A genius or an arrogant diva? An inspiration or an idealistic visionary?
When she died from a heart attack in Miami in March, aged just 65, architect and designer Zaha Hadid left a divided opinion among the global designerati – she also left an assemblage of monuments worldwide, and many more projects that remained on the drawing board, never completed because of cost overruns and structural impracticalities.
Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950, the daughter of the leader of the Iraqi Progressive party.
She was sent to boarding school in England and the American University of Beirut, before going on to study at London’s Architectural Association in 1972, where students — and teachers — lived the hippy lifestyle of the time.
In a 2013 interview with Alan Yentob for the BBC, she talked about how she negotiated her way in this alternative world — students set up a farm in Wales; converted a double-decker bus, and took part in workshops in which tutors ‘made love’ on stage.
All very early seventies, and all part of ‘finding your way’.
However, Hadid didn’t need to find direction, she already knew what she wanted.
According to her former lecturers she was clearly talented and ‘stormed’ though her courses to end up a teacher herself.
Precociously, and with little experience, she launched Zaha Hadid Architects in 1979.
The next 37 years were to see her build a glittering career that would stir as much controversy as admiration.
The admiration came first, with her peers queuing up to give her awards.
In 1982 she won the British Architectural Design Gold Medal for the renovation of a townhouse in London, then first place for the Peak Club in Hong Kong.
Her competition entry for a building on Kurfürstendamm in Berlin won another first prize in 1986.
There were exhibitions of her designs at the Guggenheim in New York and the GA Gallery in Tokyo.
In 1988, The Museum of Modern Art in New York included Hadid’s work in a group exhibition on Deconstructivist Architecture.
Her gender meant she was already pushing boundaries — architecture was a man’s world — but it was her first built commission, a fire station in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, that blazed a trail.
Vitra Fire Station, a stark narrow building of triangular wedges intended to fit into a linear landscaped zone, impressed her peers with its sharp angles and protrusions.
In an indicator, however, of what was to come, the firefighters hated its impracticality.
They soon moved out and it became an event space.
Hadid’s adopted British homeland was never to provide fruitful territory for her imagination.
In the early 1990s she beat 268 competitors to win an international design competition for the proposed Cardiff Bay Opera House, with a radical glass structure; so radical, the organisers said, she had to resubmit her proposal a second time, along with some of the other competitors, including the legendary Norman Foster.
She won again.
As tabloid headlines screamed adjectives like ‘ugly’ and ‘elitist’, the British government, which held the purse strings, got cold feet and claimed the design was flawed by ‘uncertainities in financing and construction’.
The project collapsed among recriminations over who was to blame. It took 20 years for Hadid to express her hurt in a 2013 news interview: “I did come across a lot of resistance and prejudice when I wanted to build the Cardiff Bay Opera House. I don’t think it was in any way hidden.”
But many of her designs were to be completed during a career that would see her become one of the world’s first ‘starchitects’ : The Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art in Cincinatti, hailed by the New York Times as the ‘most important American building to be completed since the cold war’; The Contemporary Art Museum in Rome, an unashamedly-modernist addition to a classical city; the Haydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, a conference hall and museum in which she abandoned angles for curves, and which led some critics to refer to her designs as ‘feminine’.
She became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 2004.
But a true architectural wonder came in 2010 — the Guangzhou Opera House in China, a freestanding auditorium within a glass-clad steel frame that has been
christened the ‘double pebble’ and praised as ‘theatrical and insistently subtle’. It may yet come to be considered the world’s greatest opera house, while its similarities to what could have been built in Cardiff have not been lost on commentators in Britain.
If there was any ongoing bitterness over prejudice denying Hadid the chance to build her masterpiece in the UK, then the woman from Iraq had the last laugh.
While a career as monumental as Zaha Hadid’s does not come without controversy, she attracted more opprobrium than most.
When the government of Azerbaijan evicted families from their homes to make way for the Haydar Aliyev Centre, human rights organisations criticised her for her involvement in the project; when the audience in temporary seats at the 2012 London Olympic Aquatic Centre couldn’t see the pool, her design was labelled flawed.
More recently, it was claimed up to 1,000 foreign labourers had died building a stadium she had designed for the Quatar World Cup — a stadium on which construction work had not even begun.
She sued the critic for defamation and won a settlement and an apology.
But the most stringent criticism was reserved for the cost of her designs - Hadid’s architectural vision was colossally expensive: her innovative plan for Japan’s 2020 Olympic stadium— a striking helmet-shaped arena —was first welcomed, but then scrapped as the $2bn cost hit home.
It was replaced in June 2015 by a more modest plan designed by a Japanese architect.
Hadid cried foul and didn’t do herself any favours by making accusations of Japanese ‘xenophobia’.
Projects in Australia and the United States remain uncompleted, while in the country of her birth, a parliament building and a central bank may never come to fruition.
She would not have been surprised.
On her death the tributes poured in: inspirational, distinct, profound, experimental, and visionary; during her lifetime, however, the adjectives of innuendo were different: arrogant, oppressive, and even tyrannical.
While the truth was probably somewhere in between, her legacy of genius was not in doubt; like her buildings, it will stand for centuries.