Zaha Hadid: Architecture Unbound

Zaha Hadid Architect

In the world of inventive contemporary architecture there are a few notable names that come to mind: Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Tom Wright, Jean Nouvel and Sir Norman Foster just to name a few. All white men. The architectural world has often been accused of not having enough minorities and women, at least not enough who are lauded on this kind of level. However, one architect who breaks this mold is Zaha Hadid, one of the most famous and important architects of the last thirty years.

Hadid is a Dame of the British Empire, and has won many international architecture awards and competitions including the most important, The Pritzker Prize. Part of what makes Hadid so celebrated is her inventive use of form and her ability to utilize external and internal space in an inventive manner.

Design for The Peak Leisure Club, Hong Kong, 1982-83.



Hadid comes from an Iraqi background, but her family emigrated to Britain during the 1950’s and she soon became interested in architecture. She enrolled in the innovative Architectural Association School of Architecture, in London, where her teachers included such luminaries as Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis. The school’s emphasis was on experimentation, which was perfect for Hadid. She began to create intricate and beautiful plans that looked a lot like exquisite modern abstract paintings.

Hadid’s first major design, The Peak Leisure Club project in Hong Kong designed 1982-83, was never completed even though it won the design competition for the site, and is seen as a revolutionary to this day. Her use of unusual jagged shapes incorporated directly to the rock face on which the structure sat was dynamic, and seemed to reject gravity’s pull. Hadid began to get a lot of attention because of it.

Although she had some setbacks in the 1990’s including the rejection of her design for the Cardiff Opera House in Wales, around 2000 her work became very well-known and respected. Her most important buildings to date include the Vitra Fire Station (later converted into a museum), the BMW Central Building, and the Bergisel Ski Jump.

Design for The Vilnius Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2001.



Hadid doesn’t believe in luck and doesn’t think it contributed much to her successful career. For her, it is much more about hard work, perseverance and the drive to create.

“I believe in luck but not in my case. It was lucky I won a competition but it was because I work extremely hard. It was lucky I met people who were fantastic teachers but that was a choice. It wasn’t that I sort of stumbled on them.”

Nonetheless, she demurs a bit on the subject of her own success. She believes she still has a lot to learn, a motivating force that keeps her creating impressive designs.

Because of her outsider status as a minority and woman within a white male world, Hadid feels that she has come into the architectural establishment with a unique perspective. But  her importance is not just in breaking through gender lines.

Along with architects like Frank Gehry, she is using rapid advancements in computer rendering and engineering to redefine how physical space can be molded and changed and how structures can look while still remaining architecturally sound. Because of this she believes that ideas that are theoretical need to be moved into the mainstream of architecture to allow for new developments.

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Bilbao, 1993-97.


Alver Aalto, Auditorium of the University of Technology, Helsinki, Finland, 1949-66.


Influences and Style:

Hadid has many influences including Modernist architects like Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Alver Aalto, and Le Corbusier. More so however, she was largely influenced by the work of the Russian Suprematists  and Constructivists, especially Malevich, whose work was based on creating whole new forms and vocabulary in painting, sculpture, and architecture to mirror the revolutionary changes happening in Russia at that time. Their artworks are notable for the use of total abstraction, geometric forms, strong colors, and dynamic compositions.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition (blue rectangle over the red beam), 1916.

april 2008

Kazimir Malevich, alpha architecton, 1920.


Hadid took this influence and applied it to her architecture early on in her career, using it as a guide to show how stodgy and old-fashioned concepts of Modernist architecture could be transformed for the current age. Her buildings point, prod, push and pull the surrounding space and seem to defy gravity with their acrobatics. Even her horizontal and low-lying buildings appear to soar.

Design for The Peak Leisure Club, Hong Kong, 1982-83.


As evident in her more recent work, Hadid also took some influence from her Islamic roots. Islamic architecture’s use of fluidity in its linear forms and ornate decoration became especially important as she has moved away from her more angular approach. Nonetheless, she is not at all interested in the popular deference in the Middle East to all things traditional, including preservation of landmarks. To her, the folkloric aspect of Islamic architecture is old fashioned.

“I think architecture should reflect where we live at this moment. I don’t think we live in the same way we lived 3,000 years ago. I think heritage is about change. I don’t think we should become some kind of frozen edifice.”

She says architecture should reflect the world we are currently in, not dwell on the past. For this reason, she distains many Middle Eastern architects whose work quotes and pastiches the history of Islamic architecture. This is borne out in Hadid’s buildings. Any reference to Islamic architecture is loose and abstract as opposed to a direct quotation of historical styles.

Si-yo-se-pol, Isfahan, Iran, 1599.

Si-o-se-Pol (1)

Context and Integration:

Hadid speaks brilliantly about her own work. She says that her main goal is to create a sense of surprise.

“We do hundreds and hundreds of drawings but there is always an element of surprise for me and also those who visit it. You can’t predict everything.”

Part of this surprise for the viewer is Hadid’s interest in a building’s interactions with the space and buildings around it. Hadid laments what she see as Modernist architects’ disinterest in these important issues.

Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, a crucially important innovator in the history of architecture designed buildings like the Berlin National Gallery that might as well have been a train station or a bureaucratic government office. The architectural visionary Le Corbusier infamously came up with a design that called for a complete demolishing and rebuilding of Paris as sterile modern tower blocks. While often striking to look at, these designs felt authoritarian and disengaged from the cities in which they sat. Their relational context had been obliterated.

Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1968.



Le Corbusier, Design for ‘Le Ville Radieuse,’  1924.


Hadid, on the other hand wants her buildings to have some strong relation to their surroundings, to react, and to push and pull with the surrounding architecture or natural environment. A good example of this would be The Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati. The design for the building reacts directly to the exterior urban environment, lightly interacting with and reacting to the space in which it sits, the surrounding buildings, and even streets below it.

“That ground space is really an extension of the city as opposed to just an institution. It creates a kind of overlap. And that overlap creates an interesting complexity in the spatial organization.”

Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1997-20.


The scale of her works, though impressive, never negate the human figure. They’d feel humanist and warm in comparison to the cold and almost distant aspect of much High Modernism.

All elements of the inside of the building are also important. She sees it as a kind of jigsaw puzzle, interlocking and folding into itself. The sterile orderliness of traditional modernism is replaced by curves and angles. But the design is never random. It is carefully thought out into a kind of ‘fluid organization.’ Part of that interest in fluidity also corresponds to an interest in a seamless transition between the outside of the building and the inside.

“The idea [is] that every time you move through this space it unravels. The idea is that the space unravels like a jigsaw. So every time you move through it, it’s different.”

Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.


Rethinking Form and Function:

All of her projects re-imagine what can be done with a particular type of building and how to engage form and function in new ways. One great example of this is her Bergisel ski jump that she designed for the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck Norway. The jump is designed simply, like a single curve drawn in the Norwegian landscape, but at the same time engages directly with the urban landscape around it, including a viewing area in the structure itself that would allow you to both gaze at the jump and the rest of the surrounding area from a similar vantage point to the skier.

The Bergisel Ski Jump, Innsbruck, Norway, 1992-2002.


Another example is the BMW factory in Germany. She organized it in such a way that the central office building and factory were included within a single structure, integrating the space for both white and blue collar workers. While the space is divided into its own separate sections it is also still open. She claims that her attempt is to create a new centralized form of workspace that is continuously active, interlocking, and inter-relational.

BMW Central Building, Leipzig, Germany, 2001-2005.




Human motion is also extremely important to Hadid’s designs. She is constantly engaged with how people move through space and how they engage with their environment in order that she can organize the space in a meaningful way beneficial to the people who use it. She compares the idea of movement through her buildings to moving through a natural landscape where spaces are integrated and function co-dependently.

Hadid’s work is important in the development of contemporary architecture because it is simultaneously so dynamic and so extreme in its experimentalism.  She creates new and innovative works while never giving up the essential quality of the form and function relationship. It is for that reason that her work will stand the test of time.

The Vitra Fire Station, Weil Am Rein, Germany, 1991-93.


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