The Dash of Zaha Hadid
This week on one of the national news TV stations, I saw a touching story about an all-girl school in Jordan which was already overcrowded. When all the Syrian refugee girls started showing up, the principal of the school declared that the refugee girls could attend only if they brought their own chairs. Of which they did. It did not take long for the girls to feel welcomed and have a sense of belonging. The atmosphere was prime for learning and making friends. The following is a touching story about an all-girl school where Zaha Hadid started her life.
Desperately wanting to go to school is not the normal plea of most British, American and Canadian children. But in the Middle East where oppression is the norm, I can imagine that girls must hunger and thirst for a sense of significance. I venture to say, their sense of significance is derived by either being supported by their father or marrying well. Given the chance, they cherish any opportunity for an education…it’s their ticket to a dream-life of independence.
Zaha Hadid was born to a wealthy Muslim family on 31 October 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq. . . [ms-protect-content] Her father, Muhammad al-Hajj Husayn Hadid, was a wealthy industrialist from Mosul, Iraq. Her mother, Wajiha al-Sabunji, was an artist from Mosul. I have no knowledge if she had any siblings; I assume not, as it appears that her parents showered her with devoted attention, culturally inspiring travels and privileged boarding schools in England and Switzerland.
Zaha died of a heart attack on 31 March 2016 in a Miami, Florida hospital while being treated for bronchitis. I find it odd that she was born and died on the same day, the 31st. Her entire 65 years on earth is shrunk into the dash between 31 October 1950 – 31 March 2016. In short, she bought her education ticket to her dream-life of independence. The story of Cinderella was not her aspiration. Instead she became a famous, world renowned architect…and designer extraordinaire.
Her entire, extensive list of accolades, awards and life-time achievements are impressive. Most notably she was the first woman and the first Muslim to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, winning it in 2004. She received the Stirling Prize in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and in 2015 she became the first woman to be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal. See Wikipedia for a partial list of her life-time projects and awards. No doubt she had more on the drafting board in her London office of 400 employees. As these projects come to completion, her list will continue to grow post posthumously.
Over the last, at least, 3 decades on hearing about Zaha’s work, my observation throughout her life is:
- Her insatiable appetite for learning and pushing the envelope of knowledge;
- Her unconventional bold, brazen, Joan of Arc style persona;
- Her persona manifested into like type unconventional and bold architecture;
- Her Renaissance approach to design, beyond architecture to fashion, furniture, interiors, landscaping.
First throughout her life, Zaha was well educated and thrived in the arena of learning. She attended the American University of Beirut. Thereafter in 1972, she continued her educational pursuits in London to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. She then moved to Rotterdam, Netherlands to work for her former professor’s practice, at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture becoming a partner in 1977. Even after she started her own London-based architecture firm in 1980, she continued her quest for knowledge by teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she held the Kenzo Tange Professorship, and at the Architectural Association.
In the 1990s, she held the Sullivan Chair professorship at the University of Illinois at Chicago‘s School of Architecture. At various times, she served as guest professor at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg (HFBK Hamburg), the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, the Masters Studio at Columbia University, and was the Eero Saarinen Visiting Professor of Architectural Design at the Yale School of Architecture. From 2000, Hadid was a guest professor at the Institute of Architecture at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, in the Zaha Hadid Master Class Vertical-Studio. 
With the complexity of the various undertakings albeit architecture, furniture, interiors, and fashion projects from the four corners of the globe, she exemplified the quintessential student. Plenty of research had to go into each in order to understand not only the function of form, but the geographical envelope, the historical significance, and the innovation of style which she and her staff brought to each endeavor.
Second, her personality was often cited as being bold, brazen, strong, curt, narcissistic and arrogant. So what’s the problem with that? Sounds like perfectly normal characteristics for an architect, especially a female architect trying to compete in a man’s world. Joan of arc was no ordinary warrior either. Like Joan of arc, Dame Zaha Hadid was a woman on a crusade and widely departed from the Cinderella stereo type. Sarcasm, bullying, and ostracism did not deter her. She broke through the glass ceiling to rise to the pinnacle of the architecture world. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a woman with a dream. Perhaps the contrast between her origin from a repressed society in Iraq compared to the Western world’s liberties and opportunities was her driving force.
Third, like her personality, Zaha’s design style “liberated architectural geometry with the creation of highly expressive, sweeping fluid forms of multiple perspective points and fragmented geometry that evoke the chaos and flux of modern life. A pioneer of parametricism, and an icon of neo-futurism.”  The London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Olympics is one of her more acclaimed designs.
Her first project for the Arab region was for her former school in Beirut. Of all the world-wide architectural and product design projects which she was commissioned, there was only one which she did for her country of birth. Another notable upcoming project is a stadium for the Doha, Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup; the Al Wakrah project commenced in 2015.
The full list of her major accomplishments is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, Zaha had a productive and successful career. She revolutionized the world of architecture.
Fourth, she was truly a Renaissance woman. She applied her design knowledge to various mediums and disciplines of architecture, landscaping, interiors, furniture, and fashion design. She was known to have created her own outfits in school by stapling pieces of cloths together. It did not need to exist. She would build the world around her where she roamed. The world was her oyster and all seemed possible to achieve.
In summary, she was a refugee, of sorts, on a personal quest to seek a dream life of her own making. As I ponder the life and death of Zaha Hadid, I cannot help but think about all the little Syrian refugee girls who gladly brought their own chairs to school for only the opportunity to learn something. I bet there’s a few young Zaha wannabes there and out of school. Our world was forever changed by Zaha’s vision and strength. Rest in Peace dear sister.
- Wikipedia, profile of Zaha Hadid