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First woman wins Pritzker

Architecture's top honor goes to London-based Zaha Hadid, known for her imaginative range.

March 22, 2004|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

Zaha Hadid, whose dynamic designs often seem to defy laws of gravity, has won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest honor. It is the first time the prize has been given to a woman in the award's 25-year history.

Based in London, Hadid has long been considered one of architecture's most precocious talents. Her exquisite architectural renderings -- many created while she was in her 30s -- made her an international cult figure before she had completed a single building. Taut with energy, their delirious arrangements of color recalled the works of Futurist painters such as Umberto Boccioni, and they suggested a new kind of urban landscape, one set in a perpetual state of motion.

But it is only in recent years that Hadid has landed the kind of high-profile international commissions that could legitimize her place among architecture's elite. Among the most striking is the recently completed Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Hadid's first built project in the United States. The structure's chiseled concrete exterior evokes a collection of urban fragments that has somehow broken free of the surrounding cityscape.

Other recent built works include a tram station and parking lot in Strasbourg, France, and a soaring ski jump in Innsbruck, Austria. She is completing a science center in Wolfsburg, Germany, a Center for Contemporary Art in Rome and an arts center in Bartlesville, Okla.

Pritzker juror Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that "Hadid's fragmented geometry and fluid mobility do more than create an abstract, dynamic beauty; this is a body of work that explores and expresses the world we live in."

Hadid was clearly surprised by the selection. "Things have changed so much in the past few years," she said during a recent trip to Los Angeles. "We have been doing a lot of public work; we're doing big urban projects in China and Bilbao. Even so, it's hard to say what effect [winning the prize] will have. It hasn't really hit me yet."

Hadid was born into a prominent Iraqi family in Baghdad in 1950. Her father, an industrialist, was a founder of the National Democratic Party. It was a time when Iraq was particularly open to the West, and its institutions and the Middle East in general were eager to embrace modernity.

Even at an early age, Hadid knew she wanted to be an architect. "There were many modern buildings going up then in Baghdad," she remembers. "And my father was very interested in architecture. Our house was one of the first modern houses in the city. By the time I was 11, I had designed all of the furniture for my room."

But it was at London's Architectural Association School of Architecture that Hadid's creative voice began to truly emerge. At the time, a rising group of young visionaries was growing disillusioned with the increasingly dogmatic formulas of late Modernism. Hadid, like many of them, was drawn to the works of the early Soviet artists and architects, in particular the weightless abstractions of Kasimir Malevich.

"I had gone to Moscow in 1978," she recalls. "I found in Malevich's Suprematist paintings a new way to think about the organization of the plan. It was this idea of the city as a series of collisions -- and also as a continuous field rather than a collection of independent objects."

Her breakthrough came in 1982, when she won a competition for a country club in Hong Kong. Dubbed "The Peak," the project's fragmented forms, perched on Victoria Peak with a sweeping view of the city below, were organized as a series of horizontal beams. The beams' intersecting forms projected out from their site, as if they were about to shoot off into space.

The design's audacity stemmed from its refusal to treat the club as an isolated object. Instead, Hadid's paintings represented a radical reinterpretation of the entire city, one in which the traditional urban grid was replaced by a landscape in a constant state of motion.

That notion also was reflected in the design's structure, which evoked conventional freeway construction.

Yet the images were so fantastic that many doubted that the project could be built. And Hadid would struggle for years before the ideas she was able to express so powerfully on canvas were translated into actual buildings.

When she did build, her work revealed a subtle grasp of structural issues and a deft understanding of material. Her 1993 Vitra fire station, built for a private furniture company in Germany, was marked by a triangular canopy propped up on a cluster of slender steel columns. Seen from one angle, the building's exterior -- a composition of horizontal concrete planes -- seemed about to break apart. From another, the building looked like a concrete bunker. The tension gave the project a visual complexity that was startling.

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