Death & Architecture

Zaha Hadid died today. She was the most celebrated, honored and, lately, prolific architect of her time. She did not make it to “three score and ten “—dying of a heart attack amid bronchial spasms. Hadid has left a world she was not willing to be confined by. Any and every context for her buildings was foil, not compliment. Use by her buildings’ occupants was just animation around her kinetic forms.

Her aesthetic was one of completely personal expression: the sine qua non of the artist-architect. As a woman she was not just the creator, but the liberator. Her ego caused dust-ups with the media and clients (like almost every other Starchitect). In short, the temporal plane Hadid has just left was never part of the design criteria that were the central focus of her entire adult life. Her architecture was intended to display her manifest invention.

In classically obtuse architectese, she described her muse as rejecting the here and now. “It is insufficient for architecture today to directly implement an existing building typology; it instead requires architects to carefully examine the whole area with new interventions and programmatic typologies.”

Hadid has left the here and now. Like every other artist she has left it to others to determine if her creations worked beyond her intentions: when you write your own rule book, that book usually dies with you (although Taliesin survived for a generation after Frank Lloyd Wright’s death). The idiosyncrasies of Hadid’s brand of  “sculptitecture” may fade from white to black in her absence.

Winning virtually every award imaginable for an international figure, many as the first woman recipient, her career arc was the fantasy of almost every architect who owns up to the artiste persona. Founding her own firm in London, without clients, she entered every competition she thought could provide a platform for a radicalized Modernism that was, above all else, sculpturally expressive. It was a perfect aesthetic to surf the cyber tsunami of computer driven graphics. A convergence of media and message was seamless in her renderings, and her buildings were often completely indistinct from their 2-dimensional presentation.

But Hadid’s unalloyed success was the testament she prized over everything else: built work of the highest prominence, in the public domain, on the cutting edge of a worldwide culture of Modernist veneration.

Like all of us who design buildings, it is impossible to know whether what we do will last to the next Ice Age that scrapes their structures into moraines of ultimate human futility. “No one gets out alive,” noted a carpenter on the job site I was inspecting when the word came down my father had died. But the hope that our work lives on is the classic artist vanity. As with any mission-centric persona, Hadid is survived by her work. But most legacies live on most poignantly in human memory, and most deeply in the intimate ones. Zaha Hadid was clearly deeply intimate with her buildings; they are left now that she is gone. But are our buildings a living legacy, or just a three dimensional resume?


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