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Reflections on the amazing Zaha Hadid and her Miami connection

Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid poses in West Hollywood, Calif. Hadid, whose modernist, futuristic designs included the swooping aquatic center for the 2012 London Olympics, has died aged 65,
Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid poses in West Hollywood, Calif. Hadid, whose modernist, futuristic designs included the swooping aquatic center for the 2012 London Olympics, has died aged 65, AP

Architect Zaha Hadid, who died Thursday morning in Miami, was a complex woman who made complex designs and introduced a sometimes baffling disregard for gravity and everyday conventions of Euclidean space.

In many ways she was just starting to find her rhythm as a designer while simultaneously balancing her role as global design diva. I remember the groundbreaking for 1000 Museum Tower in downtown Miami. She entered the throng like a rock star and was quickly swarmed by fans who were trying to touch her or shoot selfies while crushing into her. She was smiling, but there was a vulnerable look of panic in her eyes.

Among other distinctions, she was the only woman to ever win the coveted Pritzker Prize outright, in 2004 (Kazuyo Sejima won with her husband/partner Ryue Nishizawa, in 2010). In doing so, she managed to penetrate the inner sanctum of a profession that has been dominated by men for hundreds of years. At the same time she transcended gender politics and could stand as an equal to any architect, male or female.

To some, she could seem like an immoveable force, a rock, stalwart and stubborn. She staked out a critical position and stood by it throughout her 45-year career. This made some jealous and others oddly resentful. Zaha was an inspiration for younger designers who looked up to her as a role model. (Based in London, she had launched an architectural practice in the 1970s with only four employees, but it grew to more than 400.)

Her friends saw a sweet innocence beneath the sometimes intimidating facade.

“For Zaha, it was always about space, not so much about form as pushing the experience of space,” said Claudia Busch, a Miami-based friend and former associate.

Some of the shock over her sudden death at age 65 may come from the fact that she was still in the middle of a brilliant career, and there was so much more to come. I will never forget seeing her early drawings in the Deconstruction exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988. The imagery was at once seductive and slightly terrifying: a universe of colliding forms, shifting planes and tortured projections that pushed the orthogonal beyond recognition. These early manifestations still look fresh and subversive today.

Her presentation for a project in Hong Kong featured cascading wedges, scattered bands of color and overlapping geometries that might have been turbulent urban eruptions out of some dream world. It was certainly art, but was it architecture, and how would it ever get built? (It would not.)

One cannot underestimate the effect those renderings had on a generation of architects and designers. While surfing the cusp of a brand new digital frontier, the work also acknowledged the fractured legacies of Russian Constructivism, in particular the work of El Lissitzky, Stepanova and Rodchenko.

The building part came relatively late, her first being the Vitra Firehouse in Weil am Rhein, Germany, finished in 1994 with its monolithic walls and outrageous cantilevers, reaching and tilting as if seen through a distorting lens, but somehow containing an operational firehouse. “I don’t want to see a building,” she said to her design team. “I want to see a landscape.” She was 44 at the time; architects often start late and don’t mature until their 50s or even 60s.

At some point in the 1990s, her sharply angled and wildly cantilevered forms gave way to a more fluid, ribbon-like vocabulary that featured elastic wall planes, seamless transitions, sweeping ovoids, and hyper-extended rooflines. Consider the looping, mobius roof at the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan; or the gravity-defying pods for the Messner Mountain Museums perched high on Mount Kronplatz in South Tyrol, Italy. Her science center in Wolfsburg, Germany, hovered above its site like an alien starship.

“It took us months just to understand the shape,” said the engineer of one of her more daring structures. Certain forms were impossible to delete from one’s mental screen, such as the undulating shape of the Aquatics Center at the 2012 Olympics in London, or the MAXXI Museum (2010) with its multitiered roof that echoed the strung-out forms of overlapping highways while challenging the historic patterns of Rome itself. (Some still insist on seeing her design for the 2022 World Cup Stadium in Qatar as a 40,000-seat vagina.)

There were also smaller installations and temporary pavilions that demonstrated her full range as a sculptor-architect, unimpeded as they were by functional necessities: the Chanel Art Pavilion in Hong Kong, the cocoon-like Burnham Pavilion in Chicago, the spectacular ski jump she designed for Innsbruck, Austria, or a small cable railway station for the same town. On an even smaller scale, she designed furniture and jewelry with as much passion and intensity as she put into her full-scale buildings.

Even when the first buildings were completed, there were doubts and speculation. Some critics dismissed her visions as indulgent and self-aggrandizing, but in that way she was joining excellent company: Wright’s Guggenheim in New York, Utzon’s opera house in Sydney and Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao were all deemed unbuildable and grossly over budget in their time.

But those same buildings redefined the identity of their respective cities, just as Zaha’s best work captured the sense of displacement and fluctuating time warp that author Pico Iyer refers to as the Global Soul. Zaha moved around the world like a bird in constant motion — from London to New York to Korea to Italy to Qatar — occasionally setting down and relaxing here in Miami, a city that she grew to love.

She first came here about 16 years ago and stayed at the Delano, then the Raleigh, the Setai and finally moved into the W — where she bought an apartment that she redesigned to her liking. From her perch on the beach she could look across the city that she came to embrace as her second home.

“Zaha loved Miami. It was her home. She found so much solace here,” said Sam Robin, designer and close friend. “She was always an inspiration in her art and architecture and especially in her personal friendships.”

She loved fashion, and when she walked into a room, people stopped and took notice. The clothes she wore often resembled her most flamboyant buildings. Only a few nights ago, she emerged from an upper balcony at the Arsht Center decked out in a remarkable dress by her favorite designer Junya Watanabe that was sculpted like a geodesic pattern in shiny black plastic.

Over the years she has left her own imprint on the city. Zaha showed drawings at Art Basel Miami Beach and exhibited her biomorphic furniture at Design Miami.

“She was amazing,” said Craig Robins, founder of the design fair and a close friend. Zaha designed Elastika, a permanent installation for the launch of Design Miami in 2005, with white cartilaginous forms that stretched between the balconies of the Design District’s historic Moore Building. More recently, she designed a bathroom in Robins’ own house, a white womb made from Corian with a single unbroken surface that morphs around the space, absorbing bathtub, shower, cabinets and sinks, and turning a mere bathroom into a time-travelling device.

“She loved the laid-back tropical feeling of Miami,” recalled Robins. “She also liked the fact that it was a growing, vital city.”

Zaha evoked that same vitality in her proposal for a parking garage near Collins Park that took the form of a layered, swirling suspension of matter. Her 1000 Museum Tower condominium building, with its bone-like superstructure, is still under construction in downtown Miami. When the 62-story building is finished, it will not only change the skyline but the identity of the city itself and serve as a fitting memorial for such a remarkable woman.

Zaha was a protean, creative force of nature. There will not be another like her for a long time.

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