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Visions of liquidity


Her friends don’t call her landline anymore. Texting is best because in any one month, architect Zaha Hadid has museums and stadia and towers breaking ground, under construction, or opening around the world. The architect is as perpetually airborne as the anti-gravitational buildings she designs to float in the air.

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Words by Joseph Giovannini

Many international architects are called to create the iconic monuments that today advertise up-and-coming cities and institutions that want an international profile, but few deliver masterpieces with the same regularity as Iraqui-born, London-Based Zaha Hadid. Fresh from her triumph in Baku, Azerbaijan, where last November she opened her Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center – as billowing as a cumulus cloud – she recently spent two weeks opening her Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, Korea, and the Jockey Club Innovation Tower in Hong Kong. Both are large buildings enveloped in devilishly difficult complex geometries that signal the ambitious cultural and commercial aspirations of Asian cities actively competing for prominence in the new global economy.

Hadid has emerged as one of the most charismatic of a new breed of high-profile architects, but not just because she produces monuments of unexpected and unorthodox beauty that exceed simple function. When clients hire Hadid, she virtually tattoos her buildings not only with innovative vision but also with her signature – cities collect a ‘Hadid’ as museums acquire a ‘Picasso’. Hair streaked with green, wearing pleated Issey Miyakes, billowing Romeo Gillis or constructed Yamamotos, she brings identity to her buildings. When her Museum of XXI Century Art (MAXXI) opened in Rome in 2009, every other public bus had her portrait plastered on its back, as though ‘60s La Dolce Vita actress Anita Ekberg were storming into town again.

But 30 years ago, when she was starting out, the 20-something architect was toiling in the vineyards obscurely, working outside the architectural mainstream in a rented London muse house while she taught at the Architectural Association after her own graduation. Students, friends and other designers were deployed at boards in every nook and cranny of the two-floor cottage, crowding even the single bedroom with drafting tables. “I had to hide out in the bathroom if I wanted to think,” she remembers fondly about her salad days. She turned the drafting boards upside down when she invited everybody back for take-out dinner or a barbecue: “There wasn’t enough room inside, so I barbecued on the street,” she recalls.

  • Architect Zaha Hadid
    Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

  • The architect’s Museum of XXI Century Art opened in Rome in 2009.
    Photography by Iwan Baan

Architect Zaha Hadid
Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

The architect’s Museum of XXI
Century Art opened in Rome in 2009.
Photography by Iwan Baan

When clients hire Hadid, she virtually tattoos her buildings not only with innovative vision but also with her signature – cities collect a ‘Hadid’ as museums acquire a ‘Picasso’. Hair streaked with green, wearing pleated Issey Miyakes, billowing Romeo Gillis or constructed Yamamotos, she brings identity to her buildings.

Even then her generous personality filled the room: a mimic with perfect pitch, she performed hilarious impersonations, usually at someone’s expense. On the threshold, she crooned smoky cabaret songs in a throaty voice somewhere between coloratura and Lauren Bacall, her audience wheezing with laughter. At ease in a spotlight of her own creation, she was a big fish in a small pond. The pond, and she, would soon grow proportionately.

In 1983, she and her well-fed team working in the muse house produced the spectacular winning entry for The Peak, a men’s club in the heights over Hong Kong, and the shard-like structure, its floors splaying in the air like an exploding rock crystal, required new eyes to see: it represented a physics of beauty that dared conventional construction: “No more complicated than highway engineering,” she clarified matter-of-factly. The building wasn’t built finally, a casualty of the developer’s financial difficulties. But the new architectural paradigm was widely published, and the design set a precedent for a way of thinking about architecture as fragments flying energetically in a three-dimensional force field. In the context of the historical post-Modernism that was then the fashion, she was pointedly looking to the future rather than the past. Hadid commented, “We just couldn’t move forward as cake decorators.”

In 1988, she was the only woman in the Museum of Modern Art’s Deconstructivist Architecture show, curated by Philip Johnson, which arguably changed the course of contemporary architecture. She then started to build her first projects, such as the famous firehouse at Vitra in Weil am Rhein, Germany, an illusory composition in concrete that mixed forced perspectives to create a visual conundrum. She went on to the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck, shaped like a monumental comma curling against the sky; several breathtaking funicular stations, also in the mountains of Innsbruck; and her critically acclaimed Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, her first American project, a stack of loft-like buildings bundled together horizontally like logs.

The projects earned her the coveted Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2004, bestowed on the stage in the Hermitage that Catherine the Great built for herself – somehow an appropriate venue for the first woman to win architecture’s Nobel.

Tela shelving designed for T Mobile.
Photograph by Jacopo Spilimbergo.

Stuart Weitzman's shoe salons were worthy
enough to receive the Zaha Hadid touch.

  • Tela shelving designed for T Mobile.
    Photograph by Jacopo Spilimbergo.

  • Stuart Weitzman's shoe salons were worthy
    enough to receive the Zaha Hadid touch.

With the Pritzker seal of approval, but armed mostly with her talent and an inspired team, she has since become unstoppable, riding her success across the globe. In 2009, Prince Hitachi of Japan conferred the Praemium Imperiale for architecture on Hadid. In 2012, Queen Elizabeth named her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In the midst of all the accolades, not to mention the work of the eponymous office she was running, she would still text her friends to find out how a sick child was doing, or where a son or daughter was going to college. Did they need a recommendation?

The roots of Hadid’s vision are still on display in Studio 9, the office she opened after the muse house in 1985 in a lofty classroom of a former government elementary school in a brick Victorian building in Clerkenwell, then an overlooked section of East London. As organised as a field marshal, Hadid has since commandeered the whole school, with hundreds of architects at work on their computers as though at sewing machines in a hightech factory. But Studio 9 retains the original aura of an artist’s studio, sometimes with a changing selection of her large-scale paintings on the wall, overlooking the desks that are arranged in four orderly rows. Zaha’s desk has always been near the window at the far end, but still part of the office pool: she would often answer the phone herself.

This room was the eye of the creative storm in the early days, where she and her colleagues in the heat of the creative moment brainstormed, devising plans, and painting late into the night. She may have cultivated sprezzatura, giving the impression that she doesn’t work all that hard, but from the beginning she imposed a punishing work schedule on herself, and expected long hours from her colleagues in the office, who were in any event already driven by the idealism of her vision. No getting off early on Friday for a weekend ski trip to Switzerland.

Just off the classroom is a smaller room, an inner sanctum lined with tomes on Malevich, Tatlin, Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Leonidov, architects of the Russian Avant Garde who informed her early years. Their visions had emerged around the time of the Russian Revolution but ultimately went largely unbuilt, condemned by Lenin and then Stalin. Hadid decided that she would develop, and build, their unconsummated vision. Among many other lessons she culled from these studies, Hadid absorbed their sheer beauty, which she factored into her design DNA as one of her vision’s most appealing arguments. Beauty perhaps was not discussed in school, but for Hadid, it mattered.

The architect's Museum of XXI
Century Art opened in Rome in 2009.
Photograph by Iwan Baan.

The swimming stadium for London's 2012
Olympics was designed by Zaha Hadid.

  • The architect's Museum of XXI Century Art opened in Rome in 2009.
    Photograph by Iwan Baan.

  • The swimming stadium for London's 2012
    Olympics was designed by Zaha Hadid.

Hadid has emerged as one of the most charismatic of a new breed of highprofile architects.

Starting with the Russians, she set her own unusual path, a pattern that has persisted as she pursued a practice based on research into the new – whether new forms or new materials or new urban strategies. The complexity of her designs demanded the computer long before the computer became a fixture in architecture offices. Hadid always maintained a strong relationship to the Architectural Association, and attracted its freshly minted graduates, adept at the keyboard, as well as ambitious idealists from around the world. At a certain point the influence of the computer and its ability to smooth even fragmentary forms into curving shapes encouraged a shift in her architectural approach toward liquid forms and liquids spaces.

The most recent triumphs include the swimming stadium for the 2012 Olympics, and the Cultural Center in Baku, both shell structures with beautifully arching shapes. But her recent design for Blohm+Voss, with an elasticised web superstructure and streamlined hull, is possibly the most concrete indication that her aesthetic has changed, from an architecture that occupies the air to an architecture equally at home in the water: her aerodynamic architecture has become, in a sense, hydrodynamic – visions of liquidity.

Recently, she has applied the approach at very large scale. Last year, she won no less than the competition to build the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Japan, a huge building that signals Hadid’s escalation from a boutique practice to a firm operating at a much larger scale. She has also bought the former home of London’s Design Museum, a large warehouse, which means that Hadid has now joined the big boys, other international architects operating at very large scale from their offices along the Thames. What is remarkable is that she has not diluted the intensity and complexity of her early work as she translates her abstractions to much larger commissions.

By now, her fame has already lasted well beyond Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes, and is well on its way to a full lifetime, largely because it is based on talent at the service of vision, and not on celebrity. But please don’t call her a starchitect. She’s the one and only Zaha.

  • Project Jazz was a prototype developed with Blohm+Voss,  but never produced.

  • The interior of Project Jazz contains no corners or right angles.

  • The styling of Project Jazz is in line with her maxim of motion, fluidity and a non-Euclidian geometry where nothing is repeated.

  • The styling of Project Jazz is in line with her maxim of motion, fluidity and a non-Euclidian geometry where nothing is repeated.

Project Jazz was a prototype
developed with Blohm+Voss, 
but never produced.

Project Jazz, 90m

Star architect Zaha Hadid developed the 90-metre project, Jazz, derived from a 128-metre draft design that she sketched out for one of her existing clients. “However, this mega-prototype,” says Blohm+Voss-CEO Dr. Herbert Aly, “was too extreme and could at best only be built if an unlimited budget was available.” So there was an agreement between Hamburg and London on a reduction of 38 metres and yet Jazz achieves a visual impact that in yacht terms can at best be matched by Philippe Starck’s M/Y A and Sir Norman Foster’s M/Y Ocean Emerald. The superstructure looks almost skeletal and here Hadid was inspired by underwater flora. The styling is in line with her maxim,
“the most important thing is motion, fluidity, a non-Euclidian geometry where nothing is repeated” – which is continued in the interior. There is almost no occurrence of corners and right angles. Construction of Jazz would take between 40 and 48 months.


Visions of liquidity


  • Architect Zaha Hadid.- Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe.

  • Visions of liquidity

  • The architect’s Museum of XXI Century Art opened in Rome in 2009. Photography by Iwan Baan

  • Tela shelving designed for T Mobile. Photograph by Jacopo Spilimbergo.

  • Stuart Weitzman's shoe salons were worthy enough to receive the Zaha Hadid touch.

  • The architect's Museum of XXI Century Art opened in Rome in 2009. Photograph by Iwan Baan.

  • The swimming stadium for London's 2012 Olympics was designed by Zaha Hadid.

  • Project Jazz was a prototype developed with Blohm+Voss,  but never produced.