The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) have revealed that Dame Zaha Hadid will receive the 2016 Royal Gold Medal — the first sole woman to be awarded the UK's highest honour for architects in her own right. Previous female winners (Sheila O’Donnell in 2015, Patty Hopkins in 1994, and Ray Eames in 1979) were each recognised alongside their husbands and practice partners.
Given in recognition of a lifetime’s work, the RIBA Royal Gold Medal is approved personally by Her Majesty The Queen and is awarded to those who have had a significant influence "either directly or indirectly on the advancement of architecture." Other notable Royal Gold Medallists include Frank Gehry (2000), Lord Norman Foster, Baron of Thames Bank (1983), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1959), Le Corbusier (1953), and Frank Lloyd Wright (1941). The medallists' names are engraved into the marble wall at the RIBA's headquarters in London.
Born in Baghdad in 1950, Zaha Hadid began her architectural journey in 1972 while studying at the Architectural Association in London. She then joined her former professors, Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam, where she became a partner in 1977. By 1979 she had established her own practice in London, rapidly building a reputation for "trail-blazing theoretical works" including The Peak in Hong Kong (1983), the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin (1986), the Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein (1993, her first built work), and the controversial Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales (1994). During her time in solo practice she has worked consistently with her office partner Patrik Schumacher, exploring their interests in the interface between architecture, landscape, and geology.
Jane Duncan, present RIBA President and chair of the selection committee, has said that "Zaha Hadid is a formidable and globally-influential force in architecture. 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."
In response to the announcement of the award, Hadid has said: "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."
She continued: "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."
Hadid is no stranger to international accolades. In 2004 she became the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize (USA) and she has twice won the UK’s most prestigious award for architecture, the RIBA Stirling Prize: in 2010 for the MAXXI Museum in Rome, a building for the staging of 21st Century art; and the Evelyn Grace Academy. She has also been awarded the Republic of France’s Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Japan’s Praemium Imperiale and, in 2012, was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She has also been made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architecture (AIA). She has taught widely, from Harvard to Illinois, Columbia to Hamburg, and Yale to Vienna.
The 2016 Royal Gold Medal selection committee comprises of RIBA President Jane Duncan with Sir Peter Cook, Neil Gillespie OBE, Victoria Thornton OBE, and the 2015 Royal Gold Medallist John Tuomey. Zaha Hadid was nominated for this year's Royal Gold medal by Sir Peter Cook, Louisa Hutton, and Sir David Chipperfield.
Read on for Sir Peter Cook's full citation for Hadid's Royal Gold Medal:
"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.
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 rationalise.
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, 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."
Zaha Hadid will formally be awarded the accolade at a ceremony in London next February.