Zaha Hadid has died suddenly at age 65 from a heart attack. As the first woman architect to achieve notable celebrity, Hadid’s prolific and geographically diverse commissions mean that she will likely remain the best-known woman architect on the planet for many years. But her work was also incredibly controversial— not just the design of her structures, but the clients she chose to design them for.
Hadid’s multicultural upbringing meant she was both a woman in a field dominated by men, and a person of color in a very white industry. The Iraqi-born designer attended school in Beirut and then London, where she started her practice. From her first built work, Hadid delivered a distinctive style: angular, swooping, structurally complicated—more like extraterrestrial colonies than concert halls.
Her most famous buildings were museums and other cultural institutions that often appeared unabashedly out of context, like the MAXXI Museum, which elbows its contemporary forms into the historic center of Rome, or the Guangzhou Opera House, a glittering jewel of glass and steel in the Chinese city. In addition, Hadid’s design empire was vast and multifaceted, reaching beyond buildings to furniture, home accessories, and even fashion.
Her swift ascent to global fame was unprecedented for any architect. At age 53 she was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize, and as of this year, the first woman to receive the Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects. But more notable is the fact that Hadid did not share these awards with a male partner, like most of her female contemporaries. Like her work, Hadid remained fiercely independent.
To say Hadid’s work was controversial is an understatement. She was at the center of some of the biggest design scandals of the past decade.
Most recently, Japan rescinded her bombastic design for its Olympic stadium after an outspoken group of high-profile architects—Hadid’s mostly male peers—publicly slammed it for being wildly expensive and insensitive to the site. The Japanese government first asked her to downscale the design by $1.3 billion, then took away the project entirely, which rarely happens to architects of this stature.
Yet Hadid did not shy away from polarizing commissions, even ones that garnered very bad press on the international stage. She designed a new building for Iraqi’s parliament that was called over the top and out of touch for a country still recovering from war. She also took on many projects in China, where her work was criticized for not addressing the country’s social and environmental concerns.
But Hadid’s most infamous project by far came from Qatar, which chose her to design one of the stadiums for its 2022 World Cup. Almost immediately, the government was accused of devastating human rights abuses, forcing migrant workers to live in conditions that have been equated to modern-day slavery. Reports that over 500 workers have died already on the World Cup projects funneled global outrage towards Hadid for continuing to collaborate with Qatar’s government.
It’s important to note that workers were not killed while constructing Hadid’s stadium specifically, but when asked about the deaths, she delivered what many perceived to be a tone-deaf response that there was nothing she could do. This was typical of how Hadid was portrayed by journalists: standoffish, removed. I remember vividly a New Yorker profile that described her hands—and metaphorically, her disposition—as “chilled as the cutlery in an airplane’s galley.”
Her politics might have made her a complicated hero, but it’s clear that Hadid’s pioneering career leaves behind an important legacy. Unlike other structures that are so easily forgotten, Hadid’s buildings continue to ricochet around the internet. There are tens of thousands of young designers in her wake who will eagerly roll out their own iterations of her style, for better or for worse.
Just looking at our coverage of her work over the last few years—which has not all been positive—I can’t help but note the many metaphors we’ve chosen to describe her buildings: vaginas, ear plugs, alien excrement, along with the many references to Battlestar Galactica.
But that’s just the thing—there really was no other way to describe Hadid’s work. It was, quite simply, like nothing else we’d ever seen before on Earth.