Zaha Hadid: More than a ‘Female Architect’

Zaha Hadid in 2011 at the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe
Zaha Hadid in 2011 at the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe

When I was still an architecture student at Yale, I got stuck in New York City traffic with one of my professors, Zaha Hadid, and her chauffeur. I asked her whether she had any advice for me, a young female architecture student graduating into a depressed market dominated by men. She simply said, “Come work for me.”

I told her, “O.K., but only if I get to design shoes.”

She replied, “If you work for me, you can design anything.”

Ms. Hadid died yesterday of a heart attack while in the hospital with bronchitis. I lost a mentor and professional hero, and the world lost one of its leading form makers. Much of the ensuing praise, though, has so far focused on her gender — which is unfortunate, because it obscures what was truly significant about her career as an architect.

Don’t get me wrong: Her gender was important to me as a woman in an industry with very few people to look up to, and she inspired other young women to follow her lead. But Zaha would be disappointed in the American Institute of Architects, which reported her death by calling her a “ground-breaking female architect.” She would have said that her gender was merely incidental, as was her ethnicity. A stumbling block at times, but nothing to get excited about.

The focus on her gender obscures her real achievements. The way she drew on Russian constructivist design to create an entirely new language of drawing, painting, building and fashion. Long after the novelty of her gender fades from the public’s mind, she will be remembered for the swooping, sumptuous monumentality of her buildings, like the MAXXI art museum in Rome or her opera house in Guangzhou, China.

Zaha did not want to be defined by her gender, and she didn’t define anyone else that way, either. In her studio, she offered my female colleagues and me a chance to prove ourselves equal to our male counterparts. She quietly created an environment where I could look around and see women in positions of power next to men, not in spite of them. She showed us how gender could fade into the background if it was systematically taken out of the equation in favor of an appreciation of sheer talent. There are no token women at Zaha Hadid Architects.

Which is not to say that she wasn’t nurturing. With no husband and no children, she had a private life that may have seemed empty of many of the joys that normal people consider default. But Ms. Hadid had many close friends, and fostered a warm, close-knit relationship with her employees. She called us, her group of designers, her “kids” and treated us as such in a lot of ways.

Of course, many people seemed to insist on applying gender stereotypes to her, anyway. Many great architects, like any great artists, are often difficult to relate to, and Ms. Hadid, so intensely focused on her unique vision, was no exception. For male architects, such traits are often taken positively, as proof of genius. But the news media insisted on portraying Ms. Hadid as harsh, exacting, difficult — “diva” was the usual term of reference.

None of this seemed to bother her; she just kept on working, showing what you could achieve if you didn’t let prejudice get in your way. The night before Ms. Hadid died, she was commenting on designs from her hospital bed.

Arriving at the office on Friday, the day after her death, was like returning to a campaign office the day after the candidate has suddenly withdrawn from a race. All the excitement of the day before, the joy you feel when you’re united behind a single leader with a single purpose, was replaced by shocked silence.

What happens next? Her work will continue for years, in the form of buildings that are under construction or just starting construction, products that are designed and ready to begin and plans that have been mapped out but not executed. But her presence, that woman who turned to me in the middle of Manhattan rush hour and told me I could make it? It’s an irreplaceable loss, not just for those of us in her studio, but for an entire generation of architects — men and women alike.

Tegan Bukowski is an architecture and product designer at Zaha Hadid Architects.

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