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Zaha Hadid’s Most Iconic Buildings

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Built by Zaha Hadid Architects, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, was awarded Design of the Year in 2014 by London’s Design Museum.

Photo by Helen Benet / Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Built by Zaha Hadid Architects, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, was awarded Design of the Year in 2014 by London’s Design Museum.

Futuristic designs by the late architect, who was nicknamed “the Queen of the Curve,” remain some of the most celebrated structures in the world to this day.

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Legendary architect Zaha Hadid became widely recognized for her futuristic buildings—made from hard-to-work-with materials such as steel, concrete, and glass—which were characterized by their impressive curves and geometric shapes. Hadid’s architectural innovations led to her eventual nickname as “the Queen of the Curve,” one of many high praises Hadid earned throughout her nearly three-decade career. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1950, she moved to London in 1972 to attend the Architectural Association School of Architecture, one of the most competitive universities of architecture in the world. There, she was awarded the prestigious Diploma Prize at her 1977 graduation, during which the famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus, who was one of Hadid’s professors at the university, described her as “a planet in her own orbit.” By 1979, only two years after graduating from the esteemed architecture school, the British Iraqi architect founded her own firm, Zaha Hadid Architects. But the accolades didn’t stop there. 

In 2004, Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, an annual international award often referred to as “the Nobel Prize of architecture” in the design world. In 2010 and 2011, Hadid received the Stirling Prize, an annual decoration from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for “excellence in architecture.” And in 2016, Hadid was the first woman to win the RIBA Gold Medal, which recognizes an individual’s substantial contributions to international architecture on behalf of the British monarch.

Unfortunately, that same year, Hadid died after a heart attack in Miami. The architect left behind multiple unfinished projects with her passing, many of which have been brought to completion by her eponymous architecture firm, which continues to operate based out of London. Here, a look back at some of the most iconic buildings designed by Zaha Hadid, the trailblazing architect who gave us an impressive collection of unforgettable modern marvels around the world. 

The Vitra Fire Station was the first building Hadid was commissioned to design in 1993.

Vitra Fire Station

Weil am Rhein, Germany

Located in Weil am Rhein, a small German town near the country’s borders with Switzerland and France, the Vitra Fire Station marked the first design project by Hadid to actually be built. (Its construction was completed in 1993.) Hadid was commissioned to design the building for a fire brigade on the Vitra Campus after a major 1981 fire destroyed most of the complex, which originally consisted of factory buildings but is now made up of a collection of contemporary design and architecture showrooms. (Renowned architects including Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, and Álvaro Siza also designed facilities for the site as part of the major rebuild.) 

The Vitra Fire Station’s sharp, angular concrete planes garnered international acclaim for Hadid, putting her name and architectural style on the global map. The structure was built with space for fire engines as well as showers, changing rooms, and a kitchenette for the fire troops. Today, however, its rooms are used for events and exhibitions held by the Vitra Design Museum, which is located within the complex.

The Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art marked Hadid’s first building in the United States.

The Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art

Cincinnati, United States

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The Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) was founded in 1939 as one of the first U.S. institutions dedicated to contemporary visual arts. In 2003, the CAC moved to a new downtown location designed by Zaha Hadid, the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art. The Cincinnati museum marked Hadid’s first building in the United States; it was also the first American art museum to be designed by a woman. When the structure debuted, the New York Times called it “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War” for its display of architectural innovation.

Across the seven floors of museum (which is reminiscent of a Rubik’s Cube, albeit taller and slimmer), gallery spaces made from concrete and metal vary in shape, length, and ceiling height and feature different lighting conditions to create what Hadid described as a “jigsaw puzzle” of diverse exhibition spaces. Within the building, steel black staircases connect irregularly shaped galleries that are stacked above a ground-level lobby that’s open to the public to use as a communal square.

The National Museum of the 21st Century Arts (MAXXI) won the Stirling Prize for Architecture after the museum opened in Rome in 2010.

MAXXI: National Museum of 21st Century Arts

Rome, Italy

Zaha Hadid Architects successfully elevated Rome’s classical architecture foundation with this progressive contemporary art museum, which opened in 2010 after a decade-long construction process. Built on the site of a former military compound, the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts (MAXXI) won the 2010 Stirling Prize for Architecture, which is awarded annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects to the best new building in Europe that was designed in the United Kingdom. According to Hadid’s architecture firm, the concrete and steel structure was designed “not [as] an object-container, but rather a campus for art.” Notable features include curved walls, suspended black staircases, and open ceilings with thin concrete and glass beams that filter natural light onto the museum’s art.

The main auditorium of the Guangzhou Opera House features a gypsum paneled ceiling decorated with thousands of tiny lights that glisten like stars in the night sky.

Guangzhou Opera House

Guangzhou, China

The 2010 debut of this grandiose opera house in China’s southeastern Guangdong province came full circle for Hadid; her mid-1990s design for Wales’ Cardiff Bay Opera House won an international competition but was never actually brought to fruition due to reported conflicts surrounding the project. Located approximately 80 miles northwest of Hong Kong in the port city of Guangzhou, the Guangzhou Opera House is nicknamed “the double pebble” because of the way its exterior resembles two small rocks on the banks of the Pearl River, where the building is situated.

In addition to its dramatic 400-seat “multifunctional” hall used for performance art and concerts, the Guangzhou Opera House comprises an 1,800-seat main auditorium lined with molded glass-fiber reinforced gypsum (a sulfate mineral) panels. According to Zaha Hadid Architects, these panels are intended to give the opera hall’s interior a “fluid” and “seamless” appearance. Within the massive auditorium, the ceiling is lined with thousands of tiny lights resembling stars in the night sky that shimmer as the lights dim.

The London Aquatics Center served as one of the main venues for the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

London Aquatics Center

London, England

Zaha Hadid designed this sprawling indoor swimming facility in 2004, the year before London won the bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Still, after it was completed in 2011, the London Aquatics Center went on to serve as one of the main venues for swimming, diving, and synchronized swimming during the 2012 competitions.

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Situated within Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London’s East End, the venue is now open to the public for general use. It features two Olympic-size swimming pools, an 82-foot diving pool with platform heights from 3 to 32 feet, a 50-station gym with changing facilities, plus a café and other communal areas. The center was inspired by the fluidity of moving water and has what the design description from Zaha Hadid Architects refers to as “an undulating roof that sweeps up from the ground as a wave.” On the ceilings and walls, 628 glass panes let natural light into the main pool areas. 

The Riverside Museum’s zinc-clad rooftop towers in a zigzag formation above the River Clyde in Glasglow.

Riverside Museum

Glasgow, Scotland

Although Hadid lived and worked in the United Kingdom since the early 1970s, the British Iraqi architect’s first major U.K. commission didn’t debut until 2011 when the Riverside Museum opened in Glasgow. The glass facade building was designed as an addition to the Glasgow Museum of Transport; it houses more than 3,000 exhibits that showcase the Scottish city’s transport, engineering, and shipbuilding legacy, with formerly used train cars, automobiles, and the like on display in its galleries. The zinc-clad roof of the Z-shaped museum towers approximately 118 feet above Glasgow’s River Clyde, forming a complex series of paneled ridges that zigzag across the top of the tunnel-like building, which was designed to symbolize the connection between the city and its waterfront.

The Galaxy SOHO complex in central Beijing consists of four spherical structures connected by curving platforms, courtyards, and pedestrian bridges, with 18 floors total.

Galaxy SOHO

Beijing, China

The Galaxy SOHO is an office, retail and entertainment complex in central Beijing. Completed by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2012, the impressive building—made from slabs of reinforced concrete, aluminum, stone, glass, and stainless steel—was inspired by the grand scale of China’s capital city. The entire complex is completely devoid of corners, featuring a design that Zaha Hadid Architects says “reflect[s] traditional Chinese architecture where courtyards create an internal world of continuous open spaces.” The canyon-like layout comprises four spherical structures connected by curving platforms, courtyards, and pedestrian bridges, with 18 floors total, 3 of which are below ground. 

In September 2019, Beijing welcomed another design by the late architect—the massive Daxing International Airport (PKX)which was still under construction at the time of Hadid’s death. The four-story airport hosts a total of 79 gates in the main terminal hall that can accommodate 45 million visitors annually. All of this sprawling space will come in handy because the number of passengers at PKX is expected to grow to 72 million per year by 2025.

The Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, was designed as a symbol of the country’s modernization and independence from the Soviet Union.

Heydar Aliyev Center

Baku, Azerbaijan

Situated in the heart of Baku, Azerbaijan, this eye-catching cultural center was built by Zaha Hadid Architects in 2012 to symbolize modernization and development in the country after it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. When the Heydar Aliyev Center debuted, the shell-like building attracted attention for the way it purposefully stands in contrast with the rigid Soviet architecture that’s still prevalent in the capital. It also amassed some controversy surrounding its name, taken from Azerbaijan’s former president who led the country from 1993 to 2003 and was decribed by some as authoritarian.

The cultural venue is set on a public plaza on Heydar Aliyev Boulevard, a main throughway in Baku that connects the international airport to the old city. The undulating building features exhibition spaces, a library, a museum, and concert venues where a rotating program of art exhibitions, performances, conferences, and workshops showcase Azeri history and contemporary culture, both local and international. But some of the displays aren’t temporary: Artworks by such renowned international artists as Anish Kapoor and Yayoi Kusama are permanently on view at the cultural center, which was named Design of the Year by London’s Design Museum in 2014, making it the first architecture project to win the overall title in the prestigious annual awards ceremony.

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