The brave new world of Zaha Hadid

Iraqi-born, London-based British architect Zaha Hadid (born 1950), is today the most famous woman architect in the world.

May 12, 2014 22:41
4 minute read.

SATOSHI OHASHI (R), associate director of the Beijing Studio of Zaha Hadid Architects, accompanies Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne during their tour of Galaxy SOHO, a newly-built urban complex building, in Beijing last year.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Iraqi-born, London-based British architect Zaha Hadid (born 1950), is today the most famous woman architect in the world.

Seemingly everywhere at once, her architectural firm, with 950 projects in 45 countries and 400 staff, is charged with the responsibility for building projects involving the expenditure of billions of dollars.

Awarded the most prestigious prizes for architecture, these have helped expand her practice to what it is today. You name it, she’s done it: teaching, lectures, museum exhibitions, fashion, furniture and industrial design. To believe the media frenzy surrounding Hadid is to believe that nothing is beyond her ken. A phenomenon, her spectacular way of dressing and eccentric personal life, closely intertwined with her work. Superwoman.

Her hand is immediately recognizable.

Futuristic flowing lines, dynamic, complex and theatrical, produced with the aid of the most advanced digital technology, this in collaboration with the world’s leading engineering firms.

Hadid’s claims are most pretentious, if not preposterous. For example, her claim to respect the existing physical environmental context of her projects, when in truth she exploits and dominates it, utilizing it only as a springboard for her architectural acrobatics. At Oxford, unbelievably, yet another spaceship of hers is to be placed right up against an historic Georgian setting.

Several months ago in Tokyo, famed Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki rallied together a number of his colleagues to oppose the massive scale of Hadid’s plans for the new national stadium to be constructed for the 2020 Olympic Games, forcing her to scale down her design. The city hall she designed for Montpelier, France, “Pierres Vivres,” has less than nothing to do with that city.

Hadid claims to be socially concerned when all of her works are so clearly arrogant and self-centered, the very opposite of serving. And how can one believe such a claim when so many of her clients, like Muammar Gaddafi, were, and are today, dictators? Building programs are twisted to fit formal aims, valuable space built at exorbitant cost wasted. Her every move reported by the architectural media is defended by sophisticated verbal rationalizations. “Move beyond compartmentalization,” “flexible specialization,” “interactive,” “parametricism,” “engage, integrate and adapt,” whatever those words may mean.

950 projects in progress simultaneously, needless to say, is an impossible task. Consider for a moment the fact that not too long ago, Le Corbusier, by wide agreement the most influential architect of the 20th century, had completed just 100 buildings in his lifetime, the great Finnish architect, Aalvar Aalto, about 300. Granting the new developments in digital and communication technologies, one might justifiably ask: how can you possibly control quality with such a quantity of work and offer reliable service and execution with precision? The answer to this question can partially be found in the poor detailing of many of her buildings, hardly the mark of fine architecture. Such an enormous output makes close personal attention simply impossible.

Hyperactivity is a poor guide.

For all of its novelty, Hadid’s radical experimental architecture is based on the false values of techno-capitalism – technologically driven, obsessed with change and newness.

Amnesiac, built for the present moment with no sense of either past or future. Her overt personal and intuitive aesthetic language overpowers all else, leaving us in the end with little more than self-advertisement and exhibitionism.

One of the most important roles of the architect is to mediate between available technologies and human existence. Technology in the service of man, never the other way around. Hadid’s failure on this score is total.

Ahead of her time? A genius? There is little doubt that Hadid has expanded the language of space and form. Part of the problem lies in her inappropriate use of those forms. But most important is the fact that her architecture lacks that spark of truth, élan vital, that one always senses in a work by Le Corbusier, Aalto or Kahn. Hadid’s buildings simply fail to touch the heart, incapable of reaching the critical poetic dimension of architecture, addressing questions that really matter. In the final analysis, her work leaves you cold.

So that it will come as no surprise when in a few years’ time, Hadid’s signature style, most often employed without regard for context, will be declared dead in much the same way that mountains of decorative and cosmetic post-modern architecture died before it.

History, memory and context are important human necessities. Only by grounding the architectural imagination in historical precedent can architecture regain its capacity to create compassionately and negotiate our now very real cultural diversity and the ever-expanding possibilities for production available today. The very same sophisticated digital tools employed by Hadid, utilized responsibly, with humility and restraint, could just as well create a worthy architecture for our time. Hers is not the vision of the future we seek.

The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.

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