The Heckler

The Heckler: architecture would be better off without Zaha Hadid

She’s added much to the formal language of global architecture, but not to its good sense

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

Zaha Hadid is the most famous woman architect in the world. Would women or, indeed, architecture, be better off without her pushily hard-won, global celebrity?

She established her studio in London in 1980. For nearly 14 years Hadid, absurdly, became famous for not having built anything. Her reputation was boosted by a clique of fawning admirers who saw in her uncompromising angles and, later, zoomorphic blobs a fearless repudiation of stuffy tradition.

The competition entry for Cardiff Opera House was her celebrated cause. This, with genius, managed to alienate both the left and the right. The former thought it elitist, the latter outrageous. It was, after years of well-publicised struggle, abandoned in 1995. She became a martyr to taste and sexism.

Hadid’s first real building emerged in 1993. This was a tiny fire station in a Swiss-German furniture factory whose shrieking concrete angles and disruptive interiors photographed very well and were dutifully recorded in the magazines, but were not much liked by the firemen. It was decommissioned and is now an exhibition centre.

As if in revenge, Hadid began a global strut in billowing drapery by Prada or Issey Miyake. She became the champion of an architecture that was more about personal ‘vision’ than public utility. There was a science centre in Wolfsburg and a BMW factory in Leipzig. For Karl Lagerfeld she designed a pop-up exhibition for Chanel and made it look like a quilted handbag.

Critics mumbled that she had no sense of context or locality, preferring to crash land photogenic concepts whose function was not to serve her client’s needs, but to advertise herself as a ‘global architect’. Her fabulous forms were always eye-catching, but often difficult to build. And, almost always, so neglectful was she of tectonic practicalities that her buildings went deliriously over budget. The 2012 Olympics Aquatics Centre was described by an official as a ‘joke’. For the same reason of doubling cost, a fatigued PM of Japan Shinzo Abe has just canned her design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium.

The Tokyo stadium resembled a monstrous acrylic cycling helmet. Why? Two of the grand old men of Japanese architecture, Arata Isozaki and Fumihiko Maki, damned her design as monstrous and wasteful: conceived with neither respect nor reference to its locality. That, of course, was almost certainly her intention. Global architects such as Hadid do not want to respect their client or his site, but to venerate themselves.

In any case, the locality Hadid prefers is the backyards of dictators and tyrants. Her latest buildings always win approval from supine architecture and design media, so work very well as salvation-via-design for repressive regimes. She has projects in various stages of completion or disarray in Libya, Iraq, Russia, Qatar, China and Azerbaijan.

The Qatar case, already soiled by the sordid Fifa shenanigans, is interesting. From the air, Hadid’s 2022 World Cup stadium with its almond-shaped opening and labial folds looks bogglingly like giant pudenda. Someone mentioned this and she said, if you think anything with a hole in it is a vagina, that’s your problem.

Zaha Hadid has added much to the formal language of global architecture, but not to its good sense.

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  • Chris

    I only know this woman through Deyan Sudjic’s excellent “The Edifice Complex”, which is all about the role of egotism in modern architecture. He lands some telling blows about the morals scruples of contemporary superstar architects when it comes to who they’ll work for (spoiler: they have none, no more than did Albert Speer).

  • Mmmmm, Horse!

    Mansplaining at its finest:
    “Would women or, indeed, architecture, be better off without her pushily hard-won, global celebrity?” said a man.

    • Linguistician

      Mansplaining at its finest:”, said an idiot.

      • Mmmmm, Horse!

        And a man got agitated by the word “mansplaining”. 😉

        • Linguistician

          How do you know I’m a man? Presume much?

          • Mmmmm, Horse!

            I’m glad you are proud to be a woman. 🙂

          • Linguistician

            Being proud of one’s gender. How odd.

      • justejudexultionis

        “”Mansplaining at its finest:”, said an idiot”, said an idiot.

        • Linguistician

          Yeah, that doesn’t work. Nice try though.

        • Linguistician

          And upvoting your own comment…..really….?

    • CortexUK

      Your credibility went at “mansplaining”. I didn’t read the rest.

    • Hamburger

      Like Frank Gehry? Oops, he is a man.

      • justejudexultionis

        And a master of architectural one-liners.

  • Ken K. Robert

    A monkey could write a better article with its own shit. Is it possible that one can just scan an article to see the stupid? The author answers the question in the affirmative.

    • Morris Jasper

      We, at Monkey Shit Labs Co. did attempt to produce a better article with our, admittedly unwilling, staff. But, once caged, all that they could manage was to spell out the words “Zaha Hadid” and although this text was rendered in an interestingly zoomorphic fashion, and was indeed written in their own shit, the experiment unfortunately failed to conclusively establish whether this dirty protest was better or worse than the above article, or indeed the work of Hadid herself.

  • Faulkner Orkney

    It’s a bit unfair just to pick on Hadid in the way this article does. All the creators of modernist cobblers should be equally castigated. She’s just one of hundreds that are destroying global skylines.

    • CortexUK

      It doesn’t. Though I’m sure that if this was about a mail architect, you’d have no problem with picking one as an example.

      • Ernst Stavro Blofeld

        Would a mail architect design post boxes?

  • CortexUK

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks Hadid is a hack.

    But I’m disappointed that Japan will no longer build that massive vag*na in Tokyo.

  • Ken

    I fear, like Frank Gehry, she has become a brand, to be bought by those – including various despots – who want the prestige conveyed by ownership of a glamorous object. Her buildings are not designed to be practical but to attract attention. In this respect, she is at odds with the philosophy of the Modern Movement as well as with more traditional views of architecture. But, Tokyo notwithstanding, her work still sells. She isn’t likely to pack it in yet!

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    Many modern “architects” are nothing of the sort. They hardly deserve the epithet of “designer” often bestowed upon them, because they do not *design* anything. They sketch increasingly stranger and harder to build monstrosities and then expect some civil engineer to do the calculations. Albert Speer may have been one of the most egregious practitioners of architecture, but he could add and subtract! He understood proportion, and knew of something of statics. (Which is precisely why he should have have understood the folly of it all). What is left of “global architecture” is simply an NS-like egotistic totalitarian awfulness, without even the skills to make a half decent bash at it.

    • dalai guevara

      I am not so sure. What do you know about Sullivan’s form following function, Herzog and de Meuron redefining ‘ornament’ or BIG and this generation of spass architects. Engineers and designers are testing the maths, product components and the limits of statics all the time – the fire station is a great example of that.

      Architecture at the higher end is an art form and the product of the respective societies in which it emerges, it defines society reflecting both the artist’s and the clients’ minds. Architecture is a visual built representation of how societies think. In the mid range market, there will be some pressures on architecture to work. At the lower end architecture must work well.

    • Hamburger

      I presume that you are referring to architecture here in Germany. Your use of statics gives it away. I cannot think of a building in Germany, built in the last 30 years by a German architect which is better than mediocre.

  • Bonkim

    Unless it is functional, easy to build and cost effective the architect and design have failed.

    • Hamburger

      Not quite Vetruvius, he would have added beauty and stability. By easy to build, I presume yo realise that means that every building would have to be one storey high. An upper floor is quite complex. Are you sure that is what you want?

  • THE <

    Oh Stephen. You would be much more convincing if you’d actually designed something yourself.

    Instead you have a cosy little career arbitrating on which design is good or bad.
    What a parasitic life it must be being a critic.

    • ugly_fish

      Johnson on criticism:

      You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You
      may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though
      you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make

    • Hamburger

      I am no musician but I can tell poor music easily. Is my criticism then not valid?

  • Hayrothmis

    Zaha Hadid won an international competition for the new Olympic Stadium for Tokyo 2020. After 3 years of work following the client’s instructions she has become the victim of Japanese politics in the context of construction cost overruns due to uncompetitive tendering practices: PM Abe personally stepped in and suspended her design. Should this be an occasion for British critics to add insult to injury? Its sad to see how Stephen Bayley is descending into the tabloid gutter with this is a senseless, uninformed tirade. I am afraid he has disqualified himself here.

  • davvid

    What an idiotic article.

  • Horatio J.Smallbone

    She sounds like a character off League of Gentlemen-get her to say “You’re my wife now Dave”and compare?

  • RB2

    ZH designed one of the bars at Home House where I hang out sometimes (or used to before I had kids and no longer had sufficient leisure time and money). It looks cool but is impractical and uses space extremely poorly. Sounds pretty much par for the course with her; everyone I know who is an architect regards her as a bit of joke but obviously some people take her seriously.

  • Derek_V

    There is so much disgusting sexism in this article why bother with the arguments even.
    The only one who comes across as bitter is you after writing this screed.
    Are you bitter that Zaha made enough of a success of herself that she was able to buy the Design Museum Building? What is your personal grudge here? Should you not add a disclaimer like a proper journalist?
    Does it bother you so much that the BBC had to apologize for Hadid’s atrocious treatment in the recent interview. Does it bother you that Martin Filler under legal threat had to apologize for his vicious libel that was a result of his terrible journalistic standards?
    Or does it really bother you that in light of unfair malicious attacks Zaha does not simply put up with it like a good girl should but instead fights back?

    Can you explain to us, as you are such an experts on the clients needs, and wants how on earth Zhang Xin the powerful CEO of Sohochina now commissioned her fourth mega project with Dame Hadid if she allegedly is so disrespectful to her clients interetsts?

    Can you explain how Dame Hadid won the Tokyo Stadium contest fair and square?

    Where is your personal attack on Norman Foster? Don”t you have to guts to attack a powerful man?
    The answers to all these are so obvious. You’re a sad sad man.

    • dalai guevara

      Give her the medal (tick) and let s/o else redesign Westminster Parliament (tick), so everyone is happy (tick). This is the tickbox approach to retaining competition-free commissioning of publicly funded architecture in Britain.

  • volume3

    Dear Mr. Bayley,
    Being a “taste merchant”may have given you a false sense of self-importance over the years. Whoever advised that you should engage in architectural critique, let alone comment on urbanism, which is clearly out of your league, has made a colossal mistake.
    Your shallow, pedestrian rant (simmering with envy and impotence) on the work of a great visionary such as Zaha Hadid is certainly not going to be getting you any brownie points in the future. This realisation may be difficult for you to accept, but…do not despair….there might be some opening in the corridors of the Royal institute of Chartered Surveyors where you may find a suitable vacancy.!?

    • Chase Miller

      Wtf are you saying? Hadid’s architecture is at best… nothing special. No one likes to be in her types of designs, the ridiculously angled or faux organic, generic garbage that literally all architecturw studios are able to produce. None of her designs make a good, liveable environment. If she had her way, every city would look the same, it would all be made of the same disfunction al architecture. Rather than make a distinct style that works with local cultures and materials, she tries her hardest to destroy it. The vernacular architecture of Amsterdam, Paris, barcelona, bern, etc. and their distinct styles with enough variation as to not be monotonous that make those cities loved has no place in her view. She probably likes the design of Abu Dhabi

  • Derek_V

    You got your wish. Happy?