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date: 25 January 2020

Hadid, Dame Zaha Mohammadfree

  • Deyan Sudjic

Dame Zaha Hadid (1950–2016), by Franco Origlia, 2009

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Hadid, Dame Zaha Mohammad (1950–2016), architect, was born on 31 October 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq, the youngest of the three children of Mohammed Hussein Hadid (1907–1999), a reformist Iraqi politician and economist, who had graduated from the London School of Economics, and his wife, Wajiha al-Sabunji (d. 1983), who came from a wealthy Mosul family. Her parents had married in 1933 and she had two elder brothers, Haytham, who like his sister was educated in England and spent much of his life there, and Foulath (1937–2012), also educated in England, later a writer and political commentator based in Beirut and Oxford.

Early life and the AA

Born a Muslim, Hadid was educated at a Catholic convent school in Baghdad. She grew up in a secular, modernizing Baghdad at a time when Le Corbusier had been commissioned to build a sports complex in the city, Frank Lloyd Wright was working on a cultural centre, and Gropius had built a university. She became aware of architecture as a possible career early on, and developed an ability to draw and paint. She told one interviewer about her childhood memories of being taken by her parents to see the ancient city sites of the region, and the impact that they had on her.

The family left Iraq permanently after the Ba’athists’ rise to power made it unsafe for them to stay. Hadid continued her education at a boarding school in England, then at the American University in Beirut, where she studied mathematics, and finally from 1972 at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London.

The AA school during Hadid’s time there was led by Alvin Boyarsky, an American academic whom Hadid repeatedly cited as a vital influence and supporter. Her two most important teachers, apparently at the opposite ends of the architectural spectrum, were Leon Krier, who went on to become a close adviser to the prince of Wales, and Rem Koolhaas, for whom she briefly worked after graduating. Her other teachers included Elia Zenghelis and Bernard Tschumi.

The mid-1970s were a difficult time for architecture. The utopia promised by the inter-war modernists, particularly in the form represented by the attempt to deliver it by their post-war followers, had conspicuously failed to deliver. In America the demolition of the failing Pruitt-Igoe social housing development in St Louis less than twenty years after it was completed was highlighted by Charles Jencks—another of Hadid’s teachers—as representing the death of modern architecture. The demolition of the magnificent classical Pennsylvania Station in New York, and the equally impressive Euston Arch in London seemed to show that new inevitably meant worse. In this demoralizing climate architects found it hard to find clients for experimental work. The period was marked by a good deal of self-questioning and doubt in the profession, and a renewed interest in historical and vernacular architecture.

What experimentation did take place was carried out in the architectural schools, of which the AA was the most significant. Against this background, with an economic recession in the wake of the Arab oil embargo of 1973 also having an impact, a generation of architects resigned themselves to the conviction that their careers would be defined by teaching and speculative design that remained on paper. Perhaps as a kind of defensive mechanism, many talented architects adopted the view that to build at all was to miss the point, even to be a little gauche. At this period Hadid’s teachers encouraged thinking about building architecture more than actually building it. To Krier, who was to move towards traditionalism, for an architect to build at all was to take part in the destruction of the European city. For Koolhaas, the gap between the idea of what architecture might be and the limited possibilities of building in the stolid context of the 1970s was simply too wide to contemplate without embarrassment. It was a period when architectural discourse was based not so much on completed buildings as on competition designs, and on unsuccessful designs for competitions for which even winning designs had no chance of being realized.

The bleaker the prospects outside the bubble of the AA looked, the more interested Hadid and some of her teachers became in the extraordinarily visionary work of the Russian constructivists and suprematists in the years after the revolution of 1917. Like the 1970s this was another period when the most creative work remained theoretical. Hadid’s graduation work at the AA included a tribute to Kazimir Malevich, inspired by his explorations of weightless forms and translated into a conceptual hotel bridging the Thames. Some of her paintings for that project were donated to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg after her death.

In 1978 Hadid worked on Koolhaas’s team for an unsuccessful entry for an extension to the Dutch parliament in The Hague. A year later she entered the competition to design an official residence for the Irish taoiseach. Not yet a registered architect, she submitted it under Zenghelis’s name. It did not win, nor was the winning design (by London architects Eldred Evans and David Shalev) built.

Zaha Hadid Architects

When Hadid opened her own studio in a small room in a redundant Victorian school in Clerkenwell and formed Zaha Hadid Architects in 1980, the idea that she might one day be building all around the world would have seemed far-fetched. Initially she worked with a handful of assistants much as she had as a student, drawing and painting, compulsively producing images that had little apparent connection to practical buildings. At first it seemed that these were the dreams of an artist, creating an alternative reality, a world as she wanted it to be, rather than the world as it was. It was not the most immediately obvious beginning for someone who wanted to embark on a conventional career as a building architect. Hadid didn’t want to be conventional, but she certainly did want to build. Those drawings may have looked unfamiliar, but they represented Hadid’s search for new fluid ideas about what architectural spaces could be like. Through sheer force of will eventually she succeeded in realizing them.

Hadid worked night after night, essentially living in the drawings that flowed from her pen in an apparently unstoppable flood. She belonged to what is most likely the last generation of architects to work with pen and ink and tracing paper. She used a drawing board with parallel motion, a T-square, and a set of French curves. She talked about the care with which she would used a Rotring pen and a ruler to draw. For her, the goal was always to ensure that there was no overlap when she joined two lines at right angles to make a sharp point at the corner of a rectangle.

The most visible results of that period were a series of huge paintings that hinted at what Hadid might build if she had the chance. They showed jagged landscapes in which walls and roofs, inside and outside, ground plan and cross-section merged seamlessly one into another. The most famous of her paintings were made for the competition that she won in 1982 to design a resort complex in Hong Kong, known as the Peak. A series of overlapping cantilevers jutted out into space, providing layers of mixed accommodation. The eminent engineer Peter Rice endorsed them as entirely buildable, but her client turned out not to have the resources to realize the project. It was a still-born scheme, one of the kind that is common in many architectural careers, where unbuilt designs outnumber built projects. But in Hadid’s case it was the start of what became a persistent theme for her critics. Hong Kong was not built, and neither, twelve years later, in 1994, was another competition-winning design, the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Cardiff was a brilliant design that should finally have launched her career but was in the end torpedoed by local politics, professional jealousies, and the Millennium Commission, which refused to fund the project.

For the Cardiff Bay Opera House Hadid proposed a design that ingeniously managed to be appropriately monumental for a national institution, but at the same time provided an injection of urbanity into what at the time was an empty wasteland. It would have been built on the most prominent site on the long derelict Cardiff waterfront. Richard Rogers was later commissioned to design the new building for the national assembly for Wales on an adjoining site. Hadid’s design provided an anchoring urban fabric by lining up all the opera house’s ancillary facilities to form a street frontage, and using that sober frame to create a context for the more flamboyant auditorium that formed the heart of the project.

The ideas that Hadid was working through in the 1980s were most convincingly realized in the Heydar Aliyev Center, the cultural complex that she built in Baku, Azerbaijan, and which was formally opened in 2013. It rises smoothly out of the ground like a land form and, unlike some of her projects in which corners were cut by builders in a hurry, it was beautifully finished inside and out.

Hadid’s critics saw this building as the glorification of a repressive authoritarian regime, and bracketed it with her work in other non-democratic countries. She was caricatured by those who did not know her as difficult, and ready to build for despotic regimes without any thought for the human cost, most bizarrely by the New York Review of Books which in 2014 suggested that scores of workers had died on the site of one of her projects, a football stadium in Qatar. It was a libellous accusation which its author was forced to retract when it was pointed out to him that work had not as yet started on the stadium. But the accusation was repeated to her by an inadequately briefed BBC interviewer. She left the studio in mid-broadcast. It was part of a pattern. Even in one of her obituaries the falsehood that the building that started her career, the fire station at Weil am Rhein for the Vitra company, opened in 1993, was turned into a gallery space because the fire brigade found it unusable, was repeated as fact. Rolf Fehlbaum, Vitra’s owner, who commissioned Hadid, and who also gave Frank Gehry his first European commission, wrote to correct the falsehood, pointing out that the fire station needed a new use because the fire brigade had been disbanded.

Explorations of space

Hadid lived and worked for most of her life in Britain, where she established what would become one of the world’s most influential and successful architectural practices. She won the competition to build London’s Olympic swimming pool (completed in 2012), her only major building in Britain, where she also realized a number of smaller projects including the Maggie’s Centre for the families and friends of cancer patients at Kirkcaldy’s Victoria Hospital (2006), the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton (2010), and Glasgow’s Riverside Museum (2011). She was much more successful at building outside the UK, a disparity variously attributed to Britain’s conservative attitudes towards architecture in the 1980s and 1990s after the interventions of the prince of Wales castigating modernist architects, and to a lingering prejudice against women in a profession that was still dominated by men. It was a prejudice that might go some way towards explaining Hadid’s reliance on architectural competitions, rather than on the personal and business connections that she lacked, to find work in her early career. She however never wanted to accept the implied limits of describing herself as a woman architect, or an Arab architect. She was determined simply to be regarded as an architect.

Hadid’s major projects outside the UK included the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg (completed in 2005), the Guangzhou Opera House (completed 2010), Baku’s arts centre (completed 2014), and the Galaxy office and retail complex in Beijing (completed 2014). The range of her work and its geographical spread demonstrates the shifting global architectural landscape that at the close of the twentieth century was moving beyond north-west Europe and America where modern architecture began, toward Asia. She designed an art gallery in Rome, a car factory in Germany, an office tower in Marseilles, a university in Hong Kong, and bridges in Zaragoza and Abu Dhabi.

Hadid’s designs were immediately recognizable, but never repetitive. In Glasgow her transport museum sits like a lightning flash on the banks of the Clyde. Her first realized work of any size, the fire station for Vitra, is a series of razor-sharp planes slicing through space. Later her work turned more voluptuous, as in the complex double curves of the roof of the Olympic swimming pool in London or the dhow-inspired design for the Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar. She built two huge projects in Beijing. One is a cluster of dune-like skyscrapers, the other a hollowed-out vortex of glass and steel. In the centre of Seoul there is the Design Plaza, a complex of exhibition galleries that mixes indoor and outdoor spaces.

Hadid was a brilliant manipulator of form, but there was more to her work than sculpture. She saw architecture as a means to bring cities alive by animating spaces in the way that her Maxxi (Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo) centre in Rome transformed a sombre barrack block on the edge of the city into a vibrant cultural centre.

For Hadid buildings were not inert cellular collections of rectilinear boxes; they were about explorations of space, seamlessly blurring landscape with architecture, walls with roofs, interior with exterior. As time went on her buildings became more fluid, and liquid with floor plans that looked like spilt mercury. This kind of spatial freedom was a reflection of the transformation of the building industry made possible by new digital modelling programmes and new building technologies. The engineers she worked with on such projects as the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg were working with steel in configurations that would have been impossible to calculate and to fabricate just a generation earlier.

Hadid was fascinated by fashion, amassing a personal clothing collection from Issey Miyake to Prada which she had catalogued by a specialist curator. She was ready to explore the design of the smallest objects, from cutlery to wine bottles, to the largest: complete city plans in Singapore, and (unrealized) in Istanbul.

The more sophisticated of architects understand that to have a really lasting impact they have to change the way that buildings are understood as well as changing how they look. Hadid certainly achieved that, and was able to reach out beyond the narrow limits of the architectural ghetto and attract the attention of the wider world.


One of the ugliest words invented in the first years of the twenty-first century is the term ‘starchitecture’. Hadid, with her striking dress sense, was a genuine star. Heads turned when she made her way gingerly down onto the crowded flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious moored on Istanbul’s waterfront for a cocktail party to meet the queen. Architectural enthusiasts stood up and applauded as the bus carrying them through the anonymous suburbs of Baku gave them their first glimpse of the Heydar Aliyev Center at its opening.

Hadid was the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker prize for architecture (in 2004), often described as the Nobel prize for architecture. The ceremony took place in St Petersburg. She won the Stirling prize given by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for the best building of the year in 2011 for the Evelyn Grace Academy. She was the winner of the RIBA’s royal gold medal for architecture in February 2016 and of the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale, presented by the emperor in 2009. In 2012 she was appointed DBE, having been appointed CBE in 2002. She was elected a royal academician in 2005. After winning the Pritzker prize she became an increasingly visible presence. She was the subject of major retrospective exhibitions at the Guggenheim in New York in 2006, and at the Design Museum in London in 2007.

Throughout her professional life Hadid maintained a commitment to teaching; initially at the AA, later at the University of the Applied Arts in Vienna, and at Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, Hamburg, and Cambridge. She was fascinated by the energy of the young. Her office was sustained by bright young architects from all over the world anxious to learn from what she had to offer.

Hadid had a remarkable, restless talent, and a determination to do things on her own terms. She started her career at a time when there was still a huge divide between what was seen as the art of architecture, and the business of building. Academic architects confined themselves to designing university campuses and art galleries. Commercial architects built everything else. That this divide had to an extent vanished by the time of her death can partly be attributed to the success with which she built her career. When she began, a large office consisted of twenty-five people. With her architectural partner Patrik Schumacher (who had first joined her in 1988) she built a practice of some 400 architects. As Schumacher said, it was the only way to be relevant against a background in which architecture was being defined by ever larger buildings and masterplans.

Hadid died in Miami following a heart attack, on 31 March 2016. Her death made the front pages of newspapers across the globe. She had no children, and did not marry. She was buried at Brookwood cemetery in Surrey, alongside her father and brother Foulath. She left most of her £67 million in trust, after bequests to her surviving brother, Haytham, and her nephews and nieces.

Schumacher’s and Hadid’s senior team went on to ensure that the studio she founded successfully survived her death. Among many other projects, Zaha Hadid Architects designed Beijing’s new airport and the Changsha Meixihu Culture and Arts Centre, also in China. Schumacher worked hard to present the work that he and Hadid made together as the starting point for a new architectural language that he described as ‘parametricism’, the exploration of space and geometry through digital form generation. Without explicitly rejecting it, Hadid never endorsed this idea. She looked at the work of others, not only the masters such as Malevich or Niemeyer, but also closer contemporaries, such as Jan Kaplický, the Czech-born émigré to Britain who founded Future Systems, but she did not see herself as part of a movement. She did not write manifestos. While her work certainly influenced many architects, far beyond those who actually worked for her, she saw her architecture more as a personal form of expression than an ideology.


  • G. Fontana-Giusti and P. Schumacher, Complete works of Zaha Hadid (2004)
  • ‘A tribute to Zaha Hadid RA: 1950–2016’, RA, 31 March 2016,, accessed 13 August 2019
  • The Times (1 April 2016); (5 April 2016); (7 April 2016); (27 April 2016); (17 Jan 2017)
  • Daily Telegraph (1 April 2016); (2 April 2016); (17 Jan 2017)
  • The Guardian (1 April 2016); (2 May 2016)
  • Financial Times (1 April 2016)
  • New York Times (1 April 2016)
  • P. Jodidio, Zaha Hadid (2016)
  • The Observer (11 Dec 2016)
  • Zaha Hadid website,, accessed 13 August 2019
  • WW (2016)
  • personal knowledge (2020)
  • private information (2020)



  • interview and light entertainment footage, BFI NFTVA


  • current affairs and documentary recording, BL NSA


  • M. Craig-Martin, screen print, 2008, NPG
  • B. Griffin, pigment print, group portrait, 2010, NPG
  • E. Anderson, bromide print, 1991, NPG
  • S. Speller, cibacrome print, 1994, NPG
  • B. Adams, colour print, 2008, NPG
  • M. Aldridge, chromogenic print, 2009, NPG
  • F. Origlia, photograph, 2009, Getty Images [see illus.]
  • obituary photographs

Wealth at death

£67 million: The Times (17 Jan 2017)

British Library, National Sound Archive
British Film Institute, London