Words Anthony Teasdale
Photography Alan McAteer, Steve Double, Luke Hayes, Wener Huthmacher, Thomas Meyer, Ed Reeve
London’s Hyde Park is perhaps the ideal urban green space: a green lung of softly manicured lawns rubbing against wild plains, and mirror-like pools surrounded by perfectly pruned pine trees.
So far, so traditional.
But in one corner lies an architectural conundrum. At first glance the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is exactly what you’d expect. Refined and unobtrusive – its entrance boasts a portico with classical columns – this former gunpowder store promises a world of tasteful paintings and excellent pastries in the cafe.
But then something catches your eye. Something completely at odds with the rest of the building: an extension with a wavy roof that looks like a melting ice cream, criss-crossed by shards of plastic and glass.
This extension was designed by Zaha Hadid, an architect who did more to define modernism today than perhaps anyone else. If the work by the original modernists was characterised by sharp angles and straight lines, Hadid’s bending, wavy buildings are obvious products of the world of computer modelling, virtual reality and – of course – an unlimited imagination.
Hadid was born into an upper-class Iraqi family in Baghdad in 1950, studied mathematics at university in Beirut, before setting up her practice Zaha Hadid Architects in London in 1979.
Despite her background in maths, Hadid was also an incredibly gifted artist, creating wild ‘deconstructivist’ projects destined to stay on the drawing board (in particular, her design of a new opera house in Cardiff), but which gained her favourable coverage in the architecture press.
Jonathan Bell, editor-at-large of design magazine Wallpaper*, has long been an admirer. “A lot of Zaha’s earlier work was basically painting,” he says. “Many of these projects were never built, it was technically impossible. It required a shift in approach, and the software didn’t exist.”
Her first large-scale completed commission, 1990’s Vitra fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, was nearly as uncompromising as her earlier designs. Twenty-eight years later, it’s still a remarkable building – all raw concrete, glass and diagonal lines. The fact that after a year it became an exhibition space (prompted by a change in regulations) does nothing to take away from its wild yet simultaneously constructed beauty.
Other projects followed, like the Bergisel ski jump in Innsbruck and Leipzig’s BMW Administration Building – the latter bringing the mechanical process into the office environment as the production line flows above workers sat at desks and computers.
From the early 2000s her buildings – and her practice – got bigger, taking on large scale projects in places as far-flung as Zaragoza, Seoul and Glasgow, each one more fantastic than the last. One of her most loved buildings is the Phaeno Science Centre in Leipzig, Germany, a huge concrete slab raised on 10 giant columns, each of which contains a shop, entrance or cafe.
Jonathan Bell again: “The Phaeno is quite animal-like – almost like a prehistoric creature. It’s organic architecture, but it’s solid, too. And it shows just how good she was working with concrete.”
Tragically, Hadid died in 2016, the result of a heart attack following treatment for bronchitis: she was just 65. Tributes came from the worlds of architecture, art and design, with The New York Times saying: “Her buildings elevated uncertainty to an art, conveyed in the odd way of one entered and moved through these buildings and in the questions that her structures raised about how they were supported.”
There’s no doubt her legacy will be felt for years to come – both in the philosophy which she imparted to students, and of course, her buildings themselves. Then there’s the architectural practice that bears her name.
“There’s at least decade’s worth of work to come through the pipeline there,” says Jonathan Bell. “People will still hire it. She also had a significant impact as a woman architect in a traditionally male-dominated field. Zaha put it all out there – you can have all the technological ability you want, but she delivered sculpture, poetry and emotion in her buildings”
Something you can ponder as you enjoy a coffee in that quiet corner of Hyde Park – just don’t forget to look up at that roof.
Bergisel Ski Jump, Innsbruck, Austria
This futuristic landmark offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Tyrol mountains.
Phaeno Science Centre, Wolfsburg, Germany
Beautiful brooding home for science with diagonal windows and sturdy concrete columns.
Sheikh Zayed Bridge, Abu Dhabi
Incredibly intricate, 842m bridge inspired by desert sand dunes. Said to be the most complex bridge ever built.
Riverside Museum, Glasgow, Scotland
Currently houses the Scottish Transport Museum. It also boasts a roof that looks like a big graph.
MAXXI, Rome, Italy
Ten years to complete, the Guardian newspaper described it as Hadid’s finest work. They were right.