Mary McCartney/Courtesy RIBA

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) announced today that Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, founder of Zaha Hadid Architects, has won the 2016 Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. Hadid, born in Baghdad in 1950, becomes the first woman to win the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in her own right. She will receive the medalRIBA's highest honor, recognizing a lifetime of advancement of the field of architecture—at a ceremony in February 2016. 

On the second level of Pierresvives, a triple-height lobby features a curving roof incised with cove lighting.
Iwan Baan On the second level of Pierresvives, a triple-height lobby features a curving roof incised with cove lighting.

“Zaha Hadid is a formidable and globally-influential force in architecture," Jane Duncan, RIBA president and chair of the selection committee, said in a release. "Highly experimental, rigorous and exacting, her work from buildings to furniture, footwear and cars, is quite rightly revered and desired by brands and people all around the world. I am delighted Zaha will be awarded the Royal Gold Medal in 2016 and can’t wait to see what she and her practice will do next.” 

Hadid's "The Peak Blue Slabs" (1982-83)
Zaha Hadid Architects Hadid's "The Peak Blue Slabs" (1982-83)

After studying under Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, at London's Architectural Association school of Architecture (AA), Hadid joined their Rotterdam, Netherlands-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where she quickly ascended to partner. In 1979, she founded her London-based firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, where, with partner Patrik Schumacher, she has led a practice devoted to the integration of technology and experimentation in the pursuit of geologically inspired architectural forms while also reinvesting her expertise into architecture schools via academic posts at Harvard's GSD, Yale University, and the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. 

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

Starting with her first major built commission in 1993, the Vitra Fire Station in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, Hadid's office has consistently produced dynamic buildings on a spectrum ranging from angular early works like the MAXXI: Italian National Museum of 21st Century Arts (2009) to more fluid recent projects such as the London Aquatics Center (built for the 2012 Olympic Games) and the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku (2013) that exemplify the Royal Gold Medal's purpose of rewarding advancement of the field. Hadid adds the Royal Gold Medal to a collection of awards that includes the 2004 Pritzker Architecture Prize (for which she was also the first woman to be awarded), the 2012 Praemium Imperiale, and two prior RIBA Stirling Prizes: one, in 2010, for the aforementioned MAXXI, and the other the following year for the Evelyn Grace Academy. 

MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art, Rome
Richard Bryant/Courtesy RIBA MAXXI Museum of XXI Century Art, Rome

Hadid released the following statement:
“I am very proud to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal, in particular, to be the first woman to receive the honour in her own right. I would like to thank Peter Cook, Louisa Hutton and David Chipperfield for the nomination and Jane Duncan and the Honours Committee for their support. We now see more established female architects all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the challenges are immense. There has been tremendous change over recent years and we will continue this progress. This recognition is an honour for me and my practice, but equally, for all our clients. It is always exciting to collaborate with those who have great civic pride and vision. Part of architecture’s job is to make people feel good in the spaces where we live, go to school or where we work - so we must be committed to raising standards. Housing, schools and other vital public buildings have always been based on the concept of minimal existence – that shouldn’t be the case today. Architects now have the skills and tools to address these critical issues.”

Evelyn Grace Academy, London
Luke Hayes/Courtesy RIBA Evelyn Grace Academy, London

The Royal Gold Medal has been awarded by RIBA since 1848. Previous winners include Frank Lloyd Wright (1941), Charles and Ray Eames (1979), Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA (1983), and Frank Gehry, FAIA (2000). Previous female winners of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal have been honored in tandem with life and practice partners: Patricia Hopkins won the award in 1994 with Michael Hopkins; Sheila O’Donnell, Hon. FAIA, and John Tuomey, Hon. FAIA, won the Royal Gold Medal in 2015. The 2016 RIBA Royal Gold Medal selection committee was led by RIBA President Jane Duncan, and included Sir Peter Cook, founder of Archigram (which won the 2004 RIBA Royal Gold Medal); Neil Gillespie, Victoria Thornton, and 2015 winner John Tuomey. 

See a collection of work by Zaha Hadid Architects below and in ARCHITECT Magazine's Project Gallery:

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects, Baku, Azerbaijian, 2012
Rebecca.M Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects, Baku, Azerbaijian, 2012
Middle East Center, St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford, U.K.

Middle East Center, St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford, U.K.

Peter Cook wrote the 2016 Royal Gold Medal citation in Hadid's honor:In our current culture of ticking every box, surely Zaha Hadid succeeds, since (to quote the Royal Gold Medal criteria) she is someone “who has made a significant contribution to the theory or practice of architecture…. for a substantial body of work rather than for work which is currently fashionable.”  Indeed her work, though full of form, style and unstoppable mannerism, possesses a quality that some of us might refer to as an impeccable "eye": which we would claim is a fundamental in the consideration of special architecture and is rarely satisfied by mere "fashion." 

And surely her work is special. 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. In her earlier, "spiky" period there was already a sense of vigour that she shared with her admired Russian Suprematists and Constructivists – attempting with them to capture that elusive dynamic of movement at the end of the machine age.  

Necessarily having to disperse effort through a studio production, rather than being a lone artist, she cottoned–on to the potential of the computer to turn space upon itself. Indeed there is an Urban Myth that suggests that the very early Apple Mac "boxes" were still crude enough to plot the mathematically unlikely – and so Zaha with her mathematics background seized upon this and made those flying machine projections of the Hong Kong Peak project and the like. Meanwhile, with paintings and special small drawings Zaha continued to lead from the front. She has also been smart enough to pull in some formidable computational talent without being phased by its ways. 

View from East gallery entrance.
Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects View from East gallery entrance.

Thus the evolution of the "flowing" rather than spikey architecture crept up upon us in stages, as did the scale of her commissions, but in most cases, they remained clear in identity and control. When you entered the Fire Station at Vitra, you were conscious of being inside one of those early drawings and yes, it could be done. Yet at perhaps its highest, those of us lucky enough to see the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku in the flesh, can surely never have been in such a dream-like space, with its totality, its enormous internal ramp and dart-like lights seeming to have come from a vocabulary that lies so far beyond the normal architecture that we assess or rationalize. 

So we are presenting her with this Medal as a British Institution: and as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire: thus she might seem to be a member of our 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, blocking the scheme. Or when we awarded her the RIBA Stirling Prize for the school in South London – her second win in a row - we, the jury, were loudly derided by a number of distinguished architects. Of course, in our culture of circumspection and modesty her work is certainly not modest, and she herself is the opposite of modest. Indeed her vociferous criticism of poor work or stupidity recalls the line-side comments of the tennis-player John McEnroe. Yet this is surely characteristic of the seriousness with which she takes the whole business: sloppiness and waywardness pain her and she cannot play the comfy British game of platitudinous waffle that is the preferred cushion adopted by many people of achievement or power. Her methods and perhaps much of her psychology remain Mesopotamian and not a little scary: but certainly clear. 

As a result, it is perhaps a little lonely there up at the top, surrounded now by some very considerable talent in the office, but feared somewhat and distanced from the young. Yet in private Zaha is gossipy and amusing, genuinely interested in the work of talented colleagues who do very different architecture such as Steven Holl [FAIA], and she was the first to bring to London talent such as Lebbeus Woods or Stanley Saiotowitz. She is exceptionally loyal to her old friends: many of whom came from the Alvin Boyarsky period of the Architectural Association:  which seems to remain as her comfort zone and golden period of friendship. Encouraged and promoted at an early age by Boyarsky, she has rewarded the AA with an unremitting loyalty and fondness for it.

The history of the Gold Medal must surely include many major figures who commanded a big ship and one ponders upon the operation involved that gets such strong concepts as the MAXXI in Rome – in which the power of organization is so clear - or the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck where dynamic is at last captured – or the Aquatics Centre for the London Olympics where the lines diving boards were as fluid as the motion of the divers - made into reality. And she has done it time and time again in Vienna, Marseilles, Beijing and Guangzhou. Never has she been so prolific, so consistent. We realize that Kenzo Tange and Frank Lloyd Wright could not have drawn every line or checked every joint, yet Zaha shares with them the precious role of towering, distinctive, and relentless influence upon all around her that sets the results apart from the norm. Such self-confidence is easily accepted in film-makers and football managers, but 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. 

How lucky we are to have her in London. 

This post has been updated.