Watching Pope Francis touring Iraqi cities and paying tribute to the people of Iraq during his recent trip, I could not but remember one of the country’s brightest minds, the late Zaha Hadid. A world-acclaimed architect and revolutionary designer, she died from bronchitis at a Miami hospital on March 31, 2016, at a time when her compatriots and co-religionaries were being put to the sword by the Islamic State (ISIS). Now, five years later, Francis visited Baghdad in early March to celebrate the defeat of ISIS, promoting co-existence, tolerance, and universality, which are what Zaha Hadid was all about.
I had the honor of meeting Zaha back in 2010. We had both studied at the American University of Beirut (AUB), an institution of higher education that remained close to her heart, and mine. We spoke of Damascus, the city she was then-visiting, being the former capital of the Umayyad Dynasty, which was eclipsed and overshadowed by the Abbasids who promoted Baghdad at its expense as the new capital of the Muslim World. We spoke of the long history of both cities, who had suffered miserably from war and political instability.
“To lose history is a shame, however, I don’t believe cities should not grow up or change, like Venice.”
“To lose history is a shame, however, I don’t believe cities should not grow up or change, like Venice. Damascus and Baghdad should not fall into this trap. They need to re-invent themselves and intervention has to happen to add a touch of modernity. Otherwise, they will become nothing but giant museums, with no soul,” Zaha said then.
Childhood Memories from Iraq
I still have notes from our meeting, tucked away at my office in Damascus. This was pre-war Syria of course, when my country was safe while hers was torn to pieces by war and occupation. When she talked about Iraq, her big black eyes glimmered, taking her back to Baghdad of the 1950s and early 60s. She recalled how breathtaking it was to visit the Great Mosque of Samarra, a ninth century architectural masterpiece on the east bank of the Tigris River, where she would watch the whirling white cloaked dervishes carrying out their maylawiya dance, a form of physical meditation in Sufi Islam.
“The entire world would come to a halt,” she recalled smiling longingly. “They were true Muslims, focused on God. They danced to get closer to the Creator, moving around in circles. I can see them. It triggered a combination of timelessness and spirituality that I will never forget. I can also still see the domes and the dazzling minaret.” Those childhood trips triggered her early interest in architecture, she recalled, and by the age of 11, Zaha was already designing the furniture of her own bedroom.
Childhood trips triggered her early interest in architecture and by the age of 11, Zaha was already designing the furniture of her own bedroom.
Born in Baghdad to an upper-class Muslim family in 1950, Zaha Hadid was raised under the commanding influence of her father, a wealthy and cosmopolitan economist who toured the world with his children, introducing them to the theater, opera, and museums. When Zaha was eight, he became Minister of Finance in the first government of the Iraqi Republic, only to be forced out of office when the Baath Party came to power. His assets were seized, and he was forced outside the country—a traumatizing event for Zaha.
She went to boarding school in the UK and Switzerland, before studying mathematics at AUB. In 1972, she moved to London to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, where one of her professors Elia Zenghelis later described her as one of the most outstanding students he had ever taught. Her first employment was with the Office of Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, before establishing her own firm, Zaha Hadid Architects in London in 1980.
An Illustrious Career
“Your staffers call you an intellectual dictator,” I remarked. Zaha chuckled, admitting that this might have been true in her early career but no longer applied since she now gave young architects space to innovate and bring ideas to the table. Her personal style was still revolutionary, breaking all norms of classical architecture, whether in Europe or the Muslim World. It was as modern as architecture could get, replacing fragmentation with hermetic volumes, offering porosity instead of fortified concrete to museums, art centers, and libraries.
With that as her hallmark, Zaha began teaching modern architecture at universities, becoming a walking, talking ambassador for modernism, and eventually, a school of thought in her own right. Her lectures took her to Harvard, Cambridge, and Columbia University, among others. One of her earliest clients was the Swiss furniture firm, Vitra, which commissioned her to design a small fire station addition to its factory in Weil-am-Rhein in the German southwest in the early 1990s. She came up with something extra-ordinary, a sculptural work made of raw concrete and glass, composed of sharp and colliding diagonal forms.
She created the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, becoming the first woman to design a museum in the United States.
In 1999, she designed a ski jump in Austria, replacing one that had been used in the 1965 and 1976 Winter Olympics. She also created the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, becoming the first woman to design a museum in the United States. It became an overnight classic, despite high criticism from traditionalists, due to a 30-meter-long black staircase passing through massive curving and angular concrete walls.
In 2000, she conceived the Phaeno Science Center in Germany, followed by the Ordrupgaard Museum in Copenhagen, before creating what probably is one of her most famous works, the central building for BMW in Leipzig, Germany.
She went on from one accolade to another, winning an award every year starting in 2000, becoming an Honorable Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters that year. After that, she was also named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for Architecture in 2012. Her list of awards and recognitions also include: the 2016 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture – the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) highest distinction; and the 2009 Japan Art Association’s Premium Imperial Prize for Architecture.
By 2004 she had won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious in her field, although her body of work had not yet reached the pinnacle of her career and featured no more than a handful of completed buildings. Other milestones followed not only in Europe and the United States, but also in the Middle East and Asia. Consider such gems as the Bridge-Pavilion of Zaragoza, the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the National Museum of Arts of the 21st Century in Rome, and the Guanzhou Opera House in China.
So successful was she in China that she was commissioned again, in 2008, to design the Galaxy Soho in Beijing, a commercial center in the heart of the Chinese capital.
So successful was she in China that she was commissioned again, in 2008, to design the Galaxy Soho in Beijing, a commercial center in the heart of the Chinese capital. Her major achievement in the UK was the Aquatics Center in London, built ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics. While in the US, she left behind what was to be her and last architectural feat, a 4,274 square meter contemporary art museum in Michigan. Other projects were scattered across the planet, a cultural center in Heydar Aliyev (Azerbaijan), a plaza in Seoul, a port authority building in Antwerp, a library in Vienna, and an innovation tower at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
During the final stages of her life, Zaha designed the Issam Fares Institute at AUB, a form of pay-back to her Lebanese university. Yet apart from that building and the two standing ones in the UAE, Zaha is rather absent from the rest of the Arab World, although one of her last projects, the Grand Theater of Rabat, the capital city of Morocco, which she designed in 2010, and whose construction began in 2014, has been completed and is poised to be inaugurated in 2021.
Sadly, Zaha Hadid is totally absent from her native Iraq. There is not a single building carrying her name—something that continued to upset her until the end.
Sadly, she is also totally absent from her native Iraq. There is not a single building carrying her name—something that continued to upset her until the end. That is due to several factors—one being financial—since post-2003 Iraqi authorities could not afford her. Another was professional politics, where Iraqi architects lobbied against her, accusing her of being more British than she were Iraqi. Many were affiliated with the political parties that surfaced in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
It was a stroke of luck that she had been forced out of Iraq in 1963, I told her during our meeting. “Where would you have ended up, if it were not for the 1963 coup?” To which she replied: “I don’t know, probably at a small office in a government agency, doing routine paperwork and designing dull Soviet-like buildings.” When I asked her if she would consider giving something to her native country, she replied: “I would be happy to help, if I am asked. I have not been asked yet. Iraq, however, is an occupied cheap replica watches country.” Adding: “Those who go for replica watches would never pay for a real Rolex, she said with a mischievous smile.” And Zaha was Iraq’s Rolex.
Editor’s note: Zaha Hadid was never married and had no children, but she left behind a body of almost 1,000 architectural works and masterpieces and a thriving London-based firm— “Zaha Hadid Architects” — with close to 500 employees working in 44 countries.