New Century City Art Centre, Chengdu, China
(All renderings via ZHA)
Architects aren't supposed to die at 65. They really aren't. From Sinan Mimar the builder of Istanbul's great mosques (who died in 1588 aged 99) to Oscar Niemeyer who created the magical jungle city of Brasilia (and lived to within 10 days of his 105th birthday) architects have been renowned for living long, fulfilling and productive lives. Let's also not forget Philip Johnson, who reached 98, Frank Lloyd Wright 91, Jorn Utzon (Sydney Opera House) 91 and Buckminster Fuller 87.
Among the living and still going strong are I.M. Pei, who will turn 99 later this month, Cesar Pelli 91 and Frank Gehry 87.
Finding an architect who died at 65 or younger took me all the way back to the Finnish duo of Eero Saarinen (St. Louis Gateway Arch) and Viljo Revell (Toronto City Hall). The former died while undergoing surgery for a brain tumour in 1951, aged 51. The latter in 1964 aged 54.
Then came Thursday March 31, and the shock heard round the architectural world. The news, when it arrived, was swift and stark, bare and brutal: Zaha Hadid, Dead at 65. Like a nuclear explosion it arrived unexpectedly, unmercifully, and with soul-crushing finality. Like a thief in the night it robbed us of an invaluable treasure, one we are helpless to replace. We had expected so much more from her -- like at least another couple of decades of transformational work, lifting the bar higher and higher to worlds unimagined -- and unimaginable by other architects.
We are, by now, familiar with the broad brushstrokes that shaped her life's work: a woman in a "man's profession"; an Iraqi Arab in a world dominated by the West; a new face in England, a country often more comfortable with Empire than immigration; and a prodigious mind that designed structures that were often deemed too spectacular to bring to life -- even in envelope-pushing Emirate Dubai:
Dubai Opera House
Where others might have been blinded by the glare of the public spotlight, or crushed by the weight of expectations, Hadid shone. The greater the challenge, the more she rose to it. To the Pritzker Prize -- often referred to as the Nobel Prize or Academy Award of the architecture profession -- the first woman to do so. To two consecutive RIBA Stirling Prizes. To a multitude of other awards and accolades too numerous to mention.
Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, DBE to give her her full due, was a complex and multi-talented person who always chose the road not taken. She didn't understand words and phrases like "normal", "ordinary", "status quo", "fitting in", or "running with the crowd". Her buildings, like her personality, were outrageous, audacious, flamboyant, singular, provocative and iconoclastic. She simply set out to create a new type of architecture, and she succeeded marvelously. She didn't work outside of the box, she destroyed the box completely.
We live in a world today which, unfortunately, privileges brevity over profundity. Thoughts, even paradigm-changing ones, are expected to be expressible in 120 characters or less. And so, many have sought to encapsulate Hadid's work in a single word: organic, futuristic, visionary, curvy, swervy, free-form, undulating. Each on its own is inadequate; all together, they still come up short.
If I were to accept the fool's errand of summing up Hadid's work in a single word, that word, as self-serving as it may be, would be WOWchitecture. There simply wasn't a single thing that she created -- buildings, bridges, pavilions, artwork, furniture, jewelry, even yachts....to name a few -- that didn't make you go WOW! She was the ultimate WOWchitect and on most days my favourite.
Those of us who were fans of her hyperimaginative style, each had our favourite buildings. Her best-known structure was the white concrete and glass (nearly all of her buildings were white concrete and glass) London Aquatics Centre built for the 2012 Olympics. Hadid called it "a concept inspired by the smooth geometry of water in motion":
For me, her creme de la creme included the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan:
Guanzhou Opera House:
These are already built. Others are underway and will soon join the parade of spectacular structures. Like the metro station at the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:
And Port House in Antwerp:
Somewhat further down the road, we should see the construction of the Sleuk Rith Institute, a memorial in Phnom Penh to Cambodia's holocaust:
Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether her greatest design will ever see the light of day -- an Abu Dhabi arts centre so bold and futuristic that it can only be compared to the Starship Enterprise:
While her creations may have been close to perfect, Hadid herself had her share of flaws. Frailties are, regrettably, part of the human condition. Some of hers were small ones. She could, for example, be prickly. A reporter arriving for an interview could never be certain as to which version of the lady would show up. Then again, the same has been said of Gehry.
She could be flush with the arrogance of success, but not as badly as Lloyd Wright, who designed his first wife's clothes so that they wouldn't clash with the house they lived in. She didn't suffer criticism well -- who amongst us does -- to the point where she denied the obvious. She bristled when her design for the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar was criticized for resembling a woman's private parts. And yet I would defy any reasonably intelligent person to look at a rendering of the stadium and deny that what they are seeing is anything other than:
A GIANT VAGINA!!!
Small sins are forgivable. But she committed large ones as well. Like embracing dictatorships: in Libya...in Azerbaijan...in Russia...in China...in China again...and again...and again... Seeing her designs built always seemed more important to her than promoting human rights. She argued (never persuasively) that good architecture could help open up closed societies. She could also be dismissive about the deaths of low-paid, immigrant construction workers in the countries where she built. She didn't pass up jobs or advocate on their behalf. "It's not my duty as an architect" she proclaimed to The Guardian in a quote that would earn her the enmity of much of the architectural community.
Such are the complexities and dualities of creative genius: brilliance and instability; iconoclasm and arrogance; advocacy and denial; creating new worlds while toadying to the worst values of the old.
At the end of the day -- and sunset arrived much earlier than we had expected -- Zaha Hadid was a woman who knew her own mind, listened to her own heart, set her own path and followed her own dreams. She lived, perhaps unknowingly, the mantra of another brilliant (and flawed) star who shone brightly for a while before flaming out, also too soon, Steve Jobs:
"Time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition...Everything else is secondary."