In the world of starchitects, Zaha Hadid has few equals. Her photogenic creations have propelled her to the forefront of the pack of “global” architects, and also caused consternation among people who would appreciate a more “traditional” approach to architecture.

According to architecture critic Stephen Bayley, writing in The Spectator, Zaha Hadid “has added much to the formal language of global architecture, but not to its good sense,” and as such, he feels architecture would be better off without Hadid. To support his contention, he offers a couple of her well-known projects, such as the 2022 World Cup Stadium in Qatar, and the 2012 Olympics Aquatics Centre in London. Both projects have been criticised for their grandiose, futuristic designs, as well as their bloated costs.

“She became the champion of an architecture that was more about personal ‘vision’ than public utility,” Bayley wrote. 

Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid

Contemporary, high-profile architecture is often lambasted for ignoring context and creating visually captivating works of art that don’t really function properly and end up massively over budget. To many, Hadid is the poster child for this camp.

“Critics mumbled that she had no sense of context or locality,” Bayley wrote, “preferring to crash land photogenic concepts whose function was not to serve her client’s needs, but to advertise herself as a ‘global architect.’”

Not everyone feels that way, though, and her career has soared, high-profile commissions abound, and she’s often described as “the most famous female architect in the world.” Bayley notes that even as her designs have appalled many people, they have impressed others.

“Her reputation was boosted by a clique of fawning admirers,” he wrote, “who saw in her uncompromising angles and, later, zoomorphic blobs a fearless repudiation of stuffy tradition.”

When her design won the competition for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics stadium in 2012, however, the critics didn’t mumble. They roared. A cadre of Japanese architects began a campaign that has resulted in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe canceling the project in favor of starting over with a new design.

The chorus of naysayers in Japan included architect Arata Isozaki, who said the stadium design looked “like a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away,” and Fumihiko Maki, a Pritzker Prize winner, who organized a symposium to fight the project. The symposium spawned a petition that amassed more than 80,000 signatures—about the same number as the seats in the proposed stadium—demanding that the project be cancelled or revised.

Some spoke out against the stadium’s massive 70-metre height in a low-rise district with a 20-metre height limitation; critics described the stadium as ”a “monstrosity completely out of scale with the surrounding mixed-residential environs.”

There’s also the issue of budget, as the project’s cost steadily rose and, in fact, nearly doubled to 252 billion yen ($2 billion US) before being scuttled. Prime Minister Abe eventually relented, saying “I have been listening to the voices of the people and the athletes for about a month now, thinking about the possibility of a review. We must go back to the drawing board. The cost has just ballooned too much.”

Hadid fueled the controversy with her responses to the criticism, saying that the critics did not want a non-Japanese architect for the project, they were angry because they did not win the commission, and that the whole scenario was “embarrassing for them.” She also waved away the budget woes by blaming Tokyo’s building boom, a drop in the value of the yen, the process for choosing contractors, and a labour shortage.

The Guardian’s Michael Hanson recently addressed the story, noting that it is unusual for people to openly ridicule starchitects’ grandiose projects, and how he enjoyed the comparisons of the Tokyo stadium to “a hairdryer, a spacecraft, a footbath, a rusting tank, a stranded turtle and a child’s potty.”

“Was there ever a profession so up itself?” he asked. “Yet we still fawn over them, so their heads get bigger, their buildings more outrageous and useless.”

Bayley would no doubt agree, as he wrote, “Global architects such as Hadid do not want to respect their client or his site, but to venerate themselves.”