“Art is meant to disturb. By its very nature it can take people out their comfort zone and make them think. This can be very confronting. It can challenge the status quo and is not always welcomed. Especially art that breaks boundaries.”
In the 20th Century we can see examples of this in Pablo Picasso’s, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907) which led to Cubism; in Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Fountain (1917), and in Andy Warhol's embrace of market culture in the 60 s with his painting of a can of Campbell's soup. Taking a topical example, we can see it in music, in Queen’s epic 6-minute operatic single Bohemian Rhapsody. And we can also see it in the 21st Century in the work of the British architect, Dame Zaha Hadid, the most successful female architect that has ever lived.
Zaha Hadid died in Miami in 2016. She was 65. She leaves behind a huge body of work that appears to defy classification. Described as ‘the Queen of the curve’, her work is characterized by undulating waves that appear to glide and move. Rippling white structures with fluidity and sweep. Complex geometric shapes that seem at odds with what is possible structurally. Her buildings appear to float. They give the impression of zero gravity. Whereas male architects have a preoccupation with buildings that resemble a 100 mg Viagra’d penis, Hadid’s are more Viagra'd. Almost ‘vulvaesque’. Indeed, one sports stadium has been said to resemble a vagina, rising out of the Qatari desert in a great vulvic bulge. Although when someone mentioned this, Hadid reportedly said, ‘If you think anything with a hole in it is a vagina, that’s your problem.’ Seeing her buildings for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d landed on another planet. A planet much more advanced than ours. With a new way of living. A new way of seeing. A planet where females are the pioneers.
But being a pioneer comes with challenges. To be ahead of your time is a tough territory to inhabit. Hadid knew this. She described it as a ‘triple whammy’. ‘Being a woman. It’s a problem to many people. A foreigner. Another big problem. And I do work that is not normative. Together it becomes difficult.’ However, she was not keen to be characterized as a female architect, or an Arab architect. She was simply an architect. An architect on the fringes. Even after becoming the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture's Nobel (2004), being a two-time winner of the Stirling Prize, the UK's most prestigious architectural award (2010 and 2011) and being made a Dame (2012), she didn’t see herself as part of the establishment. ‘I’m on the kind of same edge. I’m dangling there,’ she said. ‘I quite like it. I’m not against the establishment per se. I just do what I do. And that’s it.’
Zaha Hadid was born in 1950, in Baghdad, to an upper-class Iraqi family. Her father was the co-founder of the National Democratic Party in Iraq and her mother an artist. In this liberal and cosmopolitan household Hadid was encouraged to be independent. At the age of seven, she was choosing and designing her own clothes. At the age of nine, she redesigned her bedroom. At the age of eleven, she chosen her career. She wanted to be an architect. In 1972 she moved to London to fulfill her dream.
When we think of London’s architecture, Christopher Wren’s Baroque style in the 17th Century comes to mind, St Paul’s being an example. We think of London’s great estates in the Georgian period. The grand Regency architecture of John Nash and the elaborate and intricate styles of the Victorian period, which we can see in the ornate Houses of Parliament. But following the Second World War much of London had to be rebuilt, cheaply and efficiently, and in brutal high-rise blocks dotted the city. By the 70's, London architecture was in a crisis.
Other art forms weren’t, however. Fashion designers such as Zandra Rhodes and Michael Fish were making clothes for Glam Rock stars, like Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. In music, the anti-establishment Punk movement was in ascendance. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne West wood opened their shop, Sex, on Kings Road. The Goth movement was beginning, followed by the New Romantic period. New genres were being created. Barriers were being broken down. Experimentation was rife. It was in this environment that Hadid was immersed when she was studying at the most inspiring architectural school on the planet, the Architectural Association School of Architecture in Bed ford Square.
The focus at the school was very much on an alternative life, very anti-design. It was an incubator of ideas, with a feeling that it was on the brink of discovering ‘something.’ That something, it now seems, was Zaha Hadid. She described the school as having an ‘amazing buzz. All the interesting people in teaching were at that school. It also brought to it a lot of kids who were quite eccentric.’ Working for five nights with no sleep was not unusual. Having friends who have also studied at that school, it does seem as if the ‘cappuccinos’ are particularly strong to keep them awake for such long hours.
Hadid was taught by, among st others, the revered Rem Koolhaas and she was described by one of her professors as ‘a planet in her own orbit’. It was immediately recognized that she would become a ‘name’. Although it’s hard to categorize her work (the Metropolitan Museum of Art would later position her as a major figure in architectural Deconstructionism, a movement of postmodern 1980's architecture which gives the impression of the fragmentation of the constructed building) we can see very early on, in her fourth-year student project, in a painting of a hotel over the Thames on Hungerford Bridge, she’d taken inspiration from the Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich, himself influenced by Impressionism, Symbolism and Cubism.
After qualifying she remained at the school as a teacher for about ten years, becoming a visiting professor at several universities such as Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Chicago and Columbia. In 1980, she opened her own London-based architectural firm, Zaha Hadid Architects and throughout the 1990's she was known, and respected for, her paintings and drawings. For she was, up until then, a ‘paper architect.’ Albeit a very influential and creative one. But it was as if her modernist buildings were Unbuildable. Ahead of what was possible. Waiting for technology to catch up.
She was living in London at the same time as I was. Being a notably glamorous and flamboyant dresser (her not me), we probably mixed in the same ‘Avantguard’ circles (in her Desert Island Discs interview she became uncharacteristically quiet when asked why she had never married). Researching her for this article, watching videos, despite her fierce ‘diva-like’ reputation (by which successful women are often categorized) she comes across as approachable, intelligent, friendly. But you also get a sense that she was not someone to be messed with. Writing this piece, I had a vision of Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest addressing the Pepsi boardroom, yelling, ‘Don’t fuck with me fellas. It ain’t my first time at the rodeo.’ And, rather aptly, ‘Tear down that bitch of a bearing wall and put a window where it ought to be!’
Despite her remarkable talent, her first competition wins did not go well. Although she gained a reputation around the world for groundbreaking plans, including the Peak in Hong Kong (1983), Kurfürstendamm 70 in Berlin (1986) and the Cardiff Bay opera house in Wales (1994), they were never built. Partly because her architecture was nearly impossible to achieve before the advent of computer-aided design. And because her experimental ability was just too much to comprehend.
I have an artist friend in London, another eccentric, another flamboyant dresser. A British citizen but Kashmir born, his name is Raqib Shaw. On leaving the prestigious Saint Martin’s School of Art he was told by his professor that he would only ever be good enough to make decorative pillows. His first piece of work on graduating, Garden of Earthly Delights, which he described asan erotic underwater world clenched in perpetual orgasm, sold for over a million pounds. His work has continued to sell for millions ever since. The reason I bring up his name is because some artists are so ahead of their time that their talent is not recognized. The viewer has nothing to measure it against. And of course, there’s that British jealousy thing, where many of our artists are feted abroad but ignored at home.
The Cardiff episode was particularly discouraging. Although her design was chosen as the best by the competition jury, the Welsh government refused to pay for it, and the project was given to another architect. They must be kicking themselves now. But at the time it as if her business was cursed and her reputation for unbuildable buildings was hard to shake off. But the mark of an artist is not just talent, it’s also determination.
I had another friend in London, another who dressed as if from another age, a typical London eccentric, the late Soho artist and dandy, Sebastian Horsley. He once said to me, ‘You can do anything you want to do. But what is rare is wanting to do a specific thing; wanting it so much that you are practically blind to all other things, that nothing else will satisfy you.’ Shaw has this superhuman drive. This embodiment of genius. Hadid had it too.
Horsley went on to say, ‘Those who create because they want to please others and have audiences in mind are not artists. If one has a heart, once cannot create for the masses. The masses are asses.’ I’m quoting Horsley here because you can apply his words to Hadid, to her visionary aesthetic, to her trailblazing, radical work. As she said herself, ‘There can be no progress without an element of uncertainty and without a sensation of embarking on a journey into the unknown.’
Her first major project was the Vitra Fire Station in Germany (1991–1993). From there the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (1997–2000). Then the Bergisel Ski Jump (1999–2002). Followed by The Car Park and Terminus Hoenheim North in France (1998 - 2001). It was for these four projects that she won the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Thomas Pritzker, the head of the jury, said, ‘Although her body of work is relatively small, she has achieved great acclaim and her energy and ideas show even greater promise for the future.’
Her career gathered momentum. Projects came in for museums (the Ordrupgaard in Copenhagen; the MAXXI in Rome; the Riverside in Glasgow; the Broad Art in Michigan). Projects for bridges (the Zaragoza in Spain; the Sheikh Zayed in Abu Dhabi). In 2002 she won her first project in China. The Guangzou Opera House. And many of her later works can be found in Asia, in Beijing (the Galaxy SOHO and the Wangjing SOHO Tower). In Seoul (the Dongdaemun Design Plaza). And in Hong Kong (the Innovation Tower). The list is long. Far too long to list here. But by now she was a worldwide star. As Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times wrote, ‘Zaha Hadid was one of the ‘so-called starchitects who roamed the planet in pursuit of their own creative genius, offering miracles, occasionally delivering.’
Pitifully, in London, her home city, there are only three (the Serpentine Gallery, the Evelyn Grace Academy for which she won the Stirling Prize and the London Aquatics Center, built for the Olympics).
Following her death there were many projects still unfinished, including one here in Miami (although by the time you read this it may well be finished). It’s The Scorpion Tower of Miami, now known as One Thousand Museum - a high-rise residential condominium with a curvaceous exoskeleton and balconies that appear to hang in the sky. Whenever I drive from Fort Lauderdale to Miami, it’s a Downtown architectural signpost to let me know I’m nearing the excitement of the city. As Hadid had family here in Miami, and it was her home-from-home, it’s perhaps fitting that she will leave her legacy here.
It’s perhaps also fitting that rather than conclude with the words of a lowly writer, I should bid you farewell and hand over to an architect, Graham Morrison, who said, ‘Zaha Hadid was so distinct that there isn’t anybody like her. She didn’t fit in and I don’t mean that meanly. She was in a world of her own. And she was extraordinary.’