Zaha Hadid was indomitable, tough, blunt, and pugnacious. You did not want to be on the receiving end of her withering tongue. Her abundant critics said she was an insatiable egoist, inflicting her personal vision—heedless of budget and context. Her projects asserted the primacy of form over operational convenience or easy maintenance.
Though she is (incredibly!) the first woman since the professionalization of architecture to reach the pinnacle of architectural fame entirely on her own—with commissions worldwide to match—she was not exactly a role model: work obsessed, with no life partner, relentlessly competitive. Though brilliantly articulate, her criticism—of male architects’ lazy misogyny, of her choice to work on projects for authoritarian governments and the dodgy FIFA—was often haughtily dismissive rather than laser sharp.
For these reasons I was surprised at the beautiful outpouring of grief and praise this week of her unexpected death because in recent years criticism has largely drowned out admiration for her prodigious talent. A much softer side of Zaha is now emerging. She devoted a great deal of her timing to teaching (frequently at Yale) and I have never heard that work described as anything but brilliant though demanding.
Softer side emerges
I can’t help but think about how her reputation will ultimately be seen. I am still in awe of the extraordinary ease and confidence of her extraordinary form-making. After a slow start she has built an impressive variety of landmark projects, not just the usual museums (and none of them are “usual”), but an assembly plant for BMW, a ski jump, cars, performing-arts buildings, and schools. And there are perhaps dozens of projects yet to be built.
Yet there is some truth to the criticisms. Her buildings are very difficult to build and often demand a kind of curatorship that owners must be willing to embrace. Most will prove expensive to maintain over time. Yet much of the architecture that makes cities unique includes “difficult” buildings of all eras.
They enliven our lives and make us see the world differently. If she had to pass so long before her talents would otherwise have waned, I’m glad she is so profoundly missed.
I wonder, is it safe to acknowledge her greatness now that her irascible self is no longer around to prick architecture’s thinning gentility?