Mary McCartney/Courtesy RIBA

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has awarded its Gold Medal, the highest honor in its repertory, since 1848. This year, on Wednesday, at a black-tie ceremony in RIBA’s stately Art Deco building in London, Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, officially received the award, the first woman in the institute's history to win it in her own right.

In the context of England’s clubby association of architects, still very much a fraternity, awarding the Gold Medal to an Iraqi-born exponent of a radically unorthodox modernism—perhaps best known here for twice winning the Cardiff Opera House competition, only to be rejected twice under cloudy circumstances—was a very big deal. Per protocol, Queen Elizabeth II approved the award. Prince Charles, the architectural traditionalist, was probably not amused.

Though Hadid was trained at London’s Architectural Association, and has practiced in the city since her graduation in 1977, it seems every major international architectural prize beat RIBA in honoring the architect: the Pritzker Prize was awarded in 2004, Japan’s Praemium Imperiale Prize in 2009, and the Queen even dubbed her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012. Though RIBA twice awarded Hadid the Stirling Prize and numerous specific building citations, a deep moat of silence surrounded the institute regarding the Gold Medal. Hadid was conspicuous by her absence on the list.

Finally, this year, under the direction of Jane Duncan (only the third female RIBA president), the institute has redressed the “oversight.” Sir Peter Cook, Luisa Hutton, and David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, architects with an international point of view, nominated her.

In two days of events this week, the reasons for the award were made perfectly clear. Glossy, poster-sized photographs of the architect greeted visitors on either side of the ceremonial marble staircase up to the second floor of the RIBA building, where the tall public rooms were turned over to a concise but impressive exhibition of Hadid’s models, drawings, and photographs. Projects ranged from her first building, the Vitra Fire House in Weil am Rhein (1993), to the National Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome, to her recently finished Heydar Aliyev cultural center in Baku.

But it was during her Tuesday night lecture in RIBA’s packed Jarvis auditorium that the scale of her achievement became obvious. Hadid, who came to the podium wearing a black tessellated jacket that looked excerpted from the façade of one of her buildings, projected images of buildings ranging from the small to monumental, many of them complex and intricate tours de force obviously made possible by advanced computational methods and engineering. Her work has evolved from angular, fragmented structures propelled by notional explosions, to buildings characterized by fluid forms and space. What had been a boutique operation of a dozen architects now numbers 400 employees.

Vitra Fire Station, Weil am Rhein, Germany
Christian Richters/Courtesy RIBA Vitra Fire Station, Weil am Rhein, Germany

Often accused of being a formalist—her projects are arrestingly beautiful and iconic—she has consistently developed public space inside and outside her buildings: she architecturalizes the space around them as structured landscapes of terraces, promenades, and programming, achieving an active urbanism that flows into the buildings, where stairs and ramps activate a public realm that socializes the interior. Despite the increase in size and the complexity of the engineering, the larger buildings have lost none of the early complexity, intensity, beauty, and social purpose.

Though she usually gives extemporaneous lectures, on Tuesday she read a prepared speech, clarifying more methodically the ideas and design strategies that structure her work: urban densification, open form, distortion, interconnectivity, layering, carving, anti-fortification, fluidity, architectural landscape, breaking the box and the block.

She was generous in crediting Patrik Schumacher, a partner who has been with her firm since 1988, and the office teamwork. Over 35 years, about 1,200 architects have worked for Hadid. Many of her current and past employees, now friends, celebrated at an after-lecture dinner party in a Georgian church now used as an event space around the corner from RIBA.

Rome's Museum of 21st Century Art
Roland Halbe, courtesy of the Royal Institute of British Architects Rome's Museum of 21st Century Art

On Wednesday at the award ceremony, in a friendly sit-down interview with BBC cultural broadcaster John Wilson, a low-keyed Hadid spoke modestly about her career, as her architectural achievements scrolled overhead on a screen behind her. She dryly observed that it was probably better to have lost the Cardiff commission before the critical establishment had the opportunity to savage the built design.

It was Cook, the eminent British architect who has long been an actor and observer in the international architectural scene, who allowed himself to brag about her work, putting it in a larger context. “For three decades now, she has ventured where few would dare: if Paul Klee took a line for a walk, then Zaha took the surfaces that were driven by that line out for a virtual dance, and then deftly folded them over and then took them out for a journey into space.”

Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan.

He then went on, in a refreshing spree of subtly worded frankness, to place her achievement and persona within the British context, squaring it against the professional and cultural barrier she has faced. Because of her award from the Queen, he said, and now the RIBA Gold Medal, Hadid might be considered a member in good standing of the British establishment.

“Yet in reality, many of our chattering classes and not a few fellow architects have treated her with characteristic faint praise, and when she heroically won the Cardiff Opera House competition, blocked the scheme.” He said the outspoken Hadid “cannot play the comfy British game of platitudinous waffle that is the preferred cushion adopted by many people of achievement and power.” The self-confidence that allows her to command a “big ship. . . . causes some architects to feel uncomfortable. Maybe they’re secretly jealous of her unquestionable talent.

“Let’s face it, we might have awarded the medal to a worthy, comfortable character. We didn’t. We awarded it to Zaha: larger than life, bold as brass, and certainly on the case. Our heroine.”

See more of Hadid's projects in ARCHITECT's project gallery.