Out of this world: the fantastical universe of Zaha Hadid 1950-2016

The boundary-pushing ‘starchitect’ was regarded as the greatest female architect in the world today. Jessica Holland reflects on what made her a visionary

Zaha Hadid’s architecture is often compared to spaceships, but her building The Opus, currently under construction in Downtown Dubai, is more otherworldly than most. Two 95-metre-tall buildings will interconnect to form a cube that will appear to hover above the ground on a hidden platform, and cut into the shape will be a gigantic, oddly shaped hole with edges that will glow with light after sunset.

The Opus will contain Hadid’s first hotel project, in association with ME by Meliá, a design-conscious group of upscale hotels where close attention is paid to music, culture and haute cuisine. In a first for the Baghdad-born architect, Hadid will design the interiors as well as the exterior, creating or selecting furniture herself for rooms including penthouse suits with private roof terraces overlooking Dubai’s skyline. Expect sinuously curving sofas, white walls that bulge and recede like futuristic caves, and beds that offer wall-to-wall views of the cityscape.

Hadid studied mathematics in Beirut before moving to London to become an architect in the early seventies. She established her own practice in 1980 and quickly became associated with visionary designs that look at once organic – like cooling lava, smooth rock formations and coral growths – and like something out of sci-fi: gleaming, bold streamlined, with no lines at right angles to one another.

In 2004 Hadid became the first female recipient of architecture’s highest accolade, the Pritzker Prize, after winning a competition to create a 200-hectare business park in Singapore and making headlines with the design for Ohio’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, described by the New York Times as “the most important American building to be completed since the Cold War”. She has won the prestigious Stirling Prize twice, in 2010 for the MAXXI art museum in Rome, and the following year for a secondary school in Brixton, London.

What makes her a visionary is where she looks for inspiration: not from the physical city for which one of her creations is intended, but from what she calls its “energy” or “field”. She has said that she takes inspiration from the decorative, patterned Islamic art she grew up with, from Russian Constructivism, and from the utopian spirit of the 1960s: what she referred to in her Pritzker address as “an unbroken belief in progress and a great sense of optimism about the potential of constructing a better world”.

Crucially, she is also unafraid of being considered impractical, flamboyant, or bizarre. “When people see something fantastic they think that it’s not possible to achieve it in real life,” she told an interviewer in September. “But that’s not true. You can achieve amazing things.”

It is with great sadness that Dame Zaha Hadid, DBE died suddenly in Miami on March 31, 2016 after suffering a sudden heart attack while being treated in hospital.