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Zaha Hadid DBE, 31 October 1950 – 31 March 2016

Hugh Pearman

With the Pritzker, Stirling and Royal Gold Medal trophies to her name, Zaha's rare talent should have given us another 20 years of remarkable buildings

Zaha Hadid DBE, 31 October 1950 – 31 March 2016
Zaha Hadid DBE, 31 October 1950 – 31 March 2016

Nobody expected to be writing an obituary of Dame Zaha Hadid in 2016, just after she had received the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, only 22 years since her first significant building, and with what would normally be a realistic expectation of a further 20 years of productive work to come. As with Sir James Stirling who also died unexpectedly in his mid sixties, there is that sense of future loss:  in what direction would these restless, original, awkward-squad minds have taken architecture next?

The shock felt by the architecture community around the world was profound, summed up by Daniel Libeskind: 'Devastated by the loss of a great architect & colleague today. Her spirit will live on in her work and studio. Our hearts go out.' For the RIBA, president Jane Duncan said: 'Dame Zaha Hadid was an inspirational woman, and the kind of architect one can only dream of being.' But equally telling was the reaction from mainstream media worldwide, the saturation coverage. Everybody, it seemed, knew who Zaha was. There are very few architects, no matter how illustrious among their peers, of whom that can be said.

Now the assessment of her work, surely inseparable from her immense and often challenging personality, can begin. For me she was the most gifted of her generation – the golden generation that emerged from beneath the wing of Alvin Boyarsky at the Architectural Association in the early 1970s and challenged the tenets of orthodox modernism. Among them was Rem Koolhaas, who with Sir Peter Cook taught her and with whom, plus Marion Vriesendorp and Elia and Zoe Zhengelis, she worked in the fledgling office of OMA, becoming a partner.

But just as – tiring of the noise and distractions at the AA’s Bedford Square base – Zaha had set up her own student atelier in then-neglected Covent Garden, so by 1979 she had left OMA to establish her own practice.  There followed the years of not building, despite winning the 1993 competition for the Peak Club in Hong Kong. At the time this was simply astonishing in its gravity-defying jaggedness, and no less perplexing were the paintings she produced to explain it.  What was clear was that she was a rare talent. She won – several times, such were the hurdles – the competition for the Cardiff Bay Opera House in the mid 1990s.

By then she had proved she could build with her 1994 company fire station for the Vitra campus in south-west Germany. The Cardiff Opera House was a great deal more conventional by her standards and – reassuringly engineered by Arup – perfectly buildable. But the forces of conservatism and misinformation, led by those hostile to her in the Millennium Commission,  meant it was finally scrapped: the whole episode affected her deeply. But cultural buildings in Copenhagen and Cincinnati soon followed at the start of the 21st century, after which she had no need to look back.

The first female recipient of the Pritzker Prize, Royal Gold Medallist and double Stirling Prize winner  was born in Baghdad at a time of comparative wealth and tolerance, educated by nuns before studying mathematics in Beirut, and then moving to architecture at the AA. As her style evolved, mutating from its early spikiness to the rounded curves made possible by parametricism, she became a victim of the critical backlash against ‘icon’ buildings. To be sure you would never expect a functionalist response from Zaha, for whom form-making, and the wrapping-up of ground with building, was almost an end in itself. Her long-term collaboration with her colleague Patrik Schumacher achieved unprecedented results, but she was also criticised for building for dubious regimes.

Zaha made her way with enormous determination, flair and caustic humour, ruling her large office in tyrannical fashion. Her legendary manner of dress was an evolving masterpiece in itself. She had purchased the Design Museum building: what was she going to do with it?  Her early death leaves so many questions unanswered. But her impact on architecture is profound.