Zaha Hadid, an absolutist visionary of architecture who designed buildings that could inspire awe and derision but never indifference, has died at 65. Architects’ careers are slow-moving vehicles — Frank Gehry didn’t achieve celebrity until he was nearly 50, and I.M. Pei, who is nearing 100, was still designing buildings up until a few years ago. By rights, Hadid should have a couple more decades in which to find new expressions, new technologies, and new forms. Instead we’re left with a trove of middle-period Hadids and questions about what the next chapter might have brought.
She was an anomaly in many ways: an Iraqi-born woman in a profession that has traditionally privileged European men, and a fierce visionary in a business that runs on compromise. She won her profession’s highest honors — a Pritzker Prize and a gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects — and received institutional commissions all over the world. But she also embodied what many critics felt were architecture’s worst excesses: a signature aesthetic so idiosyncratic that it trampled practicality and fiscal prudence. Whenever commentators have worked themselves into a lather about the self-indulgence of contemporary architecture, her name usually comes up.
The attacks often read like a catalog of misogynistic remarks: She was regularly referred to as imperious, intimidating, and callous — a diva with a chip on her shoulder. All architects fail. They lose competitions, or win them and see the projects fall through. Construction runs overbudget and gets delayed. But Hadid’s problems became as famous as her successes, partly because both took place on a grand scale, and partly because when she perceived injustice, she fired back. When the Japanese government scrapped her competition-winning design for the 2020 Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, saying it would cost too much, she claimed that the process had been fixed in order to hand the job to a Japanese architect. When the critic Martin Filler falsely reported in The New York Review of Books that “a thousand workers” had died in the construction of her soccer stadium in Qatar (although in fact construction on the stadium had not yet begun), she sued for defamation and won a retraction.
If all this drama seemed like an integral part of her life as an architect, it’s because her designs have a hyperbolic theatricality of their own. She had little patience with serene spaces or classical poise. Her buildings seem sculpted by wind, their surfaces buffed by geological forces, their structures in constant negotiation with gravity. I have often gone scrambling through a slickrock canyon in Utah and thought how those futuristic whorls resembled hers.
Hadid’s is an architecture of motion. One of her early works, a fire station on the Vitra campus in Basel, Switzerland, goes shooting out of the earth like Superman. A ravishing arrangement of tilted concrete planes and interior spaces that flow to the outside, it offers a poetic suggestion of urgency but isn’t actually much good for parking a fire truck in, and now serves as a monument to itself. MAXXI, the contemporary art museum she designed in Rome, focuses not on the galleries where the art is, but on vertiginously crisscrossing ramps. She often seemed more interested in how people move from one place to another than what they do when they get there.
All the vitriol and defensiveness that swirled around her distracted from a profoundly original body of work, which architects will be grappling with for many years to come. She correctly rejected the idea that her designs were the outcome of personal caprice or her own emotional intensity. Rather, she made others react strongly to her deliberate ideas. Hadid demanded that architecture do more than house functions, contain plumbing, and please accountants. She wanted its impact to be physiological and psychological — to make people happy and excited and, if necessary, enraged.