Zaha, a Composites Pioneer

Zaha, a Composites Pioneer

The sudden death last week of world-famous architect Zaha Hadid has evoked an outpouring of evaluation, praise and reminiscence. It would be superfluous to repeat her accomplishments here, and presumptuous to attempt anything like an appreciation for all her works and her impact on world architecture. Suffice it to say that she won a Pritzker prize, she was the first woman to win a Pritzker, and she is probably the only architect in the world who is widely identifiable by the general public by her first name alone.

However, Hadid was an architect who made brilliant use of composite materials, and it is highly appropriate to review that aspect of her practice and her legacy here. To say she was a champion of composites would probably be wrong, as it implies a bias towards the material. But she was undeniably a champ at using composites, among other materials, to realize her visions.

Perhaps an underlying reason for her broad recognition and popularity far beyond the architectural elite is that Hadid’s buildings, pavilions, and interior designs are so clearly and accessibly the expressions of a great imagination. The sinuous curves upon curves and abundant non-right angles blithely ignore the rules that have been set by standard lumber, steel beams, unit masonry, and the economics of concrete formwork.  But ignoring the rules was not their purpose or meaning. Bypassing the old forms seems not so much a statement, but simply a necessity. The prevailing assumptions about building-shapes were things she saw in the rear view mirror while cruising towards her vision.

Hadid dreamed up spaces and shapes that are striking, even challenging, but nonetheless playful in an exuberant and infectious way. However unprecedented her design might be, it rarely felt like some architect’s vision was being imperiously imposed on the landscape, or the public. Her integrity in making her dreams come true is paired with a touch that I can only describe as “populist.” Her works are enjoyable creations, and even non-architects can enjoy them.

We have featured a number of her works here previously: the extension of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, the Chanel Pavilion/Mobile Art Chanel Contemporary Container; the interiors of Stuart Weitzman Milan and Sky SOHO in Shanghai; the Z-Stream installation; the Mind Zone Exhibition Pavilion; and her use of composite formwork for the concrete diving platforms of the London Aquatics Center. The place of FRP in these works was simply that it was a good material – the right material – to enable her dreams. The combination of composite materials’ properties and the responsiveness of digital fabrication offered her a continuous path from imagination to computer model to fabrication shop to project site. She used composites because they didn’t resist her imagination, they validated it.

And, clearly, she was not afraid of the material. Others might consider it exotic because it was unfamiliar, and might avoid it rather than learn about it. Zaha Hadid plunged right in. She saw a material that could take her where she wanted to go, so she used it fearlessly.

The world is certainly richer to have had such a creator of visions, and certainly is now the poorer for having lost such a rich imagination. But her work, her legacy, stands as encouragement to dream audaciously.