Zaha Hadid, whose radical, abstract, and digitally inflected designs earned critical praise, ignited controversies, and earned her a place as one of today’s leading architects, a profound achievement in field long dominated by men, has died of a heart attack in Miami. She was 65.
Hadid was, for much of her career, an architect’s architect. Despite having the respect of many of her vanguard colleagues, her first completed project, the Vitra Fire Station, was built only in 1994, the year she turned 44. However, a string of high-profile commissions would eventually follow in the wake of that success.
In 2004 Hadid won architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, becoming the first woman to receive the award, which has been presented annually since 1979. Hadid was also the first woman to win Britain’s Royal Gold Medal, in 2016.
Zaha Mohammad Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950, and lived there for the early part of her life, in one of the first Bauhaus buildings in Iraq. Its forms would later inspire some of her designs. Her father was a politician. At age 16, she was sent to boarding schools in Europe.
After receiving a degree in mathematics from the American University in Beirut, Hadid moved to London in 1972 to study architecture at the Architectural Association, where she would be mentored by Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas. Research on the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde would prove influential on her practice, particularly Malevich and his “architektons,” renderings for abstract buildings, and later the flowing lines of Kandinsky. After graduating, she worked at Koolhaas’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture for a year.
In 1979 Hadid began her own practice. Her first major design opportunity came in 1983, when she won a competition to design Hong Kong’s Peak Club, a recreation center. The design was never realized, but during the late ’80s and early ’90s she began taking on a series of important design projects.
It was Hadid’s inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1988 show “Deconstructivist Architecture” that cemented her reputation in the art world. The exhibition surveyed seven architects who were “obsessed with diagonals, arcs, and warped planes,” and who worked with the vocabulary of modernism. The models for Hadid’s designs were exhibited as art and came to be a staple of museum shows about architecture for the coming few decades. In a comprehensive profile of Hadid in the New Yorker in 2009, John Seabrook wrote that “maybe she was a prophet of what has come to be known as digital architecture.”
Hadid completed numerous projects for art museums, including the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Michigan, which opened in 2012, the Contemporary Art in Cincinnati (2003), MAXXI—National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome (1998–2010), and the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan (2007–12). One of her more peculiar art-world projects was the Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion (2006–8), an inflatable “container” (as she billed it) for contemporary art sponsored by the fashion company, which traveled to various cities around the world.
Her designs, which often began as abstract sketches or paintings, where known to generate controversy. Some critics alleged that her work was too extravagant, but perhaps no project by Hadid has been more hotly debated than the Al Wakrah Stadium, which will be used for the 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup games. After the stadium was ridiculed by critics for its vagina-like form and turned into a meme by Internet users, more controversy followed when it was reported that construction workers had died while building the stadium. (The Washington Post reported that as many as 1,200 migrants working on the stadium may have died, but this number has yet to be confirmed by another publication.)
When asked by the press about the matter, Hadid’s response was always terse: “I have nothing to do with the workers,” Hadid told the Guardian in 2014. “I think that’s an issue the government—if there is a problem—should pick up.” Last year she cut a radio interview short when pressed for information, accusing a British radio host of having not checked his facts.
In another recent controversy, Hadid had to give up on designing a stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She had teamed up with the Japanese firm Nikken Sekkei, but, after they failed to get a construction company attached to the project, they had to abandon it. As of January the organizers of the 2020 Olympics were refusing to pay Hadid until she gave up the rights to her designs.
She also created furniture and jewelry, which, like her buildings, explode with renegade, seemingly impossible forms and unusual uses of materials, and she had shows of her design objects and architectural work at Max Protech in New York in 2006 and Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai earlier this year.
“Studying the revolutionary Russian work I realized how Modern architecture built upon the breakthrough achieved by abstract art as the conquest of a previously unimaginable realm of creative freedom,” Hadid said in an address upon receiving the Pritzker, in 2004. “Art used to be re-presentation rather than creation. Abstraction opened the possibility of unfettered invention.”