Zaha Hadid

The First Woman to Win the "Nobel Prize of Architecture"

Baghdad-born British creator Zaha Hadid, known for her path-breaking designs that have energized the art of building, is the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award which was awarded on 31 May. By Sonia Phalnikar

photo: courtesy Pritzker Prize
Zaha Hadid

​​The choice of 53-year-old London-based Hadid for the 2004 Pritzker was seen by many as inevitable given her impressive achievements around the world.

But the selection is significant because she is the first woman to be honored in the 26-year-old history of the prize. The fact that Hadid originates from Iraq will add a further political dimension to the awards ceremony in St Petersburg on May 31.

The Pritzker jury however is clear that architecture's equivalent of the Oscar is, above all, a tribute to Hadid's genius. "Each new project of Hadid's is more audacious than the last and the sources of her originality seem boundless," it said in a statement.

Unconventionally bold

Hadid's creations, a blend of Russian constructivism, German expressionism and deconstruction, are indeed playful and imaginative.

Characterized by slashing diagonals, jagged lines, sharp angles, dramatic juxtapositions and densely interwoven spaces, her steel and concrete buildings seem like an unruly creature impervious to taming.

Hadid, herself likes to describe her city projects as an "urban carpet" that would make her buildings a natural extension of the street. "Architecture is fundamentally about shelter. At the same time, the idea is to be open, to whisk people into the building and make them feel it is theirs," she said in an interview.

Temperamental and flamboyant, Hadid has been called a "diva of contemporary architecture." She plays the role to perfection clad in her trademark black Issey Mayake suits and expensive jewelry. Hadid, who runs her own architectural firm in London, is said to know what she wants and is reluctant to compromise.

Progressive Iraqi background

Born in Baghdad in 1950, she grew up in pre-Saddam progressive Iraq in a wealthy and liberal family.

Her father was a Western-educated industrialist and the leader of Iraq's National Democratic Party. Hadid was brought up as a secular Muslim and sent to a convent school. She was deeply impressed by buildings designed by Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier in the Iraqi capital.

"When the men want to war, women ran the place. Most of my girlfriends wanted to be professionals. I wanted to be an architect. It didn't seem strange," Hadid has said.

She went to school in Switzerland, studied mathematics in Beirut and came to Britain to study architecture at the London Architectural Association in 1971.

Her teachers included renowned architects Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind. With their encouragement, Hadid developed a radically experimental style and new approaches to space and structure.

From "paper architect" to master builder

But, when she graduated in 1977 and struck it out on her own, Hadid found that her visionary schemes won her competitions, but rarely endeared her to planners and builders. As a result Hadid came to be known as "the paper architect" in a reference to her designs that rarely made it off the drawing board.

She got her first break in 1993 when she built a fire station in the Vitra furniture factory in southern Germany. Other inventive European commissions followed. In recent years, Hadid has found more of her works turned into three-dimensional realities.

A dramatic ski jump in Austria was completed in 2002, and the widely acclaimed Richard and Lois Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, was unveiled last year. Her current projects include a BMW headquarters in Germany, a high-speed train station in Naples, a Guggenheim museum in Taiwan and a sports center in France.

British architectural conservatism

Hadid is also a sought-after speaker on the architectural circuit and has taught in Vienna, Yale, Harvard and Columbia.

But, sadly for someone who has found international acclaim, Hadid hasn't built anything permanent in her adopted country of Britain so far – a fact attributed to the country's reputation for architectural conservatism.

The Pritzker might just change that.

Sonia Phalnikar

© 2004

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