In the 1990s, Zaha Hadid owned her own black cab which she’d use to get round London. Members of her small office would take it in turns to be commanded around the city in this icon of Britishness: they’d leave the tiny office in a converted Victorian school on Bowling Green Lane and go for kebabs in it, drunks trying to hail it as they went. She sold it eventually but even after the big commissions (Guangzhou Opera House or the Stirling Prize winning MAXXI in Rome) she never left the school – the signs for the different entrances for boys and girls still legible above the doors – and its cheesy, ye-Olde-Englande, pastoral address. She just took it over bit by bit as, against all the odds, she did with the occasionally cosy old boys club of the British architectural scene.
At that time, the office walls were adorned with the paintings she had done for The Peak, a club in Hong Kong, which she won first prize for but which was never built. The prize helped her establish the practise while the paintings signalled her out not just as a prodigious talent but a visionary, a person who believed that single pieces of architecture could and indeed should reveal latent energies in living cities rather than make simple formal responses to its immediate neighbours. They earned her a dedicated following amongst the cognoscenti and a sense that within an astonishingly talented group of architects that emerged from the Architectural Association in London under Alvin Boyarsky she was perhaps the greatest talent of all. According to Lebbeus Woods, she “wrung the extraordinary from the mundane.”
There are many of her early champions who would have preferred her to stay as this creator of exotic, Malevich inspired art; of tantalising utopias never to be completed. However, this did not fit with Hadid’s ambition. The bold jewellery and the Issey Miyake dresses were not affectations, they expressed her faith in the reality of extravagant design: an assertion that its daily presence was possible. Given the chance to build, she became more expressive not less. The fire station she designed for furniture manufacturer Vitra was a case in point. She used the patronage, not to mention the patience, of Rolf Fehlbaum to explore how her Constructivist-influenced paintings might be built, rather than create a nice place for firemen to hang out in. Today her building is no longer a fire station but a bold statement at the heart of Vitra’s world; a sign of the company’s determination to sit at the heart of Europe’s design culture.
Whether Iraqi-born Hadid’s commitment to avant-garde, expressive architecture contributed to the disgraceful way her scheme for the Cardiff Bay Opera House was killed off despite winning an international competition is hardly the point. This victory for chauvinism merely fuelled her fire. Buoyed by her implacable cosmopolitanism and sheer “fuck-you” attitude, she won carefully selected competitions throughout Europe during the late 1990s which allowed her to reconcile her artistic vision with new engineering techniques: Bergisel Ski Jump, the superb BMW plant in Leipzig and the breathtaking Phaeno in Wolfsburg: works which reasserted the early 20th century avant-gardes as integral to contemporary architectural culture, giving new promise to the coming epoque. Not that it deserved it.
She would only have a short time in the combined spotlights of critical acclaim and commercial viability. Hadid always contended with those who sought to limit her achievements in a very public way. She was castigated as a brand or a series of artistic quirks in her success, just occasionally with cause. Within her practice the ideas of parametricism – which proposed that algorithms could be used to design cities – were explored. This terrified the architectural establishment which, by the banking crisis of 2008 was in full retreat to the certainties of the reliable, outward forms of Modernism if not its animating ambition. As she began building far and wide, the astonishing signature swoops of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku or the still-to-be completed stadium in Qatar she was targeted as a vanguard of global capitalism. As ever she came out fighting unlike her wiser, less honest peers who ducked their heads and left her to carry the can for the entire profession’s close relationship with the financial and social systems it operates in.
It is a bitter irony that we are only now likely to see her work in a clearer light. We will be able to separate some of the better work for the lesser and see that the former far outweighs the latter. Yes, the roof form of Sackler Gallery extension at the Serpentine in London flops rather than glides into the adjacent 19th century brick structure. Yet those who are willing to look further in the city whose energies informed her and whose creative milieu she was such a vital part of, will find the Evelyn Grace Academy; a city academy, modest in cost, whose sinuous plan and futurist detailing makes the journey through it an event rather than a chore. And in our loss, we can begin to appreciate how she grabbed hold of the tired typologies that the often timid architectural culture of this country sanctifies and gleefully took a sword to them.