The Ingenuity and Forward Looking Architecture of Zaha Hadid



Trail-blazing designs that evoke awe and introspection

Zaha Hadid's famous architecture strike awe in architects and confound the lay observer, from Seoul to Antwerp. Read on to find out where in the world you'd be able to find them.

Zaha Hadid - one of the leading figures of architecture in the 21st Century, photo from WIRED

Zaha Hadid - one of the leading figures of architecture in the 21st Century, photo from WIRED

Apart from stuffing ourselves on trips, the next most awe-inspiring aspect of a foreign city is usually its architecture. Grand designs undoubtedly draw intrigue and admiration - a means to which people savour the unique points of visiting another country or city. Think of classic works - Zaha Hadid 'structures' like the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, Heydar Aliyev Center and Beijing Daxing Airport. 

The determination to carry on is perhaps an apt descriptor of the office culture that has come to define Zaha Hadid Architects. Despite the passing of its founder in March 2016, Hadid's namesake firm has continually produced experimental and forward-thinking designs that do justice for the legacy of its founder, a continuation of what is now known as a quintessential 'Zahad Hadid Design'. This is laudable as this approach was what resulted in Hadid's rise to prominence in the first place after she was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize (the first woman) in 2004

You may then wonder what this hoo-ha is all about. Well, Hadid's buildings go beyond the aspirational need to draw the attention of passersby as they are simultaneously representations of the heritage of their surroundings. Her design principles are formulated by a rejection of strict practicality and utility in an effort to provoke reflection. 

Hadid is also named the ’Queen of the Curve’ for the swooping facades that feature in her structures; curves that swoop up and down at seemingly unbelievable angles. Indeed, Hadid has mastered the art of translating tight bends on a piece of A4 into physical majestic icons. Indeed, she occupies a place of veneration in the architectural world on par with icons like Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava

In some cases, her works are strategically deployed in city districts with the goal of revitalising local communities and reviving the heritage of a given area. This holds true especially for projects that wish to embed an appreciation for history and culture in their designs. Clients that have called on Hadid have also found that their buildings were transformed into veritable (and iconic) assembly grounds once opened.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the landmark projects that have come out of the Hadid’s architectural admiralty and scrutinise their importance and place in society. 


Dongdaemun Design Plaza

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) sits nestled in Seoul’s historic Dongdaemun district and is one of the city's most definitive buildings amongst markets and malls that have fuelled the capital’s meteoric growth.

DDP is yet another multi-use complex that incorporates space for exhibitions, retail and seminars under a single ‘roof’. It also has adequate outdoor spaces that now house public markets, allowing for independent creators to hawk their goods and art to attentive crowds. Recent exhibitors at DDP include Louis Vuitton’s Volez, Voguez and Voyagez and the complex also hosts the annual Seoul Fashion Week.

DDP is industrial-chic on a grand scale. Its facade comprises of a cladding system that is made up of 45,000 metal plates riveted together into a single structure. The complex was the first large-scale use of 3D Built Information Modelling to inform its construction as the metal plates that had to be installed were each plates of differing sizes and were installed at varying degrees of curvature. This was critical in bringing Hadid’s signature curves to life. 

Though DDP is unapologetic about its size, DDP remains welcoming to visitors despite its grandiose exterior. Indeed, visitors will be enthralled by its open spaces and by how Seoul’s youth regularly visit DDP as it is the city’s centrepiece in the country’s burgeoning fashion industry. 

However, the image of DDP is perhaps marred by its surroundings. The voracious appetite for limited edition streetwear amongst Seoul’s youth has led to the creation of one of the world’s largest counterfeit fashion industries. The promoters of which house themselves in the many wholesale malls located on the peripheries of DDP. Indeed, these wholesale markets routinely trade in counterfeit products inspired from Western labels like Supreme, Vetements and Balenciaga.

The Antwerp Port House - commissioned for by the Port Authority of Antwerp, photo from

The Antwerp Port House - commissioned for by the Port Authority of Antwerp, photo from

Antwerp Port House

Hadid was contracted to revitalise a disused and derelict firehouse in Antwerp for the city's port authority, a building that would eventually become the headquarters for the 500 workers that work in the once split-up Port of Antwerp’s head office. At first glance, its clear that the building sits as one of the most distinctive architectural concepts in Antwerp's landscape.

Calling Hadid's final design anything but bold is to do a disservice to the landmark as the building’s extension is unlike anything we've seen so far in architecture. The new extension perches itself on top of the old building as if a spacefaring alien race had landed onsite and (at least to me) seem to resemble a ship's mast in that it points to and directs the future of Antwerp's maritime industry.

Hadid designed this extension with a view to create a striking contrast between modernist deconstructivism and late 15th-century Hanseatic architecture. Yet, she knew how to expertly blend these two concepts together as she reinterprets the original plan for the old firehouse (it included a spire, but was not built) into her iconic glass extension. 

The project also reflects the heritage of the city it finds itself in. Antwerp has been colloquially called the city of diamonds due to the city’s diamond polishing industry that has been thriving since 1890. Hence, the reflective and glass adorned facade has also come to be a representation of this niche industry. Additionally, the facade subtle changes its colour based on weather conditions and is a masterful attempt to mimic the prosperity bearing waters that have come to define the port city’s history of entrepôt commerce.

The Heydar Aliyev Center - commissioned for by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan, photo from

The Heydar Aliyev Center - commissioned for by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan, photo from

Heydar Aliyev Center

The Central Asian Republics are the Asian vestiges of a once dominant Soviet empire. As if to subconsciously carry on this legacy, the Soviet love for grandiose architecture was never jettisoned as strong affinities for large plazas and eye-catching landmarks are retained. Fantastic examples of such inclinations include the Republican Plaza in Almaty and the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Astana. 

Considered to be Hadid’s magnum opus, the Heydar Aliyev Center is yet another project in the oil-rich government of Azerbaijan’s effort to modernise the capital’s urban environments. The centre incorporates an auditorium, gallery hall and museum to become Baku’s premier destination for cultural activities. 

Hadid’s characteristic design of undulating peaks and troughs could also be described as a representation of the mountains ranges and valleys that dominate both Azerbaijan and Hadid’s native Iraq.  

Yet, the project has stirred up waves of criticism not least because Heydar Aliyev’s opulence sits next to crumbling and decrepit Soviet-era apartment buildings. Apart from the lack of human rights that are common to the Central Asian Republics, critics also decry the fact that poverty-stricken citizens were forcefully evicted (without compensation) from their homes to make way for the new cultural centre. Similar accusations were also levelled at Baku whilst it constructed the Crystal Hall and Winter Garden. 

A render of the future Beijing Daxing International Airport - commissioned by the Chinese State Council, photo from

A render of the future Beijing Daxing International Airport - commissioned by the Chinese State Council, photo from

Beijing Daxing International Airport

The next landmark project for Hadid’s firm threatens to eclipse the success of the Heydar Aliyev Centre.

Just as China rises from decades of communist-led economic stagnation, Beijing’s new Daxing International Airport hopes to catapult the capital into the forefront of global aviation. Indeed, the complex resembles a futuristic interstellar starport more than anything else. 

Beijing’s current Capital Airport is suffering from severe overcapacity, a tale that also describes the airports of China’s other major state capitals. As such, Beijing has recognised the pressing need for investment in aviation infrastructure and Daxing is the crown jewel of these efforts. Hadid’s bold plans calls for a ‘six-pier radial design’ with tangents that stretch out to house its 78 gates. The open spaces and high ceilings that feature in Hadid’s other designs also make a strong appearance in Daxing.

On completion, the airport will be able to accommodate 72 million passenger movement annually with a view to expand this capacity to 100 million in the near future. The airport also opens with four runways just as other airports in Asia are just now starting to build their third.  

The airport is connected to the city centre via a high-speed rail service and will thereby revolutionise air travel and accessibility for generations to come. This is not least because the new $12.9 billion airport will allow China Eastern and Southern to embed themselves in the capital where hitherto, they were confined to their hubs at Shanghai and Guangzhou.  Competition amongst the country's three major carriers are hence about to heat up - stay tuned for more.

Tributes given to Zaha Hadid by Prof Dr Suha Ozkan, photo from

Tributes given to Zaha Hadid by Prof Dr Suha Ozkan, photo from

The legacy of an industry-defining figure

As with all things, grandeur often comes at a price and Hadid was not spared from this. 

A common criticism levelled against her is that her designs are too bold, which places astronomical demands on engineers. This borderline unattainability also has the secondary effect of resulting in cost overruns. Others point to the fact that while her buildings have resulted in the demolition of historic neighbourhoods, Hadid claims to represent history and narratives in her designs. Is there an inherent contradiction here? It's a hard subject to grapple with and my cop-out is that it depends on who you're asking. 

In any case, one should be aware that the decision to level historic neighbourhoods firmly lies in the domain of governments and not architects. The same thing can be said for the use of exploited peoples as labour. Whilst architecture does have some ability to prevent this, I think that the discussion that should be taking place is the one about striking a balance between preserving our heritage and the imperative to develop our urban spaces for the future. Anyway, as Hadid's exceptional designs do incorporate the history and culture of its surroundings to an extent unlike any other architect, perhaps she is just the least-worst alternative. 

Hadid passed on at an age too young for a visionary but perhaps that is the price that is paid for being one. Her designs are a bold mix of originality and creativity; her works different from each other but all simultaneously producing the same effect on its admirers. No one should doubt that Zaha Hadid's desgn approach draw eyes and awe. My take on her is that she aptly describes (through her works) our current postmodern era where emotions, security and ideas are in constant flux.

Hadid is concurrently a product of her time whilst defining what this era of architecture is about. In totality, there are still around 30 (and more) structures that are still planned for at the time of her passing, a number that almost matches the amount of buildings Hadid has been commissioned for in her lifetime. Without going too deeply into her works, perhaps this is the pinnacle of what a great legacy is. 

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