Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Mesopotamian Suprematism

Obituary: Zaha Hadid (1950-2016)
by Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, the interloper and forthright architect established herself in Britain as the most distinguished Arab woman architect even though she faced much prejudice right to the very end. Hadid had a powerful presence in person and a great sense of creativity. Essentially she saw herself as an artist of the world, weaving together materials in innovative ways to provide a dramatic visual spectacle, generating shape and form.She was self-driven. Hadid excelled at creating functional and fluid spaces.

In a manner of speaking, the outspoken architect was a daredevil. This was, perhaps, best expressed in the groundbreaking exhibition “Deconstruction in Architecture”. Hers was a paradigm shift of colossal proportions.

Hers were designs at all scales, cutting edge technology, and she was an architect who could build, and not just draw. Hadid’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Cincinnati, the United States, is a veritable gem.   Hadid designed the Hotel Puerta America (2003–2005) in Madrid, Salerno Maritime Terminal (2007–13) in Italy, Galaxy SOHO in Beijing, the China Roca London Gallery (2009–11) in Chelsea, London and the d’Leedon, Singapore. In 2009 she worked with the clothing brand Lacoste to boot. The marriage of the old and the new produced astounding architectural results. “I was a very curious child,” she says. Her father was the leader of the Iraqi National Democratic Party.

Hadid designed many buildings that never saw daylight. The Cardiff Opera House was one such project. “That was really horrible, but they didn’t want us,” Hadid elucidated. She collaborated with the brass-ware manufacturer Triflow Concepts to produce two new designs in her signature parametric architectural style. She loved playing with shapes since she was a child, a beguiling marriage of the ancient Mesopotamian mounds and modern.

Concrete became something else after Hadid’s creations. She did not fit the stereotypical white male profession of registered architects. “The foreign problem was always a problem,” she disclosed/ Her vision of the world began to take shape.  The founder of Zaha Hadid Architects, was acutely consciousness of her architectural heritage. And, architecture was a means of recreating the medieval splendor of Baghdad.

At the tender age of 11, she was already convinced that she wanted to be an architect. In 2010, Hadid was commissioned by the Iraqi government to design the new building for the Central Bank of Iraq. In 2013, Hadid designed Liquid Glacial for David Gill Gallery which comprises a series of tables resembling ice-formations. She was never afraid of taking creative risks.

Her creations punctuated the narrative of her life and career. Design was her passion and she was capable of putting things together to create phenomenal works of art and architectural beauty. In the 1990s, she held the Sullivan Chair professorship at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture. She used innovative materials such as glass to create fluid bodies and modulate structures.

“Architecture is not a whimsical artistic thing”. She never ignored or underestimated sustainability. Spatial organisation was critical and rooted in her culture, Iraq, the ancient Mesopotamia, the land of Babylon and earlier, the Ziggurat of Ur. The implausible structure was built during the Early Bronze Age (21st century BCE), a unique Neo-Sumerian architectural work.”I am Iraqi, not British,”she extrapolated.

Every challenge seemed to beckon her to throw herself into it. It was a strenuous process to reach to the top of her field. Not because she was a woman, but rather because she was Arab. “I faced prejudice because I was an Arab,”she elaborated. “I don’t think it is the profession that is gender biased. I think the world, people are gender biased,” she expounded.

Hadid left Baghdad for London in 1972. In Britain architecture was in crisis. She headed for the Architectural Association, the “AA”, in Bedford Square, London.From her distant Mesopotamian roots, she was in the business of the future. Spatial creating expansive forms and eye-catching repertoires. When Hadid was at the AA about six  per cent of the profession were women. Today, 40-odd years later, they make up 24 per cent. How to make an architectural creation quantifiable? She was on the board of trustees of The Architecture Foundation.

Hadid, iron in Arabic, passed away last week in Miami. At just 65 years of age, she was prolific. Her architectural wonders were marvels, an unsurpassed intensity of gaze. And yet, there was a delicacy, an elegance, but rarely ever subtlety in the sense of not exaggerating the human element. Her works were certainly not created by diabolical extra-terrestrials.  

Hadid never lost her vigor, energy and hope. It is almost like a spiritual experience prompted her to exhibit her own work using her intuition. In 2012, Hadid won an international competition to design a new national Olympic Stadium as part of the successful bid by the Japanese capital Tokyo to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.  The London Aquatics Centre designed for the London 2012 Summer Olympics were celebrated as symbolically significant.

There were challenges such as the Vilnius Guggenheim Hermitage Museum. But that never deterred her from reverting to the digital model. Some of her creations were not realized. The Vilnius Guggenheim Initiative was ended after allegations of corruption. Finland then received the opportunity to develop the museum in Helsinki with no further chances to develop the museum in Vilnius. Like her works, her projects were invariably reassembled.

Her creations were complex configurations and Hadid also undertook some high-profile interior work, including the Mind Zone at the Millennium Dome in London. “Exhilarating” was one of her favourite expressions, and it perfectly described her creations.

A deep sense of connectivity was her hallmark. And, she did confess that as a woman it was far easier to work in her native Middle East as a woman than in the West. “It is easier for women in the Arab world a bigger support system My friends in Iraq who went into architecture or medicine much easier than their counterparts in the West,”

Hadid considered architecture as an art. And, she did achieve fame in the West. “I had a tremendous amount of support from my parents, but it was still very difficult. I had to fight. endless sleepless nights in the office. Architecture is a lonely profession, even though teamwork is important. Incredibly inventive, but painful and very demanding. All the arts are not respected enough. As an architect you can dream, but if you don’t have a client then you are lost”. She was the first woman, after all, and the first Muslim to receive the Pritzker Prize.

The stories her creations tell are gripping. Yet, these tales do not come together in a a neat ending. And, there were numerous awards to follow. Hadid was awarded the Architecture Prize, winning it in 2004. She received the Stirling Prize in 2010 and 2011. One of her most distinguished creations was the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) or HKPU). She made her life worth living.

Hadid schooled in London, but she was deeply influenced by Russian Suprematism, a world of circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colors and her mentor was Russian architect Kazimir Malevich who conjured up the very concept of Suprematism. Hadid was given the challenge of Iraqi Parliament Building in Baghdad

She was the first woman in her own right to be awarded British RIBA awards For 50 years the RIBA awards and prizes have championed and celebrated the best architecture in Britain. No woman had ever been thus awarded. In 1983 when she was 33, she won her first award.

In 1979, Hadid founded her own architectural practice. The focus on experimentation animated her. “The whole atmosphere was about rebellion, and challenging the status quo. Nobody wanted to be normal,” she explained in an interview in the BBC documentary Imagine impressively presented by Alan Yentob.  

The British-Iraqi architect was infatuated with Russian Suprematism, in sharp contrast to Constructivism, embodies a profoundly anti-materialist, anti-utilitarian philosophy.

More recently, plainspoken Hadid faced yet another controversy. In 2014 Qatar 2022 FIFA world cup stadium design. The Hadid-designed stadium in Qatar where tens of immigrant workers from Asia were killed. “It is absolutely untrue; there are no deaths on our site whatsoever. I sued someone in the press for it. You should check your facts.” Hundreds of migrants from Nepal, India and other countries working on other construction projects in Qatar and other oil-rich Gulf Arab countries.

Hadid called a spade a spade. “The authorities in Qatar managing the Al-Wakrah site operate the highest levels of workers’ health, safety and welfare,” she defended the record, the professionalism, of the Qataris. “Don’t ask me a question if you don’t want [me] to answer,” she said. “Let’s stop this conversation right now.”

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