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After hearing that she’d become the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel, Zaha Hadid told Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times that she supposed that the award might be seen “as a sign that I have gone from being a difficult person to part of the establishment.”
She may be right. Hadid, born in Baghdad in 1950 but based in London for her entire career, has had a reputation as a diva, a big woman with a bigger intellect and an even more gigantic personality. (If you’ve ever seen Zaha, as everybody calls her, sweep through a room, her assistants and her Miyake shawl struggling to keep up, you’re not likely to forget the experience.) And the Pritzker tends to give a first taste of broad celebrity to architects who are already known as innovators among their peers. But the truth is that Hadid’s radicalism has been at least partially a front, more useful in sustaining her mysterious persona than in really suggesting anything valuable about her architecture.
Ever since 1977, when she left Rem Koolhaas’ London office to start her own firm, Hadid has taken pains to present herself as a rebel. In the eyes of her admirers, she is an unyielding champion of uncompromising, knives-out modernism whose tiny record of built work has had more to do with the timidity of her potential clients than with the intractability of her attitudes and gravity-defying forms. (Until five years ago, her only finished building was a small fire station in Germany.) The chairman of the Pritzker jury, Lord Jacob Rothshild, seems to validate exactly this view when he writes of Hadid, “Such are the forces of conservatism that sadly one cannot find one single building of hers” in London.
The cult of obscurity that surrounded Hadid hardly distinguished her from her colleagues in the architectural avant-garde—or, for that matter, in the artistic or literary ones. For decades, architects like Hadid and their champions in the academy have discussed architecture in writing where jargon operates as a kind of code, keeping amateurs confused and thus, for the most part, comfortably out of the way.
But Hadid took that disdain a step further: She walled off her work visually, too. Nearly every one of her early designs made an enemy of aesthetic clarity and legibility, and seemed to reject the idea that non-architects should be able to look at architectural plan, elevation, or rendering and actually be able to imagine what the building is going to look like in the real world. Many of her renderings seemed to be composed from the perspective of a helicopter dipping into a crazy sideways tailspin.
Just when we thought we had Hadid pegged, though, her first American building opened its doors last spring. The Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art sits on a compact corner site in downtown Cincinnati. It’s an ambitious design: The galleries are contained within blocks of space that jut out from the facade like wayward drawers on a piece of furniture, giving the building the look of a huge, three-dimensional painting by Braque or Malevich. The floor of the entry hall curls dramatically, like a magic carpet, as it nears the back wall. But the museum is also calm and surprisingly straightforward, and it treats the average museum-goer with a remarkable generosity of spirit. On the whole it’s welcoming, not exclusive or proudly alienating.
It’s possible that the building will prove to be an aberration for Hadid. For a true measure of her place in architectural history, we’ll have to wait until her major projects are built, particularly a new museum in Rome and a BMW factory in Leipzig, Germany, both of which are now under construction.
But rather than suggest that Hadid has softened over the years, the Cincinnati museum offers a sign that perhaps she has been a sophisticated, accessible architect all along—that behind her aggressive renderings lay buildings that are better, if less radical, than the hype suggested. In other words, Hadid may be right that the Pritzker will push her into the mainstream. But if it does, the trip will be a bit shorter than she’s ever been willing to admit.