Architects are often very long-lived. Frank Lloyd Wright made it to 91 and I.M. Pei is still alive at 98, the same age that Philip Johnson died. So it was a shock to hear that Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize, died Thursday at age 65, in Miami, where she was under treatment for bronchitis. It was especially shocking because Hadid was one of the most forceful personalities in contemporary architecture, renowned as a trailblazer and an imperious maverick who didn’t suffer fools gladly.
It will take years, if not decades, to sort through Hadid’s legacy. Among her most high-profile projects were the Aquatics Center for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the 2010 Guangzhou Opera House in China and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, finished in 2012. But many of Hadid’s most ambitious projects are still underway, including plans for a stadium in Qatar to host the 2022 soccer World Cup. And Hadid embodied what many felt were the worst impulses of the most recent age of architectural exuberance: designs that indulged sculptural excess over logic and efficiency and the cultivation of celebrity status, which often seemed to insulate her from constructive criticism. She spoke the airy language of architectural theory, with all its utopian overtones, but she vigorously branded consumer products from candles to tableware to neckties. She worked regularly, and enthusiastically, in countries with authoritarian governments, designing them spectacular and expensive cultural centers and other vanity projects.
In 2006, the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a retrospective of Hadid’s first 30 years of work. Much of it was work “on paper” — conceptual designs and plans for buildings that were never realized. It was only in 2003 that Hadid built her first work in this country, the uncharacteristically low-key and rectilinear Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati. Although her first important — and still most widely admired — finished work was the 1994 Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, there were long years in the 1980s and ’90s when almost none of her projects were built.
The Guggenheim exhibition was a rare chance for Americans to see the breadth of Hadid’s work, and it was both exhilarating and unnerving. Many projects seemed to belong to some personal, science-fiction fantasy of futurism, a world of speed and fluidity and weightlessness. But it wasn’t always a sophisticated futurist vision. Indeed, it often had a cartoonlike, Jetsons naivete. One left with the sense that Hadid belonged to that particular tribe of architects who don’t design buildings for the real world, but for an imaginary, ideal, solipsistic world that only they can see. And worse, they assume their buildings will inject some germ of their utopian vision into the boring, sublunary setting of their work, and thus transform everything around it.
But there were exceptions. An exhibition space Hadid designed for an environmental facility in Weil am Rhein seemed to respect its natural setting with sensitivity. A ski jump created for Innsbruck, Austria, suggested a different, more playful balance between the whimsy and kinetic violence that were the polestars of her aesthetic.
Well before her premature death, Hadid was known simply as Zaha. It is a major accomplishment for any architect to be known so widely on a first-name basis, and it remains unprecedented for a woman architect to achieve that status. If it takes decades to assess her legacy, it may take just as long to disentangle her work and the controversies that dogged her career from the sincere admiration many felt for her astonishing success in a male-dominated environment.
In 2014, Hadid made comments that seemed to most readers dismissive of the systematic abuse and appalling death rate of immigrant workers who toil on major projects in places like Qatar, where she was designing a gargantuan stadium. “I have nothing to do with the workers,” she said. “I think that’s an issue the government — if there’s a problem — should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.”
When critics called her on it, she fought back, and she filed a defamation suit against a writer at the New York Review of Books. It was a messy case, but it left the impression that Hadid didn’t care, or didn’t consider it her duty to care too much, about the fate of the anonymous people who built work such as hers.
That will dog her legacy, because it seemed to confirm many of the worst stereotypes of modernist architects. The New York Review apologized for incorrect details in its criticism of Hadid, but the larger community of people who believe architecture should be grounded in the creation of a better, more ethical world haven’t quite forgiven her.
And now Hadid is dead, and one will never know whether she might have evolved into a better architect, with a more comprehensively humanist vision. Few architects of her stature, importance and influence leave the scene with so much unresolved.