For a long time, Zaha Hadid was known as "the paper architect', someone whose grand designs never left the page to become real buildings. But in recent years her buildings have sprouted up like mushrooms all over the world: the Guangzhou Opera House in China, a car factory in Germany, a contemporary art museum in Rome, a transport museum in Scotland
, and the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics in London.
Hadid is now one of the most sought after architects of our age. She is also one of the few women to have made it in a profession still dominated by men. In Britain, where Hadid lies (she was born in Iraq in 1950), less that 15% of practising architects are women. A lot more than that enter the profession, but either because of difficulty in getting recognised or because of the deep conservatism surrounding most British architecture, over half of them leave. But being 'a woman in a man's world' seems to have given Hadid extra strength. At times she felt she was banging her head against a wall trying to get her designs accepted, but she persevered. Famous for her fierce independence, one of her former tutors called her 'a planet in her own orbit'.
Pinning down her individual style is difficult. Certainly she has been influenced by the modern trend in architecture that likes to play with the traditional shape of buildings and fragment them, creating unpredictable angles and surfaces. Working in this way, she and her fellow architects have produced arious rather off the wall spaceship-like structures that seem to defy the normal laws of engineering, but which have intrigued and excited the public.
So the visual impact of her designs from the outside is clearly important to her, but Hadid maintains that the key consideration when she creates an architectural design is people's well-being. In other words, how they will feel inside the spaces she creates. This has drawn her increasingly to become interested in public projects, such as housing, schools and hospitals. Recently she won the RIBA Stirling Prize for her design of a school complex in Brixton, south London.
Shaped as a zig-zag, the steel and glass structure of Eelyn Grace Academy takes up only 1.4 hectares compared to eight hectares for a typical secondary school. To compensate for the lack of internal space, Hadid designed a building with lots of natural light and dramatic angles, so that students view the activity of other students from each different perspective within the structure. The masterstroke is the insertion of a 100m running track right in the middle of the site between buildings to celebrate the school's emphasis on sports.
This idea of offering the viewer multiple perspectives from within the building is a theme that runs through Hadid's work. Her most famous building, MAXXI - a museum for the 21st century - in Rome, is a great example. It is a complex and spectacular structure of interlocking concrete shapes. Inside spaces interconnect 'like winding streets compressed into one single site in the building', so that the visitor is surprised and charmed at each turn. The Rosenthal Center in Cincinattiproduces a similar effect. Like an extension of the street it sits on, it draws you in, with walkways directing you this way and that, and windows inviting you to sample the view. 'It's about promenading,' says Hadid, 'being able to pause, to look out, look above, look sideways.'
So what inspires someone like Hadid to produce such radically different buildings? She speaks in complimentary terms about the work of her contemporaries. She also cites the natural landscape and organic geological patterns as an influence. But it is not a question that she seems too concerned with and nor perhaps should we be. Hadid is an artist, sharing with us her vision of what buildings should be like and always, as she does so, trying to keep human interests - our interests as users and viewers - at heart. Perhaps we could do with more architects like her.