Zaha Hadid: A Brilliant Legacy in Buildings

The death of Zaha Hadid has robbed architecture of one of its most famous and controversial figures. Her buildings and influence means Hadid leaves a vibrant legacy.

Jochen Luebke/AFP/Getty

The death of Zaha Hadid, one of the world's most famous and influential architects, at 65, came as a shock. She leaves a notable legacy.

Photos: Zaha Hadid: Architectural Powerhouse

Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect whose work has been celebrated by the top prizes in architecture, including the Pritzker Prize in 2004 and the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal in 2016, died suddenly in Miami early Thursday, according to a statement released by her office, Zaha Hadid Architects.

“She had contracted bronchitis earlier this week and suffered a sudden heart attack while being treated in hospital,” the statement reads.

The first woman to win the Pritzker, known as architecture’s top honor, Hadid is widely regarded as a pioneering figure in late 20th and early 21st century architecture.

Her work is characterized by unconventional forms, typically eschewing straight lines for curves, and creating buildings into forms that can seem like sculptures of future spacecraft.

In addition to her architecture, Hadid was also a designer of commercial goods, like seemingly unwearable high-heel shoes and dining tables that look like water.

Hadid was among a group of world-famous celebrity "starchitects," including Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano, who were sought after by clients for their attention-grabbing buildings and headline-grabbing names.

Some have bemoaned this trend for assigning false value to their architectural works and for making the name brand behind the building more important than the building itself. However, it’s also true that this trend has brought more mainstream attention to architecture and design.

Born in Baghdad in 1950, Hadid started her firm in London in 1979.

Her first major project was the concrete airplane-like Vitra Fire Station in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, built in 1993.

Other notable projects include the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, MAXXI, the 21st century art museum in Rome, and the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics. A high-end apartment building designed by her firm along Manhattan’s High Line will open later this year or early next.

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Hadid was an outsize figure in the world of architecture, not shying away from her celebrity and developing a persona at once uninterested in acclaim and fueled by it.

But for all her swagger, Hadid also garnered perhaps surprising success in a field that has historically been overwhelmingly white and male.

Reflecting on her 40 years in the field of architecture in a recent interview with the architecture magazine uncube, Hadid said that “some of the biggest difficulties that I faced were brought about not by my work, but by my existence as a woman, or as an Arab, or indeed, as an ‘Arab Woman.’ Ignorance and injustices, large or small, blatant or subtle, deliberate or—and perhaps worse—casual, not even recognized by their perpetrators.”

She has also become famous among architects for her pioneering work in digital design and construction.

Her firm, led by Hadid and partner Patrik Schumacher, has become known for its use of “parametric design,” an algorithm-based approach to design that takes advantage of computer software to develop structural shapes and forms that would be almost impossible to draw by hand.

This use of technology has enabled Hadid’s most curvaceous, fluid and space-ship sleek buildings to transmogrify out of a high-powered computer and into the physical world. Many other architects are using this approach today.

Younger architects especially, like the Chinese architect Ma Yansong and Bjarke Ingels, have clearly been influenced by this work.

The commercial appeal of Hadid’s work may have no better proof than the fact that a complex of commercial buildings she designed in Beijing was recently counterfeited and rebuilt almost as an exact replica in another Chinese city.

Her firm recently faced controversy over its design for the main stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a bicycle helmet-shaped building of long arches and glazed roofing that saw its scope and budget balloon to roughly $2.2 billion, making it the most expensive stadium project in the world.

In July 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Hadid’s design would be scrapped, and the project would start from scratch.

In January, Hadid’s office reportedly refused to hand over the copyright of the competition-winning stadium design to the Japanese in exchange for overdue payment.

Earlier, another stadium project prompted another reputation-sullying controversy.

In an article in the New York Review of Books about Hadid’s design for a stadium in Qatar being built for the 2022 World Cup, architecture critic Martin Filler wrote that Hadid was unconcerned with the deaths of workers during construction of the project.

While many deaths had been reported at other World Cup project sites in Qatar, none had occurred at Hadid’s project, and she sued for defamation. The publication later settled with Hadid, who reportedly donated the undisclosed sum.

Though Hadid has been widely celebrated as one of the world’s most innovative and influential architects, her work has been siloed into that of the “starchitect”—high-profile projects for rich clients or large institutions.

In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Hadid said “What I would really love to build are schools, hospitals, social housing. Of course I believe imaginative architecture can make a difference to people’s lives, but I wish it was possible to divert some of the effort we put into ambitious museums and galleries into the basic architectural building blocks of society.”

This type of everyday architecture is limited in Hadid’s portfolio. But the large-scale, ambitious, and unapologetically flashy works she designed will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on architecture.