Architect Zaha Hadid, Winner of the 2016 RIBA Royal Gold Medal

When we look at the various monumental architectural creations designed by Zaha Hadid, like the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck, Austria, below, it is easy to understand why she is so highly regarded and honored as an architect. I don’t ski, but I like to think that if I did (and if I did it very well) I would give this beautiful slope a try.


Zaha Hadid is the first women to win the Royal Gold Medal from The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). I find it so exciting when skilled artists, architects, and professional designers, especially women and women of color (who have often been underrepresented) are honored in this way; it’s great to witness this development in inclusivity in the art world. Zaha Hadid is a revered contemporary female architect, and her accomplishments will no doubt be inspiring to other architects that come after her, and to other non-architects like myself. As Archigram founder Peter Cook said in Dezeen,

“For three decades now, she has ventured where few would dare.”

To better understand Zaha Hadid as a person, we can take a look at her life story. Hadid was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1950 and is of Iraqi-British descent. Notable Biographies describes her early life in this way:

“Zaha M. up in a well-educated Islamic family oriented toward Western multiculturalism.”

Her father was an executive and a politician (former Iraqi finance minister Mohamed Hadid) and her mother (Wajiha al-Sabunji) came from a well off Mosul family and nourished her love of drawing. She grew up in a Bauhaus styled building, the first in Baghdad in that era (the modern Bauhaus architectural style emerged in Germany in the early 1900’s, and focused on the marriage of form and function, craft and art). An example of the Bauhaus style is below (The Bauhaus Museum, in Tel Aviv).


Photo Source: Wikipedia

Hadid earned her bachelor’s in math at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. In the early 70’s she studied at the Architectural Association in London. She then worked with architects (and her former professors) Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, later, in 1979, founding her own independent firm. Hadid’s first major work was a fire station in Germany, comprised of various irregular angles. Her early career was not without difficulties; funding was withdrawn for her modern design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House, even after she won the competition in two separate votes. Encyclopedia shares that she

“later noted that the experience, although jarring, helped her learn the politics of how to get a design accepted and built.”

Because we all face disappointments, rejections, and frustrations in our careers, whether we consider our work creative or not, I find her story of success following this big setback very inspiring. While her unique, artistic exploration of interconnecting spaces and sculptural forms in building began to gain her fans, some considered her a “paper architect,” whose designs were too avant-garde to become a reality.

She once said of a childhood family trip to the Sumer region,

“The beauty of the landscape—where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings, and people all somehow flowed together—has never left me.”

This fascination with and appreciation for how people, land, and architecture can coexist and flow together is clearly a driving force in her work. This is evident in her concentration on bringing outdoor and indoor spaces together, as she did when she brought a sidewalk straight into The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. This was the first American museum designed by a woman. Once visitors follow the paved path inside, it curves up behind the stairs, merging floor and walls organically, causing us to questions the solidity of our surroundings and to loosen our preconceptions of how the space around us should be shaped.


Photo Source: 365 Cincinnati

Throughout her career so far she has designed strong, ambitious, curving, and powerful structures, and she never seems to stray from experimentation and free thinking. Her flowing designs which distort and play with common structural notions of balance and proportion often seem to be pausing in the middle of a movement, such as that of a cresting wave or of a tree bowing in the wind. John Zukowsky of Britannica describes her designs in this way:

“her aggressive geometric designs are characterized by a sense of fragmentation, instability, and movement.”

Another feat that gained her acclaim was the design of the Third Millennium Bridge in Zaragoza, Spain, below-the largest concrete bowstring arch that has been built on the earth.


Photo Source: Minube

She also designed the London Aquatic Center for the 2012 Olympics.


Photo Source:

Winning the RIBA Royal Gold Medal wasn’t Hadid’s first notable achievement or accolade as an architect or as a woman; she won the RIBA Sterling Prize in 2010 for the MAXXI museum of contemporary art and architecture in Rome.

O: Totale

Photo Source: E-Architect

She was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, and the first woman to win the London Design Museum’s Design of the Year in 2014. She has also spent time in her professional life teaching at Harvard, the University of Chicago, the Architectural Association, and Yale, as well as designing sets, furniture, and clothing with the brand Lacoste.

Below, view a rug she designed titled “Hope,” handmade by Arzu Afghan women, and available to view or purchase in D.C. through Hub Culture.



Architecture tells us what Zaha Hadid said of the RIBA Gold Medal award announcement:

“We now see more established female architects all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the challenges are immense. There has been tremendous change over recent years and we will continue this progress.”

Zaha Hadid’s accomplishments speak to the startling breadth and height (both figuratively and literally) that one person’s creativity can reach in a single lifetime, and she’s still going strong!


Photo Source: Core77

Julia Travers

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