Why Zaha Hadid is still ahead of the curve

The design world lost one of the greatest visionaries of the modern age when Zaha Hadid died in 2016. 

The British-Iraqi architect created gravity-defying curved structures such as China’s Guangzhou Opera House and the London Olympics Aquatics Centre. 

Dubbed the “Queen of the Curve” for her fluid forms, Hadid won all the biggest awards in her field including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 and the Stirling Prize, twice, in 2010 and 2011. 

Her unexpected death – of a heart attack while being treated for bronchitis – at 65, came at a time when several of her buildings were still under construction, including the new headquarters for Bee’ah, an environmental management company in Sharjah. 

Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) won the contract for the project in 2013, with a sand dune design inspired by the desert landscape. In the UAE, Hadid’s name is synonymous with the Sheikh Zayed Bridge, the massive four-lane highway with waved arches that connects Abu Dhabi island to the mainland. 

Rising to 60 metres above the water at its highest point, it became one of the most striking landmarks in the region upon its completion in 2010. Bee’ah’s building, due to be completed in 2019, is a smaller project in scale, but not in aspiration. 

Bee’ah aims to be a beacon of sustainability in the UAE, setting new standards for environmental solutions. The company is working to achieve zero waste to landfill and will power its new headquarters using 100 per cent green renewable energy sources. 

It was these ambitious goals that attracted Hadid to the project. “The client profile is very important for us,” Tariq Khayyat, ZHA’s Project Director for Bee’ah, tells The National. “It’s a small company with big dreams and big goals. Sharjah is an amazing city, too. 

It’s not as busy as Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but it has its own niche towards art and culture so we felt it was the right place and the right client.” Khayyat heads up the firm’s office in Dubai, which opened in November 2016 and serves the whole Mena region. 

Before moving to the UAE, he spent 11 years working closely with Hadid at the company’s London headquarters. 

“Zaha was always fascinated by the landscape. She looked at it as an amazing source of ideas and concepts. The site is literally in the desert in the middle of nowhere and by default, the landscape started provoking ideas. We positioned the building so that it looks as if it is a natural phenomenon by placing it in the direction of the prevailing north wind. 

“We also wanted the design to reflect the fluidity and flow of the message that the company, Bee’ah, is trying to deliver. We felt that having this kind of sand dune design is going to be a true reflection, not only of the site, but of the company’s message and goal.” 

Bee’ah is one of more than 60 projects ZHA has under construction or in design, in 29 countries across the world. Hadid set up ZHA in 1980, and the firm is busier than ever. But what is missing now their creative director and founder is gone? 

“There’s a gap spiritually. We miss Zaha as a person being around us and giving us her input,” says Khayyat. 

“But one of her main talents was that she was extremely good at investing in people. She believed in giving opportunities to people around her regardless of their age or position within the company. Over the last 35 years, she managed to transfer that way of thinking to the people who have been working with her closely.” 

One of the people Hadid invested heavily in was Sara Sheikh Akbari, who joined ZHA in 2007. Having proven her talents as a key member of the gigantic Heydar Aliyev Centre project in Baku, Azerbaijan, she is now a project architect for Bee’ah, working from ZHA’s studio in London’s Clerkenwell. 

“From the moment I joined ZHA, I could see it was a free space for people to explore,” she says. “It was all about learning how to collaborate and work as a team to express ideas, refine them and make them better rather than dictate a path. Because the moment you start doing that, innovation and creativity is gone. 

“A lot of the clients we work with are visionary, willing to explore and be open to various design languages. You see a lot of visionary clients in the UAE and we hope that Bee’ah will be a milestone for similar projects there.” 

Hadid was famed for her temper as well as her brilliance (she once famously demanded to be put on a different flight when she heard she was going to be delayed). But this passion inspired rather than intimidated Akbari, who joined ZHA fresh from her master’s degree. 

“She was very demanding. She always wanted the best in everything we did,” she recalls. “But if you just look at the clients and the people we work with, that’s what they expect from you as well. It’s the culture that has been built into this company and the reason some of the most iconic building projects in the world have happened here.” 

From speaking to the team at ZHA, it’s clear that commitment to maintaining their mentor’s legacy is strong. “We will always stand by the principles that Zaha fought for,” says Khayyat. 

“She worked so hard over the last 35 years to establish a new way of thinking regarding architecture. Her strength came from not only the kind of buildings she designed or being called the Queen of the Curve, but by liberating the way architects think and the way the young generation think of architecture.” 

Will the company continue to be at the forefront of architectural innovation? Khayyat certainly thinks so. “Put it this way, I think you will see more curves.” 

by Claire Corkery



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