New Year, New Inspirations – Zaha Hadid

We hope you have been inspired by our selection of inspirational female artists so far. We have chosen quite a range of artists: a painter, embroiderer, sculptor, collage artist, and, this week, an architect: Zaha Hadid.

Zaha Hadid photographed by Mary McCartney

British-Iraqi Dame Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) was a key figure in late 20th century / early 21st century architecture. Her nickname, ‘Queen of the Curve’, indicates the most famous characteristic of her later work: the elegant, gravity-defying asymmetric line, creating a sense of undulating motion.

Born in Baghdad into a wealthy, artistic, politically engaged family, young Zaha’s interest in architecture was inspired by family trips to visit the ancient cities of the Sumerians, and the rivers and dunes of the Iraqi landscape. She wanted to be an architect from a young age. She studied Mathematics in Beirut, before moving to London to pursue a degree in Architecture under the tutelage of such famous architects as Rem Koolhaas. Her professor, Elia Zenghelis, recognised her as the most outstanding pupil he had ever taught:

”We called her the inventor of the 89 degrees. Nothing was ever at 90 degrees. She had spectacular vision. All the buildings were exploding into tiny little pieces.” He recalled that she was less interested in details, such as staircases. “The way she drew a staircase you would smash your head against the ceiling, and the space was reducing and reducing, and you would end up in the upper corner of the ceiling. She couldn’t care about tiny details. Her mind was on the broader pictures—when it came to the joinery she knew we could fix that later. She was right.”

She opened her own firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, in London in 1980. Her work stood out due to her exquisitely executed sketches, and the fact that her work represented a move away from the then omni-present trend of postmodernist architecture.

Zaha Hadid, The Peak Blue Slabs, 1982-3 (Zaha Hadid Architects)

She built a successful career as a lecturer and painter, and her innovative work was readily published, yet she struggled to see her designs realised as buildings. Despite winning a competition to design the opera house in Cardiff, the Welsh government chose to adopt a different design. Towards the end of the 1980s she was able to raise her profile due to her inclusion in a highly successful exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her early buildings demonstrate the sense of sweeping drama and asymmetric lines, with an abhorrence of the 90 degree angle, that would come to characterise her work.

The Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku. Copyright Iwan Baan.

Hadid was groundbreaking both in the style of her work and the position she assumed as a leading female practitioner in a field that had admitted few women to its upper ranks. Despite her popularity, her work has not been immune from criticism: her design for the Riverside Museum in Glasgow was criticised for the inaccessibility of the displays, and its lack of ‘friendliness’. The stunning wave-inspired Aquatics Centre for the London 2012 Olympics lacked adequate seating space for spectators, arguably an essential feature. The spiralling costs of her designs and a absence of apparent ethical standards in her choice of clients may also be seen as fair points of criticism. Mostly, her detractors have sought to describe her as a ‘starchitect’ whose designs lack practicality, to which Hadid simply countered that she was creating a different kind of practicality.

Inside of the Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku. Copyright Alex Cheban.

Hadid’s most famous structures were completed towards the end of her life and after her death, such as the theatrical Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan and Beijing’s Daxing Airport. Some are still being built.

Hadid did not like being characterised as a ‘woman architect’, but was aware of her unique position, stating: “I never use the issue about being a woman architect … but if it helps younger people to know they can break through the glass ceiling, I don’t mind that.” (quote from Icon Magazine). She also said “As a woman in architect you’re always an outsider. It’s OK, I like being on the edge.” (quoted in Architectural Research Quarterly).

Beijing Daxing Airport, Zaha Hadid Architects. Copyright Hufton+Crow.

Inspired by Zaha Hadid

I thought about Zaha Hadid as soon as Sarah suggested this series of ‘New Inspirations’ blogs. Love or hate her buildings, there is much inspiration to be found in her work for a quilter, and her success as a woman in male-dominated world, and an Arab woman at that, is hugely impressive and testament to her enormous talent and hard work. Although Hadid resisted compartmentalising as a ‘woman architect’ or an ‘Arab architect’, undeniably intersecting prejudices must have worked against her attaining the phenomenal success that she ultimately achieved. Her early struggle to see her designs realised despite widespread recognition of her talent speaks to this, as does her long-enduring reputation as ‘difficult’ and a ‘diva’ (quotes from the New York Times upon the occasion of Hadid’s being the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker prize in 2004).

Hadid’s love of the curve must surely appeal to quilters. I have found this more pronounced in the undulating lines of her later designs, which instantly suggested themselves as quilting patterns to me. I found her designs for Beijing’s Daxing Airport and the Al Janoub stadium in Qatar particularly inspiring, and have used them as the basis for the project.

So what will we be making?

Hadid’s curving lines are impressive because of the plain ‘blank canvas’ look of most of her buildings. So try to find some plain white or pale fabric, ideally on the thinner side so you can trace the pattern through it. The suggested project be for handquilting, but if that is not for you, there is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t machine quilt the designs. You’ll need thread in a strong, darker colour, thin wadding and some backing fabric.

The Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku. Copyright Robert Ghement/EPA/Corbis.

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