Zaha was born on October 31, 1950 in Baghdad, Iraq. Her family was upper-class and well-educated. Her mother was an artist – her father, a successful industrialist. He was also politically active, co-founding the liberal National Democratic Party. Her family was Sunni Muslim yet leaned towards Western multi-culturalism.
Early in life, she attended a French-speaking Catholic school whose students included Christians, Muslims and Jews. Later she would attend boarding schools in both England and Switzerland. Her educational experiences provided a broad perspective across diverse cultures.
She was also strongly influenced by a trip her family took to tour Sumerian cities located in what was once known as Mesopotamia. The houses and buildings fascinated her – as did the wide variety of landscape. She realized that there was a ‘flow’ across the people, buildings, landscape – providing a sense of ‘oneness’. The family home – one of the first Bauhaus-style buildings in Baghdad – would also influence her later in life.
Zaha would study mathematics at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. It was there that she soon discovered her interest in architecture. That led to Zaha enrolling at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London in 1972. AA is recognized globally as one of the leading schools for architecture. She earned her degree in 1977, going to work at an architectural firm in London before starting her own company.
Much like Frank Lloyd Wright before her, Zaha’s designs were anything but ‘the norm’ – they were bold, innovative and truly unique. The family trip to Sumera fueled her belief that everything should flow together. Her concepts incorporated angles and curves which would combine to create breathtaking structures – if built.
Her ideas and designs were well received in trade magazines and architectural journals – but few became reality. The firm won several small projects. While her business continued to grow – albeit slowly – Zaha taught at the Architectural Association. She entered numerous design competitions – winning several while earning greater admiration within the industry.
Her first significant design was a fire station – featuring many unique angles – constructed in Germany in the early 1990’s. In 1994, she entered – and won – competition to design the proposed Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales. When that result was overturned, she re-entered and won again. Zaha was devastated when the sponsor withdrew funding, effectively ending the project.
Rather than allow such a catastrophic event to deter her – she determined to press on. Interest in her work continued to grow and in 1998 she was commissioned to build the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her creative use of limited space was fueled by her unique perspective of a structure’s ‘flow’ – immersing the center’s visitors into the art in a way never before experienced.
That building was a tipping point of sorts for Zaha – both professionally and personally. More sought after than ever, she was chosen to design a museum to adjoin the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma which was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s notable designs. Her work had become widely accepted and appreciated. As such, she was chosen to design structures across the globe.
Personally, her success in business led to her becoming easier to work with – less caustic. Zaha faced tremendous challenges in a male dominated industry as a woman – and an Arab (Zaha had become a naturalized British citizen). In response to that resistance, she had become direct – even abrasive. That all began to wane as she became more recognized for being a bold and innovative force in architecture.
In 2004, she would become the first woman and the first Muslim to win the industry’s top honor – the Pritzker Architecture prize. She would teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture, the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg. Her work is represented by some of the most unique and dynamic structures in the world.
These spectacular accomplishments are the result of Zaha Hadid being a fearless brand with a pioneering vision in her work and in life.
Fearless brands have tremendous vision and persistence
Zaha Hadid died of a heart attack in 2016 while hospitalized with bronchitis in Miami, Florida. Her presence in the world will continue in the form of the buildings she designed – constructed, works-in-progress and yet to be built. Her creativity and boldness are evident not just in the structures themselves – but in their purpose.
This is evidenced by unique engagement of visitors at the previously mentioned Contemporary Arts Center. That same philosophy is evidenced in a BMW factory in Germany – designed in such a way as management and workers would encounter each other more often – within the natural flow of work.
Zaha Hadid was certainly a pioneer and innovator as an architect. Her approach to design, the paradigms she shattered and the success she experienced will have a long-lasting impact on architectural design. By example, the Opus in Dubai is a spectacular example of Hadid’s work.
Her contributions to the world extend well beyond her many physical structures. She forged a new path for women – not just in architecture – but in a very broad sense. Women can exist and excel in typically male environs. With her success, Hadid has helped shatter stereotypical perceptions about Middle Eastern women. She has shown them to be intelligent, talented and able to make powerful contributions in business and in life.
There is much to learn from Zaha Hadid as a fearless brand.
Dream, Dare, Do – Zaha had many experiences as a child and young adult which shaped her dreams and would drive her success. She embraced her passion and realized that her purpose was to help redesign the world through architecture. That career path was daunting, yet she dared to follow it – to do whatever was necessary. Dare to embrace your dreams – do what fuels your passion and drives you.
Gender? No problem – With very few exceptions, women can flourish and succeed in any discipline. Sadly, it’s a tougher road for women in some disciplines than it is for their male counterparts. Even in the face of greater challenges, woman can succeed. Zaha Hadid has proven that in her field – tens of thousands of women have shown the same in countless other fields. If you’re a female, fight the good fight. If you’re a male, embrace women’s talent, insights and intelligence – it will make you a better person and build a better business.
Bold can be beautiful – Many people are too bold – many others are not bold enough. Zaha’s success is the result of being bold in design, application and thinking. She wouldn’t allow industry norms to restrain her imagination. Allow yourself to be bold.
What Zaha Hadid accomplished as a woman of Arab descent proves what can be accomplished when we combine our dreams and talents with determination. Learn from her experience – dream, dare, do – become a fearless brand.