Coming to university, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and as expected its been quite a journey, though by far the best, most exciting one I’ve ever been on. A huge part of this has been the whirlwind that is architecture, a course choice that usually gets a response of horror or confusion as to why anyone would put themselves through that. To be honest, they’re not lying.
I find architecture about as easy as playing twister drunk (something I have done and which I can confirm is stupidly difficult), but I like to remind myself why I picked it in the first place. It was partly because my D&T teacher was the bomb, but mainly because I wrote an essay on females in the field, realised there were about two and was then like you know what, I’m going to be the most epic architect-ress EVER. (Note: architect-ress should really be a thing, I mean why is there no female version anyway?).
Now, having written this essay I felt like an expert when really young me had little idea about how to achieve said dream, until I stumbled across one specific woman, someone I since then looked up to as a symbol of women in architecture – Zaha Hadid. Treated like the Marmite of the architecture world, Zaha could not have cared less – she was on fleek 24/7 and boy did she know it. When she died a few weeks ago almost everyone I know (lets face it, all architecture students because we have no life) posted some sort of tribute to her on Facebook, shared her work or even cried – something definitely changed in our architecture family. But rather than sitting her mourning her life, I thought I’d pay tribute to all the amazing things this woman achieved, the norms she defied and the first steps she made, not only to prove her critics wrong, but to to pave the way for us, the next generation of architect-resses.
Born in Iraq to an artist mother, Zaha pretty much had creativity in her veins. She studied architecture in Lebanon and at the AA (this really fancy private university especially for architecture in London) where she met Rem Koolhaas, whose company, OMA, she started working for soon after. Now I don’t know about other courses, but architecture is a pretty hard metier to get your foot into, especially a studio like OMA, one of the most reputable firms around. Zaha did this in a matter of years and a lot of her peers hated her for it, crediting not her ability, but her rich parents. This judgement however did not stop her and she even started her own studio, Zaha Hadid Architects, only a few years later. This is where everything slowed down a bit, and she was relegated to being a ‘paper architect’, basically someone with ideas so wacky, they could never be realised. Though she continued to persevere, her gender arguably, did little for her.
Architecture was then and still remains a male dominated profession, with a solid glass ceiling in place. Fewer women are hired as they pose project uncertainty – in architecture projects can take an average of 5 years from conception to building and with young people starting families, the women are often the ones to leave to care for the children. This means they do not see projects through and their input upon return is given less validity, all in fear that their presence will not be consistent enough to uphold a full term project, regardless of skill. Equally women are often seen to not bare the stress well, and are thus given less critical tasks, a prejudice which puts a lot of females off the profession’s training and causes high university drop out rates.
This is something Zaha had a huge effect on. The prominence she gained from 2004 onwards, after being the first female and Muslim to win the Pritzker Prize (basically an architecture Oscar) inspired so many more women to apply for the course – at my uni, the course is actually 60% girls! Zaha’s architecture became unique, not just because of her awe inspiring futuristic forms or pioneering of parametricism (basing forms on parametric equations – remember those from maths?) but because she demonstrated that experimenting and stepping out of the box when it comes to attitude and methodology can allow anything to be realised.
Her architecture feels new and astounding because it is taken from a perspective rarely incorporated in architecture – that of the female. It takes a different approach, considers priorities in a different order and though some of her pieces may look like gigantic, contextually ignorant space ships, they become one with user, site and programme through subconscious subtleties.
One example you’ll probably be familiar with is the Aquatics Centre she built for the 2012 London Olympics. Although it received a lot of criticism, as a lot of her work did, for being too wild, too much of a pointless statement, too impractical – the roof of the building stooped too low so that not enough seating could be fitted in – arguably, no ones architecture is perfect. Though there may have been practical flaws, the centre was a symbol. With a roof like a wave it represented not only the programme but the tidal wave of joy and togetherness that the Olympics brought across London, leaving the building’s legacy as one of unity and community spirit, the lasting effect the games had on London and its people as a whole.
So all in all, Zaha was a pretty fantastic woman. She showed that design is not a limit but at adventure, a journey, a story. She made women feel empowered and motivated to overhaul architecture’s male reputation and demonstrate how essential female input is in keeping architecture socially and morally relevant. No matter how wealthy she got, or how incredulous her architecture was, it was always for the people and the diverse society we live in today.
Unlike many she dared to push contemporary attitudes to where her statements could not be ignored, persevering with a passion that stemmed from dedicating her life to the making of not just structures, but places. She lived for architecture, her studio was her family and she gave up everything for it. Her death will be continued to be mourned for years to come, as an almighty presence is now missing, though the footprints she left on architectural attitudes to gender and resulting approaches remain a visible reminder of her legacy to all.
Words by Maxene Sommer