Zaha Hadid: A Warrior Architect's Legacy

Zaha Hadid, the 21st Century's most influential architect, embodied the philosophy of Philip Johnson, one of the 20th Century's greatest architects, through designs that spoke truth to his observation that "[a]ll architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space." In reality, especially in America, public places built over the past few decades like the New Museum, LA Live, or Penn Station are mostly unpleasant places that are there to be endured rather than enjoyed.

The lesson Hadid taught us was that it doesn't have to be that way. Her greatest projects, freed from orthogonal oppression, achieved what all public architecture should aspire to in being massive, fully functioning gathering places that also gracefully invite us to pause, look around, and marvel at what is physically possible.

Last year, Hadid was poised to build upon her stunning London Aquatic Centre and do for stadiums what she's done in transforming the way we think of railway stations, museums, and libraries by starting work on Tokyo Olympic project. But, quietly last December, the Japanese government plucked Kengo Kuma out of architectural obscurity to replace Hadid to design the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium. In choosing Kuma's so-called "hamburger" design, Japan's Olympic overseers showed their lack of appetite for anything bold, daring, or inspiring.

With Hadid's untimely passing, her firm's involvement in the project is moot. But she leaves us with another important lesson, one that applies to architects and to all those whose livelihoods rely on the purses of capricious men, and it dates back to the very land that birthed the Olympics. In Ancient Greece, on the island of Crete, King Minos' wayward wife had a bizarre affair with a raging bull. When she then gave birth to a terrifying half-man half-bull Minotaur, King Minos faced an unappealing dilemma many fathers will sympathize with - where to house this ravenous stepson? So he commissioned the famed Athenian architect Daedalus and his son Icarus to design an elaborate maze, called labyrinthos, to imprison the beast.

But Daedalus suffered a fate far worse than an unpaid invoice when an enraged King Minos threw father and son into their very own labyrinth for daring to help his daughter's lover both escape and slay the Minotaur. From here the story becomes more familiar as Icarus infamously flew too close to the sun during their escape. This Greek myth is the O.G. lesson about hubris, but for architects and all those who are self-employed, the message is far different - beware of kings and powerful people bearing grand commissions, for they are fickle and cruel.

Unfortunately Hadid learned the hard way that nothing is different in modern Japan. In 1994, Haruki Murakami published his masterpiece, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where, as one New York Times critic proclaimed, "East meets West." Yet Murakami's Japan is still being run by powerful men, and men only, who, while modern in appearance, don't behave all that differently than good ol' King Minos. Similarities to ancient Crete abound. Dark, inescapable wells have replaced labyrinths. Even one of the heroines, Creta Kano, "the prostitute of the mind," is named after Daedalus' island of doom.

In 2012, Hadid won the fiercely fought design competition for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium. Her stadium would have been a sinuous voluptuous beauty. It would easily have been one of the most dynamic and triumphant stadiums in an Olympic lineage that too often has veered to retrograde and utilitarian bowls like Kuma's low-energy "winner." Her selection was stunning for such a conservative country and offered hope that its establishment was indeed changing. But, suddenly last summer, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe smugly announced that he was scrapping Zaha Hadid's design because of its supposed high price tag. Under any other circumstance this would have been a reasonable and sincere concern - if Hadid had been told first and given a chance to address the cost.

Sadly, few rallied around Hadid - a woman who has done so much for the profession through her designs, her teaching, and through her 400-person strong firm. On the contrary, high-profile politicians, architects, and designers - all men - rushed to form a pig-pile of scorn and snobbery. Arata Isozaki, the prominent Japanese architect, in a poor attempt at humor, likened her design to "...a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away." Pritzker Prize-winning Fumihiko Maki organized a group of fellow small-minded architects and designers to decry Hadid's plan and even held a symposium called "Re-thinking the New National Olympic Stadium." Even the head of the committee that originally chose Hadid's design, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, joined the conga line of contempt by saying "It looks like an oyster. I've always hated it."

It's apparent that the "Japanese Architects Club For Men," along with the nation's political elite, so well understood by Murakami, achieved what they had set out to do in their feudal misogyny and killed two wind-up birds at the same time, an architect who was both a foreigner and a woman. But then again, this would come as no surprise to Murakami's Creta Kano.

And so, one of Hadid's most daring designs will never come to fruition. It's Japan's loss, and the stale retread Tokyo Olympic Stadium will join the ranks of other mundane modern sports arenas like New Jersey's MetLife Stadium, Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium, Paris' Stade de France, and London's lame trifecta of Wembley Stadium, Emirates Stadium, and Olympic Stadium. But ultimately, Hadid will be validated as the way our cities look will increasingly reflect her designs. And hopefully her difficult Japanese experience will show other architects how much harder they have to work to make beautiful visions come to fruition.