When London’s Olympic organizers needed a knockout venue that would wow the International Olympic Committee and hold the world’s attention, they turned to Zaha Hadid, a provocateur who critics have described as “the Lady Gaga of architecture”.
Iraqi-born Hadid is one of the greatest architects alive. In 2004, she became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s greatest honor. The year prior, she was awarded the European Union Mies van der Rohe Prize for a tram station in Strasbourg.
Besides art museums and opera houses, she has designed temporary pop-up structures — such as a handbag-inspired mobile pavilion for Chanel — a ski jump in Austria, furniture, door handles, a tea and coffee set and vase for Alessi, and plastic high heels for Brazilian shoe brand Melissa. Not all of her work is exclusively for the wealthy. She also won last year’s RIBA Stirling Prize for redesigning a state school in Brixton, South London.
Hadid’s Aquatic Centre is the first venue you see when you enter the Olympic village. A £269m facility that houses two swimming pools and a diving pool, and seats 22,500, critics have pronounced it the Olympics “most majestic” space.
But for decades, Hadid languished in the shadows, her work dismissed as “unbuildable” and her atelier rarely commissioned in her adopted city.”I will always have two regrets,” she told Leading Women. “I don’t have a presence in London, and I would have liked to have done more work in the Middle East.”Architecture was a dream of Hadid’s since she was a young girl and, in Baghdad, where she lived until a teenager, it was all around her. “Many of the great architects of the time like Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Sert and Gropius all designed projects for Baghdad,” she says.
Hadid’s father headed the National Democratic Party, a progressive force in Iraq in the 1930s and 1940s. “In the Arab world, like Brazil and in Africa, it was about nation building in that period and also about identity,” Hadid recalls. “There was a moment of renaissance, of trying to build a new era and adopt some of these modernist ideas like they did in Chandigarh (a renowned example of urban planning in northern India) or Bangladesh. That was an incredible moment of excitement and that’s also why I think it intrigued me at the time.”
After an education at the American University of Beirut, Hadid studied architecture at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture. It was the 1970′s, a time when, she says, the 1968 student uprisings had invigorated experimentation.
“There were so many different ideologies…There was a lot of focus on drawing at the time, and the idea of the school was really to pick your way through some labyrinth ideas. Looking back, it was very exciting.”
Among Hadid’s teachers was radical Dutch theorist Rem Koolhaas, with whom Hadid worked upon graduating in 1977. Two years later, though, she founded her own practice near Red Lion Square in Holborn. Today, it employs more than 300 people and brings in around $50-75 million annually.
Deploying the ideas that galvanized her in architecture school has not been easy, and acceptance has come slowly for Hadid. After winning a 1994 competition to design an opera house for Cardiff Bay in Wales, her modernist design was derided by critics and locals, and ultimately rejected in favor of a stadium.
It was a slap in the face for Hadid, who still describes the experience as “traumatic”.
“It became a cause celebre,” she recalls. “Everyone was trying to prove a point, which was not to allow people to win a major project who are not known, who are not part of the establishment. They didn’t like the fact I was not British and I think (being a) woman was also a factor.”
“After that,” she says, “we were stigmatized. People remembered there was a problem but they don’t know what happened”.
Hadid’s major breakthrough came in 2003, when she designed the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, in Cincinnati Ohio. Describing her as “a cultish figure who has built very little of note”, one critic nevertheless pronounced this building “a virtuoso composition”.
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