Zaha Hadid: her life and legacy

Saturday 22 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Frobisher 1-3 Urbanism and its Discontents

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Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

Zaha Hadid, who died on 31 March 2016, was a world-famous architect. She was described in a CNN interview in 2013 as ‘one of the most celebrated - and divisive - designers on the planet’. In life, she was respected or reviled, but seldom ignored. Born in Baghdad in 1950, at a time of secularisation, she was partly inspired by new buildings in the city by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius. Having studied in Beirut and London, she set up her own practice, in a redundant school in Clerkenwell, in 1980. Her challenging designs were often described as ‘too difficult’ at a time when Prince Charles’s traditionalist outlook was highly influential. Nevertheless, she went on to create numerous landmark buildings, including the Aquatic Centre in London’s Olympic Park and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan. She was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2004, won the Stirling Prize in both 2010 and 2011, received a knighthood in 2012 and was the first woman to be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 2015.

For such a decorated figure, though, Hadid also attracted controversy. Her design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House - which won an international competition for the project in 1994 - refused funding by the Millennium Commission. The project to build her winning design for a new Olympic stadium in Tokyo was pulled by the government in July 2015, apparently due to rising costs, but political factors also seem to have been at play. In 2015, in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today, she was confronted with the accusation that the stadium she had designed for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar had been the site of many workers’ deaths. Her response, that it wasn’t her job to protect migrant workers’ rights, was greeted with moral indignation. Before her death, design critic Stephen Bayley claimed that ‘architecture would be better off without her’.

Whatever one thinks of her, Hadid was a remarkable figure: a powerful woman in a man’s world; an Arab at the top of the Western design industry; a designer of curves in a world of boxes; an opinion former who rarely gave interviews; a leader in an age of consensus. Yet she was refreshingly uninterested in talking up her identity. Several years ago she told the Guardian: ‘I never use the issue about being a woman architect.’ Instead, she was a hard-worker and a risk-taker. ‘Without research and experimentation not much can be discovered’, she said. ‘With experimentation, you think you’re going to find out one thing, but you actually discover something else. That’s what I think is really exciting. You discover much more than you bargain for. I think there should be no end to experimentation.’ What will be Zaha Hadid’s legacy? Is there a place for risk-taking and experimentation without her? Is there anyone out there to fill her shoes?