Zaha Hadid outside the Phaeno Science Centre, Germany.

Zaha Hadid outside the Phaeno Science Centre, Germany.

The news of visionary architect Zaha Hadid’s death on March 31st has sent shockwaves through the worlds of architecture, fashion and design; reverberations which can still be felt from Qatar and Manhattan (where Zaha Hadid Architects has on-going projects with the Al Wakrah Stadium and its first residential building project, respectively) to Paris and Switzerland, where Hadid had just launched a small collection of jewellery in collaboration with Georg Jensen. “By working with Zaha over the past years, we got to know a woman of extraordinary vision who inspired all of us to think bigger, do better and try harder,” said David Chu, chairman and creative director of the modernist, Danish silversmith. “The world has lost a luminous and transformative talent.”

Over in Paris, Hadid’s close friend and long-term collaborator Karl Lagerfeld told WWD that Hadid’s death equated to: “One genius less in the world. There are few people I admired as much as her. I am devastated. Her influence was immense and will last. I am beyond sad. She was a friend with a huge sense of humour.”

Indeed, at the age of only 65 when she suffered a sudden heart attack, Hadid was a woman in her prime. With her architectural practice busy with eagerly anticipated projects (including a new parliament building in Baghdad where she was born to a politician father and a housewife mother), the very same frictious energy that had driven Hadid into the ‘starchitect’ stratosphere — a trajectory that was as dramatic and as exhilarating as the soaring liquid curves that became her design signature — was in full throttle right up until the very end. “I really don’t feel like I am part of the establishment,” a defiant Hadid told Kirsty Young when she appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in February. “[But] I am not on the outside; I’m on the edge. I’m dangling there. I quite like it.”

Zaha Hadid's first permanent structure in the UK: Maggie's Centre, Fife.

Zaha Hadid’s first permanent structure in the UK: Maggie’s Centre, Fife.

Despite feeling marginalised, Hadid had been acknowledged by the establishment with grand honours. She was the first woman to be awarded architecture’s highest accolade, the Pritzker Prize, in 2004. Then she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2013, and she received the RIBA Gold Medal this year, saying that she was, “very proud… to be the first woman to receive the honour in her own right.”

And yet Hadid’s journey to the top had been a rocky one. Her first commission, for the Peak Club in Hong Kong in the early-1980s, was famously never realised. A decade later, her plans for the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales were shelved. (The local MP at the time said it looked ‘like the shrine in Mecca’ and that there was a likelihood a fatwa would be issued on the building.) Even what is generally regarded as her first success, the 1994 Vitra Fire Station in Germany, caused outrage: fellow architects loved the structure’s wing-like canopy and skewed angles but the firemen did not — they promptly moved out and the building is now an exhibition centre. “I seem to get a big share of the tough times,” said Hadid, who most recently had her commission for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics stadium cancelled (due to escalating costs, the Japanese authorities claimed). “It’s a triple-whammy: I’m a woman; I’m a foreigner; and I do work which is not normal. So together it becomes difficult.”

For ‘work which is not normal’ read the sensuality of swollen volumes (the Heydar Aliyev Center, Azerbaijan) and voluptuous swerves (the London Aquatics Centre) contrasting effortlessly against graphic zig-zag rooflines (The Riverside Museum, Scotland) and sci-fi geometrics (the Phaeno Science Centre, Germany). Hadid’s buildings, which seem to defy both gravity and expectation, are unlike any other that we have seen before. As Robert A.M. Stern, dean at the Yale Architecture School where Hadid was a visiting professor, puts it: “[It was] architecture that I could never have imagined, much less imagined getting built.”

Going for Gold: Zaha Hadid's London Olympics Aquatics Centre, East London

Going for Gold: Zaha Hadid’s London Olympics Aquatics Centre, East London

For Hadid, who attended boarding schools in Switzerland and England before reading mathematics at the American University in Beirut, it just was a question of problem solving; of waiting for technology to catch up with her way of thinking. “As an architect I think you need to know the logic of engineering,” she told Young. “You can do certain things that you don’t think can be done. I might not know how to do it but the expert [computer engineers] do.”

While stretching the limits of architecture, Hadid also had fun dipping in-and-out of other creative disciplines; designing furniture, jewellery and fashion through collaborations with Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, Lalique, Atelier Swarovski and Chanel. “She is a kind of Coco Chanel of today, not in fashion, but in architecture,” said Karl Lagerfeld with whom Hadid collaborated in 2007 to create a mobile art pavilion. “If you are lucky enough to know the greatest living architect, and to have her accept an invitation to do a project, it is magical.”

Like Lagerfeld, Hadid was able to think instinctively and work fast. “You need to learn the skill, not of making things but of thinking and of imagining,” Hadid told the BBC when remembering her time as a student in the early-1970s at the Architectural Association in London. “So I think you have to always challenge the topic constantly. You push the boundaries all the time.”

Out of this world: Zaha Hadid's Serpentine Sackler Gallery Pavilion, Hyde Park, London

Out of this world: Zaha Hadid’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery Pavilion, Hyde Park, London

And yet for all Hadid’s complex geometrics realised through steel, glass and concrete, her legacy is probably something much more simple: that by being a woman of Middle Eastern origins working in the male-dominated world of architecture, she paved the way for other women to follow. “I used to not like being called a woman architect: I’m an architect, not just a woman architect,” Hadid said in an interview with CNN. “But I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.”

No obituary profile on Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid would be complete without mentioning her reputation for being demanding, or, what Harry Mount in The Spectator described as being like a, ‘spoilt, medieval queen: grumpy, humourless, entitled, used to her orders being obeyed instantly, careless of the disruption those orders created. Narcissistic, too.’ “I don’t see the point of doing a project that’s badly done with no ideas,” she told Kirsty Young when discussing her ability to compromise. “A lot of the buildings that we do are public buildings. If I talk about the [Dongdaemun Design Plaza] project in South Korea, 8million people [have come to visit] within two years. So I think it’s very important that you invest in these buildings and allow for an experience that people are propelled to [want to see].”

It was an ‘experience’ that I had had the privilege of enjoying when Lagerfeld decided to show his Chanel Resort 2016 collection in the DDP in Seoul. There, in Hadid’s curvy, cavernous art exhibition and performance space, it became clear that her structures left their mark not only on the skyline but also on the imagination; the space inside being just as important as the shape outside. “You can make great housing, create libraries and concert halls and add to the culture of a place. It’s important to bring something amazing to your locale.”