Dame Diva Zaha Hadid will build no more

Sober and savvy; perfectionist and flamboyant; commanding respect and oozing authority: Zaha Hadid was the soul of an Arab poet in the spirit of a European artist. 

The verb “to be” does not quite yet fit into the past tense of “was” in a sentence with Hadid. Nor indeed do the birth and death dates (1950-2016) we are now required to place in front of her iconic name.

She had become immortal before her death, her name more a soaring citation than the sign of a biography.  

The sudden news of Hadid’s death just a day before April Fools’ Day was so incredulous that there were indications on newsfeeds that it might be an Internet hoax.

Except it was not.

Journalists and professional architects soon scrambled for the right words to capture the moment when the world was robbed of one of its finest, most spectacular architects – the queen of curvy designs, as she was dubbed, the powerful metaphysician of physical forms defying laws of gravity to declare a rebellious soul, to claim pride of place on an unsuspecting piece of land.

Baghdad was reborn in her soul

Hadid was born into a prominent family in Baghdad during the last years of the Hashemite monarchy.

She grew up in the aftermath of the military coup led by Brigadier General Abdul Karim Qassim, and left for Beirut to continue with her college education in mathematics as Saddam Hussein staged yet another coup to seize power, before finally moving to London to study architecture.

Just as the devastating Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was about to start, she had already established her own company, Zaha Hadid Architects, in 1979. 

As her homeland collapsed into chaos and mayhem, Hadid soared in fame and achievements.

History had placed her singlehandedly to build in the name and memory of her homeland what destructive forces of power and violence destroyed in her birthplace. 

As tall and iconic buildings were falling down after the US-led invasion and destruction of Iraq, Hadid built ever taller and more magnificent buildings around the globe.

She lent the Baghdad of her birth to the Beirut of her youth to pave her way to the London of her mature life. 

Hadid was the embodiment of the cosmopolitan culture of her homeland, a living testimony of what, where, how and why that culture was – precisely at the moment when its infrastructure was falling to pieces. 

She made, built and marked where the combined banality of Saddam Hussein and George W Bush unmade, destroyed, and tore to pieces. 

Builder of numerous iconic buildings around the world and recipient of countless prestigious prizes, including the Pritzker Prize, she was a product of Baghdad, Beirut and London, and from that triangulated base she could go anywhere around the globe and do anything to make a building sing like an Abu Nuwas poem. 

Her lifetime achievement speaks of a different era; when visionary artists easily crossed borders and were at home in Baghdad, Beirut, Rome, London, New York and Tokyo; when the emergence of an ugly and false ethnic nationalism or religious sectarianism had not yet given rise to yet another vicious cycle of civilisational divides. 

Take a look at some of her extraordinary buildings: Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan; Messner Mountain Museum in Plan de Corones, Italy; BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany; London Aquatics Centre; Jockey Club Innovation Tower at Hong Kong Polytechnic University; Guangzhou Opera House, China; the Phæno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany; Galaxy Soho in Beijing; Nordpark Railway Stations in Innsbruck, Austria; Chanel Mobile Art Container in New York City … an almost endless constellation of elegant shapes, welcoming sites, dazzling designs, spectacular urban landscapes that mark a territory and grace it with the name of Zaha Hadid.    

She literally occupied every territory she conquered with her architectural designs. Her art was neither Arab, nor European, but both; neither Oriental, nor Occidental, but both: her signature curvatures conquered both sides of any divide that laid a singularly false claim on her. 

She has left us with a monumental body of work that refuses cliché categorisations that demand a false split duality from us: Islam and the West, the West and the Rest.  

Her work was a dream to behold – and yet the nightmare of Orientalists and Islamophobes, were they to be even aware of her monuments. 

On every corner of this planet, Hadid left a monument as a testimony to the beautiful, defiant and true soul of humanity that conquered both sides of any false cultural divide.  

Where did that world go, the world that was alive and well in Hadid, and on display in everything she built? How did it disappear? 

Hadid left Iraq when Hussein’s banality took over and she died when, in the aftermath of Bush’s campaign of “shock and awe”, the monster called Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) had torn it to pieces. 

Magnificent monuments in Iraq and Syria were hammered to ruins by Daesh, and museums of antiquity were raided and plundered while witnessed by a frightened humanity. 

Hadid took a fistful of everything that was good and beautiful in her homeland when she left, and with it she signed her signature on every corner of the globe she visited to build a magnificent building: so that through one of her most precious children, Baghdad would leave a mark on every corner of this globe, a monument to behold of the glory that it once was. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera