From Bauhaus to Zaha: An Appreciation

04/25/2016 12:07 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2017

Walter Gropius. IM Pei. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Philip Johnson. Le Corbusier. César Pelli. Frank Lloyd Wright. Buckminster Fuller. Antoni Gaudí. Norman Foster. Oscar Niemayer. Eero Saarinen. Frank Gehry. The 20th Century's most influential architects were all men.

But the 21st Century's most influential architect is a woman, the late Dame Zaha Hadid. While she never wanted to be pigeon-holed as "just" a female architect, we must recognize and remember how she reduced the sexist barriers put in her way by a patriarchal profession to rubble. "It is a very tough industry and it is male-dominated, not just in architectural practices, but the developers and the builders too," Hadid said in a 2013 Observer interview. Early on she was pushed toward interior design, but fighting against a male-chauvinist mentality was but one of many battles in her remarkable career.

Born in a briefly secular Baghdad in 1950, she attended the Berkhamsted School in England before studying mathematics at the American University of Beirut. London was always calling, so she then enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture where she could hone her progressive nature in the shadow of the British Museum.

Despite her prestigious educational pedigree, acceptance into the British establishment for an Iraqi-born Muslim woman wasn't easy. As the Guardian noted, "Hadid was commissioned more abroad than in the UK." This past February, Hadid told the BBC that "I don't really feel I'm part of the establishment, I'm not the outside, I'm on the kind of edge, I'm dangling there. I quite like it."

Of course, that brash and brassy attitude helped her deal with all that was thrown in her way. Up until the very end she had to overcome tremendous ignorance, fear, and plain old male chauvinism. As discussed here on the Huffington Post, late last year the Japanese government replaced Hadid's stunning Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium design with Kengo Kuma's pedestrian bowl. Implicit in the rejection was a fear of forward-thinking design and a desire to preserve the Japanese Architect's Club for Men.

As Frank Gehry told Time, "She was undaunted by all the stuff that would be against a woman coming into a field at that level. She didn't pay attention to it ... She was very confident." She needed every last ounce of that confidence as British indifference toward her work forced her to seek paying projects in far-flung corners of the globe. When she finally had the freedom to breathe life into her abstract dreams there came a seemingly unprecedented architecture.

The last time such an aesthetic revolution occurred was when the first Bauhaus buildings began appearing in the West in the 1920s. Contrary to common belief that particular revolution, like Hadid's at the end of the 20th Century, didn't happen overnight. Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, whose Vers une Architecture gave the movement its philosophical foundation, were very well aware that they were merely the inheritors of Western Civilization's foundational epochs: the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Hadid, in turn, inherited their legacy of synthesizing history's lessons with futurist visions to shape the modern, and incidentally, her Mesopotamian birthplace was where Western civilization began.

Her vision is defined by the fluid and sinuous designs that shattered our sense of what is physically possible. Her buildings took the 20th Century mainstays of concrete, glass, and steel and sent them soaring across great expanses of space. Freed from orthogonal oppression her avant-garde dreams in turn freed us from brutalist-inspired public spaces that were there to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Decades of hack architects who've misinterpreted Bauhaus combined with parsimonious politicians have produced inhumane, dank and dour public places.
Think of Boston's City Hall, Montreal's Place Bonaventure, London's Barbican Centre and Euston Station, New York's Jacob Javitz Center and Penn Station. In Hadid's greatest works, the London Aquatics Centre, the Hungerburg station, the Guangzhou Opera House, Glasgow's Riverside Museum, Beijing's Galaxy Soho, she somehow created massive structures that are at once ephemeral. Despite their scale they are warm and inviting places.

It is the kind of architecture that is now being replicated in cities around the world in rapid recognition of her foresight. Architecture, like society at large, is adjusting as the world spins ever further away from 19th century British Imperialism and 20th Century American dynamism.

Hadid was at the forefront of that change. She made distant corners architectural destinations. She was among the first to realize the potential of using modern computing power to break the bounds of traditional structural engineering, which in turn allowed her to break the bounds of an über-traditional profession.

This opened the doors to structures that will shape the way our cities look for decades to come while opening the doors to those traditionally barred from the profession's upper echelons. Historically, she is likely the most important female architect of all time. But thanks to her work there will be far more competitors for that title in the years to come.

"Your success will not be determined by your gender or your ethnicity," said Hadid in a letter written to her younger self in a feature for the BBC this past March, "but only on the scope of your dreams and your hard work to achieve them."