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?
David Brussat says
I just wrote a comment about your response to Hadid’s death and went away briefly to get a URL for you to look at what I’d written, and my comment disappeared. I can’t believe the stupidity of MailChimp!!! All that work and zippo! So I’ll just post my blog URL and maybe you and your readers will give it a look.
James Russell says
I did have a look (any readers can see it by clicking David’s name) and I tend to disagree with such broad generalized condemnations of “modern,” when contemporary practice has a very wide range of talent and sensitivity. I don’t like broad condemnations of “traditional” practice, too. I try to take seriously everything that involves a serious inquiry, which is all too rare, no matter what the style.
Carol Strickland says
At her Guggenheim retrospective, she talked very frankly about the problems of Chinese commissions. She said they want it built overnight, and she worried about the safety and quality of the work as a result of such haste. I admired her honesty.
Joseph Readdy says
I really like this tribute to Zaha Hadid, James. She astonished so many with her rigorous devotion to design as art. The representation of her design concept for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong still makes me dumbstruck with awe.
Catherine Copeland says
Greatness in any field usually comes with great egoism, blunt-speaking and disregard for niceties and other social lubricants. I think it’s a miracle that such a woman made it her business to be a bitch and ruthlessly follow through on her genius. It garners nothing but admiration from me. Most women have their warrior self socialized out by age 17.
As any woman knows, it takes extraordinary courage to walk your own line among ALL—make and female alike–who will isolate you from social groups at much quicker pace than a man would experience. It’s called a double standard, and it’s real.
James Russell says
Thanks for the fascinating comments. This short text has been shared much more than I expected. Very gratifying.
Jack Viertel says
This is such a suitable and touching tribute to someone who’s prodigious gifts were accompanied by personal challenges. So many artists approach life and work from such a difficult angle, and we’re left to be grateful for the work, which will remain with us. A really lovely piece.
Thank you, Jack. You would know!