberately evocative of the sleekness and speed of the machines manufactured and housed therein. With a cascading, overlapping sequence of metallic and concrete bands that define paths of circulation for people and product alike, the sharp composition of this factory provides a suitably avant-garde setting for the luxury carmaker’s production and delivery activities.
Bolstered by these well-admired and publicized projects, Ms. Hadid has entered the new decade on an increasingly upward trajectory. Capitalizing on her success in architecture, she has branched into other design fields and brought her cutting edge aesthetic to a variety of product lines, ranging from furniture to interior fixtures to personal accessories. While raising her profile and reputation among denizens of the haute fashion world, Hadid’s architectural portfolio has simultaneously been amplified by the realization of two huge projects, the MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art (2009) outside Rome and Ghangzhou Opera House (2011) in China. The former is a nearly 100,000 sq. ft. museum conceived as a “field of buildings” rather than a monolithic art vault, with “major streams” for gallery spaces and “minor streams” for their interwoven connections. Exploiting an L-shaped site, Hadid’s composition of flowing circulatory paths and undulating structural joists creates an energetic gathering space for users moving within and between exhibition spaces.
Still undergoing its finishing touches as of this writing, the Ghangzhou Opera House is a 70,000 sq. ft. project containing a main auditorium, black box theater, rehearsal support spaces, and a large public park. The interior of the main opera hall is lined by a system of rippling parabolic panels that conceal the connections between adjacent balcony trays, while a similarly swoopy foyer encloses the ancillary black box theater. As with her other projects, Hadid’s emphasis on movement and the act of traveling between different programmatic zones drives the design, with spiral ramps and undulating escalators providing links between different levels and a large plaza and park. Connected to the opera house by paths running alongside a large reflecting pool, this park gives the building an indelible social purpose in a previously impressive yet generic business district on the outskirts of town.
As we head into a new decade, Zaha Hadid’s portfolio and stature among the circles of influential, globe-trotting architects is only poised to grow. Next year, her London Aquatics Centre will be completed and take center stage in that city’s hosting of the Summer Olympics, followed by a number of institutional, educational, and civic projects in many different corners of the globe. It is truly exciting to witness Ms. Hadid’s ascendancy into a highly male-driven field like architecture, and I count myself as one of the many young designers who are awaiting this diva’s next stateside project with open minds and sketchbooks.