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How Zaha Hadid Found Her Way from a “Paper Architect” onto the Outline of the World

Written by Cindy Marie Jenkins on Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 at 9:42am.

With news of Zaha Hadid Architects finishing their first project in New York plus their appointment to design a new Mumbai international airport, it seemed fitting to watch Alex Yentob’s 2013 documentary on her life and works, Zaha Hadid, Who Dares Wins.

It's always easy to look back on someone's life and say with confidence, Of course, they were going to succeed. Look at all of their promise at a young age, all of their talent. But hundreds or even thousands of talented people don't become industry superstars, and it's hard to understand the struggles they encountered after watching them win awards for their life's work.

While revisiting her biography for another Nook article last summer, I was surprised to learn that her designs weren't built until she was 44 years-old. I was less surprised at how such a celebrated and renowned architect wouldn't be built for that length of time; that isn't too uncommon. It was the vast accomplishments she's made since then, and the huge dent that Hadid’s works forced onto the world of architecture that impressed me. 

 This documentary, released just three years before a heart attack took her life, does an excellent job of showing her hardships without focusing on the fact that she's a woman. Yentob starts at an awards ceremony, then lets her colleagues and friends describe her before Hadid takes over the narrative.

She had a very liberal, cosmopolitan upbringing, designing her family suite and choosing her own clothes at a young age. As vibrant and experimental as Hadid’s stories and buildings are, listening to her speak of her life is so matter of fact. She almost seems bored by all of the questions, because that is simply how it was - or perhaps, she's just been asked them all before. Yes, she grew up in a liberal household. Yes, she had a lot of creative freedom as a child. Yes, she asked why she prayed at school but not at home, and was excused from School Chapel as a result.

She lights up a bit when discussing her time as a student at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. As her classmates renovated buses or worked on a farm in Wales, Hadid seems to have enjoyed the energy of experimentation without indulging in such shenanigans. There was nothing like it that could be found at the time, and after graduation, Hadid secured one of the prime spots as a teacher there. The feeling that the documentary gave me was that as a teacher, Hadid could continue in that freedom that the school offered while the world catches up to the idea that not all buildings must be geometric, and you can imagine a beautiful painting as a stunning building. Many recall how she taught by day and drew by night, with “American Gigolo” and “North by Northwest” running on repeat behind her.

 After forming her own small firm, we're thrust into innumerable gorgeous commissions that were never built, yet Hadid only comes close to emotion when describing Cardiff. She won the commission for the Cardiff Opera House three times, and architecture critics believe it could have been her Bilbao Guggenheim, and truly put Cardiff on the map as a destination. Viewing the designs for her amazing ideas really do elevate her dismissal on the project to a crime  But whoever could give her firm the green light, they were the ones who didn't want her. Maybe because she's a woman, maybe because she's Iranian, maybe because she's from London, maybe they just wanted a conservative rectangle; the reason behind it doesn't seem to matter to Hadid. The stupidity of their decision does.

This documentary shows who was ready for a “Zaha shaped world,” and how unflinching she and her partners were to bring such shapes to the public, regardless who found them proper or who hid behind the issue of “buildability”.

After all, “The idea that a woman can’t think three-dimensionally is ridiculous,” as Zaha Hadid herself said.

(Photo Credit: Dezeen) 

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