This month, the Pritzker Prize will be given to architect Zaha Hadid in a ceremony at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. When she mounts the stage to claim her prize, she joins a worldwide panoply of creative giants. And, by the way, Zaha Hadid happens to be a British citizen born in Iraq, and a woman—the first to receive the accolade in the organization’s 26-year history. The 21st century has arrived.
While it may be gratifying to see a leading architect so lionized, and time for a woman to win, this particular adulation came with a headache: When the media’s first wave of stories hit the stands, Hadid’s gender dominated the coverage. Writers insisted on treating the architect differently from her male predecessors. One article, particularly, stands out. It was striking that it occupied the Style section of The New York Times Magazine on March 28. Immediately stigmatized, Hadid (and by association her architecture) had thus been relegated to the second-tier, and her achievement regarded as superficial. The author, instead, reminded us of the quirks of her personality. She has been, he claimed with a kind of justifying pride, a “diva,” as if that designation, so freighted with the unstable artistic emotion (read female), accorded her star status. The story then went on to discuss the changes in personality that have accompanied her increasing maturity. Would male architects be subject to such amateur psychoanalysis? The author then treats us to a description of the architect relaxing, well-oiled, by a swimming pool in Miami Beach. Save us!
When did the term “architect” include gender? Rather than tabloid-talk, Hadid’s elevation should be an opportunity for the critical community to exult in a meaningful way. This architect communicates ideas visually, offering an opportunity for discussion and debate within the profession and with correlative intellectual communities. The informed public, hungry for architectural insight, craves solid food. Instead, we have all been treated to condescension and ghettoizing of a prodigious talent, armed with tidbits about her favorite designer (Miyake).
While any public figure is fair game for the journalist’s pen (and Hadid has the magnetic persona to attract media attention), the timing is all. Can you imagine the leading practitioners in other professions treated to such personal scrutiny on receiving a major award? Marie Curie, for instance, subjected to fashion commentary. Or Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison appraised for her hairstyle. In receiving the Pritzker, Hadid joins those noble ranks and deserves better. Architecture deserves better.
Having learned what we did not care to know, regretfully we did not adequately learn why Hadid deserved the prize. (Although a report on the architect winning the award had appeared in the Times on March 22.) While readers of the Times are acquainted with her first project in the United States, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, she has a growing roster of work in progress around the world. Passing mention was made of her vision, a fluid ability to reduce the post-Einsteinian precepts of space and time to images, blurring the boundary between here and there. In Hadid’s graphic precociousness, she has taken place and turned it in on itself, creating compositions in which time and matter continually elide. Her perceptions come as close as feasible to a new way of seeing the built world, at a moment that this gifted architect has just begun to build. We all want to know more about Hadid.
For most, Zaha Hadid has only been an alliterative name up to now. Sadly, the Hadid case underscores that we continue to treat women architects differently, in an age when such discrimination should be universally decried. The cult of personality she has been subjected to at a moment of major recognition diminishes her achievements and clouds our perception and understanding. Zaha Hadid, congratulations on winning the Pritzker. But you, and we, deserve better treatment at the hands of self-styled admirers.