|Edwin Heathcote remembers the ‘eye-wateringly original’ work of the celebrated architect, who died on 31 March
Zaha Hadid, who died on 31 March, was one of architecture’s rare visionaries. She was also one of the very few who managed the transition of paper architecture to real building while losing none of the originality and brilliance of her ideas.
Emerging from the theory-rich, building-lite atmosphere of the Architectural Association in the 1970s, Hadid worked first with the embryonic OMA alongside her mentor figure and friend Rem Koolhaas, his wife Madelon Vriesendorp and her one-time teacher Elia Zenghelis. From the outset, her exquisite paintings of bitty cities floating against a landscape of blackness revived ideas of suprematism and constructivism, but made a new architectural imaginary – like a world of fragmented forms seen through a microscope.
The first buildings were difficult – the Vitra fire station, with too-sharp corners and impractical spaces, a Cardiff Opera House destined to remain unbuilt. But when the big buildings started coming in, something changed – the sharpness faded away and in its place emerged a fluid architecture of undulating landscapes and continuous topographies. The Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg was a revelation – the gritty streets were folded into the architecture, skateboarders rolled around the complex landscape, ground became wall, became space, became building – the public space was magically sucked into the interior. For BMW, she designed a production line in which the architecture was as carefully and beautifully choreographed as the robots and the continuous ribbon of moving parts. At Guangzhou, an opera house emerged from a non-place – a banal plaza was transformed into a sci-fi set, on Glasgow’s docks the Riverside Museum looked like a built ECG, while the Heydar Aliyev Centre took the graph curve to its extreme – a concrete equation.
There were mis-hits also: buildings for dictators, gewgaws for luxury brands, misconceived products – but the practice proved adept at adapting its signature style to everything from vases to high heels. The Liquid Glacial Table, with its mesmeric whirlpool legs, is a piece of product design as striking as anything from the last century. For all this, her colleagues need credit too – she was never easy to work for and they articulated the complexities of a brilliant mind. Most notably, Patrik Schumacher, whose oblique theorising about parametricism provided the intellectual underpinning to what always seemed an intuitive oeuvre.
Zaha herself could be difficult, but she was also warm, loyal and witty – a lover of inside gossip and infinitely interested in the art of architecture and the figures who made it. Always (and perhaps inevitably) described as ‘the world’s greatest female architect’, the description always felt adequate. How many men could match her? She was tougher, more inventive, more determined, less sycophantic, and her architecture was eye-wateringly original and inventive – even if it may have been impossible to ever quite imagine a whole city of Zaha structures.
Occasionally architects rise to the top and you feel it is their charisma that carries them – that once they are gone, their buildings will fade. Zaha’s buildings – her remarkable imagination – will stay with us forever. She had faith in the future and in architecture to create better, newer, more modern worlds. Let us hope the last few fragments of her extraordinary imagination do not remain unrealised because of her untimely death.