A general history of significant architecture over the last 100 or so years would leave many to believe that few females have ever sat at a drafting board or manipulated a CAD program. Of course, women have been practising architecture for centuries. French noblewoman Katherine Briçonnet wielded great influence over the design of the Château de Chenonceau in the Loire valley during the 16th century. In 17th century England, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632–1705), who studied the works of contemporary Dutch and Italian architects, was said to have tutored Sir Christopher Wren.
Although by the 20th century far more women were becoming involved in architecture, it was often in the form of spousal collaborations. The overwhelmingly masculine nature of the industry often led to the adulation of the heroic (male) individual’s achievements, placing the female partner in the shade of fame. While the post war decades saw an increasing focus on the contribution of women in the field, any top ten lists of globally recognised ‘superstar’ architects almost invariably resemble an exclusive men’s club. Indeed, since its inception in 1979, the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize has only once been awarded to a female practitioner.
Born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1950, Zaha Hadid moved to London in 1972 to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Hadid’s first major commissioned work, a small fire station in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany (1991-93), revealed the trajectory of her subsequent projects; an eclectic form of Deconstructivism that incorporated the use of sharp angles and, increasingly in later projects, dramatic curves. Slowly building throughout the 1990’s, Hadid’s career accelerated into the 21st century with a succession of high profile architectural competition wins including the Contemporary Arts Centre, Cincinnati (1997–2000), and the BMW Administration Building (2001–2005). It was at this moment in her career that she was awarded the Pritzker Prize (2004), with Thomas Pritzker, the head of the jury, stating, “Although her body of work is relatively small, she has achieved great acclaim and her energy and ideas show even greater promise for the future.”
Weil-am-Rhein Fire Station (image courtesy Wikipedia)
Many of Hadid’s later projects can be found throughout Asia, with one of the most spectacular being the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, in Seoul, South Korea (2007–2013). The Design Plaza is located in the dense shopping precinct of Dongdaemun, literally meaning ‘Great East Gate’, which refers to one of the eight entrances incorporated into the old city wall of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897). Surrounded by generally nondescript multi-level department store and indoor market buildings, the fluid curves of the structure’s facades, clad in 45,000 back lit aluminium panels, create a strong juxtaposition of urban forms. The effect is enhanced by nightfall when the building emerges as some kind of deep sea organism, pulsing with light and movement. Visitors navigate the interior and exterior via interconnected raw concrete bridges and ramps, some of which lead to rooftop green spaces. Comprising multi-purpose conference and exhibition halls, the interior spaces are intended as art, design and technology hubs, partly contributing to Seoul’s designation as a World Design Capital in 2010.
Dongdaemun Plaza at Night (image courtesy Wikipedia)
Criticism has been levelled at the architecture by some urban observers who fear the Plaza not only ignores the precincts historical context but is also destined to become an expensive sculptural novelty in between sporadic design exhibitions and seminars. The historical context partly refers to the Dongdaemun sports stadium that was demolished to make way for the project. Originally constructed in 1925, the stadium was the site of a mass gathering in 1945 when up to 250,000 citizens came together to celebrate the end of Japanese colonial rule. Periodically upgraded throughout the 1960s, the stadium was the main focus for major sports events in Seoul until more modern facilities were constructed for the 1988 Olympic Games.
To be fair to the Plaza developers, spaces were allotted within the complex for the collection, display and preservation of artefacts and memorabilia related to both the stadium and other structures found on the site during construction. This includes items and structural elements related to a Joseon era fortress which would have remained undiscovered had the stadium remained.
Archaeological Evidence of Jeoson Era Fortress with Preserved Dongdaemun Stadium Floodlights in the Background.
Regardless of whether the Dongdaemun Design Plaza successfully fulfils its intended function throughout the following decades, it will remain a dramatic built example of an internationally recognised female architect’s work.
Zaha Hadid passed away in the United States on the 31st of March, 2016.