BEYOND THE RECTANGLE – A tribute to Zaha Hadid

The world of architecture was blessed to have the incomparable Zaha Hadid as one of its pioneers. She left for her heavenly abode on March 31, after a heart attack in Miami where she was being treated for bronchitis.

By Anmol Sharma

She redefined shapes and inspired many to think beyond the rectangular form. Her exemplary works are a testimony to the fact that the impossible is possible. Unarguably, she was the best women architect to have graced this world. Her creations did not just redefine architecture, some of them even defied gravity. The buildings she put her entire heart into creating will mourn her demise, and so do we. The world will never have another Zaha Hadid.

She was born on October 31, 1950 in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Her father, Mohammed Hadid was the leader of the Iraqi National Democratic Party, and her mother, Wajiha al-Sabunji came from a wealthy Mosul family. She had a privileged childhood and in one of her interviews she termed it as ‘fabulous’.

What made it fabulous were her liberal and broad-minded parents. At a very early age, Zaha had sensed that she could achieve whatever she wanted. When she was 11, she knew that she wanted to be an architect.

In 2008 she had famously said: “Never in my upbringing was there a feeling that women are different from men.” Her liberal childhood had a lot to do with her open mindedness which allowed her later in life to enter a male-dominated profession and conquer it with her never-say-die attitude and hard work.

Architecture has always been stereotyped as a man’s job. Like many other professions, architecture has always been dominated by men as far as numbers are concerned, but that never matters. There are always people like Zaha Hadid who come and change the perspective, and the entire world of the profession.

Zaha Hadid’s transformation from a paper architect to a practicing world renowned architect inspired many women to take up architecture as their career. For women in


architecture, Zaha’s loss is a huge one. She was not just a star architect for women but also was their role model.

In 2013, Zaha Hadid won the Veuve Cliquot Business Women award, a definite honour. At the ceremony, Zaha said: “Architecture is no longer a man’s world. This idea that women can’t think three dimensionally is ridiculous.”

She was portrayed as a diva by the media to which she once responded: “Would they call me a diva if I were a guy”. She did not just defy gravity through her works but also eliminated this misconception of terming architecture as a man’s world. She was against gender defining an occupation. According to her, it was the work that should define a job not the gender of the worker.



Her architecture career began as a student at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square in London in 1972. Alvin Boyarski was the chair at the famous institution, which aimed at not just plain architecture but architecture in terms of alternative life and experimentation.

In 1977, Zaha Hadid graduated from the Architectural Association. After graduation she continued there as a teacher for 10 years. She didn’t just teach but also started her architectural practice in 1979.

Zaha was influenced a lot by her teacher Rem Koolhaas, who had won the Pritzker Prize in 2000 and was also included in Time’s list of the Top 100 Most Influential people in the world in 2008. It was because of Koolhaas that Zaha was able to discover Kazimir Malevich’s paintings.
Maleyvich was groundbreaking in his great works, such as his famous ‘Dynamic Suprematism’, a painting that freely plays with geometrical form. Totally astounded by Malevich’s paintings, Zaha developed a compulsive interest in painting and started to draw and paint.

The paintings allowed her to imagine and think in a free and fluid way. She started to imagine how and what architectural spaces could be like. Almost all of her images had a small connection to buildings. All her images were unconventional. Her paintings made her think that ‘zero gravity’ existed.

Zaha Hadid’s way to stardom started in 1983 when her project ‘The Peak in Hong Kong’ was rewarded in a design competition. ‘The Peak’ was a proposed private club which would have been fixated in the hills of Hong Kong.

This design was out-of-the-world and just mesmerizing and it gave her the title of ‘deconstructivist’. The astonishing design defied gravity and showcased Zaha Hadid’s confident and daring nature. The Peak project, however, was cancelled and was not realised.

It was after 10 years of patience and hard work that her breakthrough moment came when her first major work was completed. It was the Vitra Fire Station, situated in Weil am Rhein, Germany. A simple structure, it was made of Zaha’s favourite ‘concrete’ block. The angular edges of the building seemed as if they were stretching to a particular focal point. It represented a ‘movement frozen’, a structure which is all set to explode at any time.

The Iraqi-born architect didn’t have it easy in her climb to become a ‘starchitect’. There were more than a few controversies in her career, but her winning attitude and perseverance were key factors in what made her the ‘Queen of Curve’.


She had won the design competition for the Cardiff Bay Opera House but some of the leaders in the Welsh city just didn’t want her work. She also was taken off from designing Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium allegedly because of cost overruns. Her religion and gender were obstacles many-a-time but she never let that affect her work ethic. She didn’t let anything but her work define her.

Before her, architecture was in its constrained form – that of the rectangle. Her futuristic and wavy designs were instrumental in not letting architecture be confined just to the rectangular form. There too, she broke boundaries. No woman had ever won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is considered as the Nobel Prize of architecture, before 2004.

It was Zaha Hadid who was honoured with this prestigious award for her exemplary work: the Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Some of her other major striking and innovative works include the Guangzhou Opera House, MAXXI Museum in Rome, Nordpark Cable Railway in Innsbruck, Bergiskel Ski Jump at Bergisel Mountain in Austria, London Aquatics Center in Stretford, Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi and Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan.

If there can be anything that reflects her eclectic, world-wide influence, it is the fact that she has left her mark in so many cities spread all over the world.

Guangzhou Opera House was described by Zaha as “pebbles in a stream smoothed by erosion”. This Opera House is one of the most tempting opera houses you will ever see. The folded and flowing glass structure built on the riverside justified Zaha’s description of her work. The MAXXI Museum which is dedicated to 21st Century Art is built on the site of an old military


compound. MAXXI Museum is the most critically acclaimed work of hers. This very building won Zaha Hadid the Stirling Prize in 2010.

The London Aquatics Center is one of her most beautiful projects. Built for the London Olympics 2012, the structure flows just like the waves of water. The double curved roofs for the Aquatics Center stand out, just like she did. The Bergisel Ski Jump in Austria just defies gravity. For a layman, it is the kind of structure that one would assume cannot exist physically and can only be drawn or photoshopped, but Zaha made it possible. The structure is shaped with mathematical precision and is 164 foot high and has a length of 295 ft. The structure is a combination of a tower and a bridge. There’s a café on the top from where people can view the surrounding mountains and watch people ski.

The work that completely defined Zaha Hadid was the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in the capital of Azerbaijan. This stunning masterpiece was completed in 2012 and spans over 619,000 square feet. According to reports this magnanimous creation cost a whopping $250 million.
The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center is a pure treat to look at. It is completely out-of-the-world and most of us would wonder how such a thing could even be thought of, let alone built. The Center is equipped with a museum, an auditorium, and a huge hall.

The curved roofs and flowing space makes it look heavenly from the outside. The Center’s beauty is reinforced at night when the lights are switched on and one can look inside through the glass structure. Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center won the London Design Museum award in 2014. At the ceremony, one of the judges called the wonderful work “as pure and sexy as Marilyn’s blown skirt.”

It won’t be wrong to say that just like Marilyn’s legacy as a style icon lives on, Zaha Hadid’s starchitect legacy will also live on forever. Aspiring architects will look forward to her work and idolise her. Her colleagues and competitors will miss her company and the buildings she designed would thank her for their immortal existence.

From facing rejection umpteen numbers of times to be able to win the Pritzker Prize shows how willpower and confidence can take you places. The word ‘compromise’ was not in her dictionary and it showed through her work. She let her work speak for itself. She made the unconventional, conventional.

She did not just design buildings. She designed a variety of products from tables to shoes to benches. She had also taken a challenge of designing a luxurious apartment and in that too she gave a new meaning to residential apartments.

The 520 West 28th will open next year and unfortunately Zaha Hadid will not be there to see the reception of her astounding work. It is an eleven storey building and consists of 39 apartments, of which two are penthouses. Apart from the curves, the striking feature of the apartment building is the floor-to-ceiling windows. It will be Zaha Hadid’s first residential building in New York City and the design of it will be a tribute to her legacy.

Besides winning numerous awards for her designs and winning the highest accolade an architect can win, she also made it to the list of World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list by Forbes magazine, in the year 2008.

In 2010, Zaha Hadid won the honour of being included in the list of UNESCO Artist for Peace. In 2012 came the most glorious of acknowledgements for Zaha Hadid when she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. For an Iraqi-born woman architect, that was a long way to come, and it is because of this, that her story is an inspiring one for aspiring artists everywhere.