The question was all the more poignant because she had reservations about the Arab world’s interest in her work, even as she began to receive commissions in the region late in her 40-year career. “My biggest failure has been in the Arab world,” she once stated in an interview. “I don’t think Arabs respect [me] enough, because I’m an Arab. Arabs like foreigners…. If I was an American, they would love me. An American man.” Moreover, the commissions she did receive had a high mortality rate, casualties of regime changes, oil price fluctuations, budget cuts, and the Arab Spring.
With the Central Bank and then a handful of other projects, Arab power brokers in more stable environments were coming around, calling her back to a world that had marginalized one of its own. “She was keen to work in the Middle East and was very interested in new opportunities there,” said Sara Sheikh Akbari, an Anglo-Persian associate director working at Zaha Hadid Architects. “She felt at home there.” In fact, her office saw exponential growth—and exponential fame—from around 2007 to 2011, and the Central Bank HQ was one of a half dozen personally gratifying Arab commissions from that period or shortly thereafter that are now opening or nearing completion this winter in an arc that stretches from Morocco to the Gulf.
Hadid’s fatal heart attack in 2016, at the peak of her career and talent, meant that she would never live to see nearly half of her major built designs, including the forthcoming projects. With some 30 substantial buildings completed in the past five years or in the pipeline, the architect has arguably proved as eminent in death as in life. And despite the internecine battles that have surrounded her estate (executors have fought in court for years), not since Eero Saarinen’s posthumous masterpieces, such as the TWA terminal and Dulles International Airport, has an architectural afterlife been so successful.
For her new Arab clients, Hadid was the right architect at the right time. Her avant-garde, world-class buildings are icons for a rising Middle East. Leaders keen on burnishing their country’s profile as a progressive state, while leaving a personal architectural legacy, commissioned photogenic monuments that would elevate its stature and cultural cachet. Charismatic in a way Hadid herself was charismatic, each “Zaha” declared its individualism and cultural independence: The slow liquidity of her lavalike buildings broke with the stiff classical columns of colonial times and Europe’s modernist boxes, grids, and symmetries. Besides, the forms were captivating, flowing like dunes: If you squinted, their sinuous lines recalled Arab calligraphy.
A Zaha would guarantee a city press and screen time. Her fame—she was an art world and Arab world rock star—would rub off.
Some of the commissions, like Iraq’s bank building, had a personal dimension. According to Hadid’s office, al-Shabibi told bank executives that there was only one architect to consider for their headquarters. Hadid was the most famous Iraqi alive, widely admired for her global triumphs. Her Joan of Arc aura, the pride her countrymen took in her success, and the trust in this native daughter with a historic family name (in a country where relationships matter deeply) all sealed the deal. After signing the contract at a formal ceremony attended by Iraqi diplomats at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Hadid said that her father was “in the room.”
The 34-story concrete, glass, and steel skyscraper is now being topped out in Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris. The organically shaped mullions on its heliotropic façades intertwine like stalks, turning geometrically with the path of the sun to protect the building’s interiors from Iraq’s brutal solar load. Hadid and her team sculpted the blast-resistant podium in long, rolling contours; the spaces inside roil like white water. Hadid and her colleagues derived the forms from the angles of the sun and the flow of rivers. As if shaped by nature, it resembles a tall plant growing along the Tigris. Hadid also conceived the high-tech tower as a kind of college of construction, where local engineers, architects, builders, and artisans could tool up their expertise to competitive international standards: Her Iraqi peers did a crash course on the building.
Her office has worked on the skyscraper through Iraq’s recent turmoil, including the ISIS crisis—and, since 2014, without pay. Jim Heverin, the project director and one of the heads of Zaha Hadid Architects, says, “We’ve stayed involved because we wanted to do the building for Zaha.”
Like Frank Lloyd Wright with his cane, cape, and porkpie hat, Hadid branded herself wearing Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, topped off by her scorching-red lipstick, gravelly voice, and year-round tan. But her inventive designs, not her aplomb, earned her the commissions and the fame. Many of the projects were won in competitions, as in the angular, elasticized King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (started in 2009 and finished in 2017) and the substantially completed King Abdullah Financial District Metro Station in Riyadh, where her design fulfilled high Saudi aspirations. “They wanted the best, most beautiful transportation project in the world,” explains project principal Gianluca Racana. “The aim was ‘iconicity’ ”—a building that could recognizably be identified with the city.
Drivers in this car-choked, freeway-gridded capital can now ditch their vehicles by parking in the belly of the metro station, a building that imports a Saharan mirage of stacked dunes into an otherwise eventless, treeless cityscape. The façade, a porous sunscreen of undulating arches, cools and veils the four stories and six rail platforms inside. Columns, bent and inclined in waves, brace against the thrust of decelerating trains. Like the wooden mashrabiya that cover windows of traditional Arab houses, the latticework shades the interiors, allowing breezes inside, induced by the whoosh of trains. The structure—which mixes transport with shopping, dining, and work spaces—breathes like a lung. “The movement of trains suggested air waves,” says Racana, “which recalled winds shaping the dunes that we evoked in the façade.”
If the architects imported the metaphor of the desert into the middle of the Saudi capital, they were dealing with the actual desert in the United Arab Emirates for a state-of-the-art headquarters in environmental and waste management. In 2013, Sheikh Sultan III of Sharjah, one of the emirates, convened six architects in his manor house in Sussex, England, to decide the winner of a competition for the Bee’ah center. He started by reviewing Hadid’s design, and the emir never quite made it past her models and drawings; he liked them so much that he had to be coaxed to see the others, and during the discussion, he investigated moving the site itself to a location where he could see the building from his palace.
Hadid and her fellow architects channeled the desert through the idea of wind. Using 3D modeling software to mimic patterns in nature, they composed a building of intersecting dunes that grow out of the sandscape, swept up into cresting shapes surrounded by an oasis of palms and pools. The architects punctured the dunes with computer-generated motifs that created dazzling constellations of light, evoking decorative Arab starbursts. For all its beauty, Bee’ah checks all the environmental boxes: LEED Platinum certification, a low carbon footprint, and solar energy captured and stored in Tesla battery packs.