Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid leaves mixed architectural legacy
April 1, 2016 - 3:02PM Philip Kennicott
Hadid's Wangjing Soho building in Beijing.
Architects are often very long lived. Frank Lloyd Wright made it to 91 and I.M. Pei is still alive at 98, the same age that Philip Johnson died. So it was a shock to hear that Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize, died Thursday at age 65, in Miami, where she was under treatment for bronchitis. It was especially shocking because Hadid was one of the most forceful personalities in contemporary architecture, renowned as a trailblazer and an imperious maverick who didn't suffer fools gladly.
It will take years, if not decades, to sort through Hadid's legacy. Among her most high-profile projects were the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the 2010 Gaungzhou Opera House and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, finished in 2012. But many of Hadid's most ambitious projects are still underway, including plans for a stadium in Qatar to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.
Hadid embodied what many felt were the worst impulses of the most recent age of architectural exuberance: designs that indulged sculptural excess over logic and efficiency and the cultivation of celebrity status, which often seemed to insulate her from constructive criticism. She spoke the airy language of architectural theory with all its utopian overtones, but she vigorously branded consumer products from candles to tableware to neck ties. She worked regularly, and enthusiastically, in countries with authoritarian governments, designing them spectacular and expensive cultural centres and other vanity projects.
In 2006, the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a retrospective of Hadid's first 30 years of work. Much of it was work "on paper" – conceptual designs and plans for buildings that were never realised. It was only in 2003 that Hadid built her first work in the US, the uncharacteristically low-key and rectilinear Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati. Although her first important – and still most widely admired – finished work was the 1994 Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, there were long years in the 1980s and '90s when she realised hardly any finished work at all.
The Guggenheim exhibition was a rare chance for Americans to see the breadth of Hadid's work, and it was both exhilarating and unnerving. Many projects seemed to belong to some personal, science-fiction fantasy of futurism, a world of speed and fluidity and weightlessness. But it wasn't always a sophisticated futurist vision. Indeed, it often had a cartoon-like, Jetsons naivete. One left with the sense that Hadid belonged to that particular tribe of architects who don't design buildings for the real world, but for an imaginary, ideal, solipsistic world that only they can see. And worse, they assume their buildings will inject some germ of their utopian vision into the boring, sublunary setting of their work, and thus transform everything around it.
The Zaha Hadid-designed Riverside Museum in Glasgow.