In Praise of Zaha Hadid

Citation from the Pritzker Prize Jury

Black and white photo of Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid in her London office, 1985
Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid in her London office, c. 1985. Photo by Christopher Pillitz/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Zaha Hadid became a Pritzker Prize Laureate in 2004. She was the first woman architect to win the prestigious prize. In the years since, Hadid has become one of the well-known international "starchitects," a celebrity designer whose name can be dropped into the big-money hat necessary for architectural destinations.  What was the Pritzker Jury thinking? Here's what they said back in 2004:

Pritzker Jury Citation (Selections):

"The architectural career of Zaha Hadid has not been traditional or easy....Born in Baghdad, she studied at the highly regarded Architectural Association in London, was a partner in the avant garde Office of Metropolitan Architecture with Rem Koolhaas, and has held prestigious posts at one time or another at the world’s finest universities....Much admired by the younger generation of architects, her appearance on campuses is always a cause for excitement and overflowing audiences.

"Each new project is more audacious than the last and the sources of her originality seem endless.

"Ms. Hadid has become more and more recognized as she continues to win competition after competition, always struggling to get her very original winning entries built. Discouraged, but undaunted, she has used the competition experiences as a 'laboratory' for continuing to hone her exceptional talent in creating an architectural idiom like no other.

"It is not surprising that one of the architects whose work Zaha Hadid admires is another Pritzker Prize winner, the preeminent South American author of Brasilia, and other major works — Oscar Niemeyer. They share a certain fearlessness in their work and both are unafraid of risk that comes inevitably with their respective vocabularies of bold visionary forms.

"The full dimensions of Ms. Hadid’s prodigious artistic outpouring of work is apparent not only in architecture, but in exhibition designs, stage sets, furniture, paintings, and drawings."

~ From the Pritzker Prize Jury Citation 2004

A Jury of Her Peers:

Thomas J. Pritzker, president of The Hyatt Foundation who gives out the Pritzker Prize, noted that Zaha Hadid had a "relatively small" number of completed projects at the time of the Award. Nevertheless, the then-53-year-old architect had "achieved great acclaim," Pritzker said, "and her energy and ideas show even greater promise for the future."

The 2004 Pritzker Jury included the late architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who called Hadid "one of the most gifted practitioners." Huxtable noted Hadid's "fragmented geometry and fluid mobility" as a "consistently original and strong personal vision," changing "the way we see and experience space."

The controversial Frank Gehry was also on the Pritzker Jury that year, ready to give Zaha Hadid's career the jump-start that his own career had received after he won the 1989 Pritzker Prize. Gehry said that Hadid had "one of the clearest architectural trajectories we’ve seen in many years. Each project unfolds with new excitement and innovation."

Hadid's Architectural Direction:

In her Pritzker acceptance speech, Hadid acknowledged the encouragement of her teachers, Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis. They "ignited my ambition," she said, and "taught me to trust even my strangest intuitions."

She explained that early on she "took up painting as a design tool," in order to express her spacial inventions. Before high-powered computer programs and Web-based applications, architects actually used pencils, ink, paint, and paper.

And then she recognized the influence of her design partner, architect and professor Patrik Schumacher.

"The new digital design tools pull architecture into an uncharted territory of opportunity," Hadid said back in 2004, and Schumacher has been her adviser in all things parametric.

Frank Gehry knew what she was talking about, because Gehry was using computer programs to create his wavy architecture, like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1997) and the Disney Concert Hall (2003). Schumacher coined the term parametricism to describe the type of designs possible with 21st century software.

"This is one of my current preoccupations," Hadid said in her 2004 Pritzker acceptance speech, "the development of an organic language of architecture, based on these new tools, which allow us to integrate highly complex forms into a fluid and seamless whole. The exciting thing is that these ambitions have since moved from the canvas onto various construction sites.

And I hope this milestone of the Pritzker Prize will give me a further push in this direction."

Why is Hadid so controversial then? It might be that some people just don't like parametric design. Others don't like the idea of computer programs leading the design process. Still others, apparently, just don't like women working in the boys' club of the architecture profession. Would Zaha Hadid be where she is today without the praises of the Pritzker Prize Jury?

Learn More:

Sources: Pritzker Prize Jury Citation 2004; Zaha Hadid 2004 Laureate Acceptance Speech (PDF); and Announcement, The Hyatt Foundation [accessed October 28, 2015]

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Craven, Jackie. "In Praise of Zaha Hadid." ThoughtCo, Oct. 25, 2016, Craven, Jackie. (2016, October 25). In Praise of Zaha Hadid. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "In Praise of Zaha Hadid." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).