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.”

  • We have computer technology which can shape the beautifully crafted and sculptured surfaces of Zaha Hadid's iconic architecture. This is a combination of robotic shaping of moulds and the use of carbon fibre or glass reinforced concrete fibre. These shapes are the main reason her architecture has been difficult and expensive to procure. She has pushed the boundaries of what is possible, like all great architects, and to be applauded.
    We have technology such as for making large sails for ocean going boats, create a 3D CAD image of the sail and the computer can instantly form the shape with many thousands of pins, the more pins the more accurate the shape. The bed for the sail is 30m x 20m. Zaha needs to talk to people who have or can create this technology to easily form the shapes and then cast them in a new generation composite material. Glass Reinforced Concrete, Carbon reinforced composites, and new generation polymer concretes can do this. All hail an inspired and great architect, like Harry Seidler and much of his sculptural concrete around the soffit of Australia Square, or Utzon's Opera house, the technology to create the shapes pushes the current boundaries. Thankyou Zaha

  • While I am not a fan of every one of Hadid's proposed projects, I am a fan of the "architecture of ideas" that these visions present. While some of her work will never see the first pour of concrete, the vision opens doors of thought and opportunity for many young (and older) architects globally.

  • The cult of the celebrity architect is nauseating and much of Hadid's work is incongruous and jarring – she gives little consideration to the context in which she operates.

  • The very premise of this article proves that Zaha Hadid is good for achitecture

  • 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.”

    "Architecture critics such as Bayley do not want to respect the work of popular architects, rather spout bilge, put themselves in the spotlight and venerate themselves."

    Those at the top are always at risk of being targets. They are easy fodder.

  • Even itself of the sentences of Stephen Bayley indicates the opposite of the situation. Architecture is not just a phenomenon to be covered by good sense. Architecture is often experiment. Successful experiments moves architecture into the future. Although no experiments were made in architecture, probably it would remain in medieval level.

  • It is very unusual for a project to get this far down the road only to be scrapped by the authorities. Based only on what I have learned from reading the reports on the criticism and Hadid's much publicized response, I think the project will be found to be out of scale with the proposed site. A large sports venue such as the one proposed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics stadium should be moved to a more appropriate site and away from the low-rise mixed residential neighborhood. Also, just because we can now technically envision, design and construct at great costs the amorphous forms and fantastic volumes that emerge on a continuous basis from Hadid's architectural studio, doesn't mean that this sculptural architecture works into the architectural fabric everywhere. If sustainability is to be our way for future human development on the planet, the earth's resources cannot be wasted on large, expensive venues such as this proposed stadium.

    • Good points, Thomas. Critics argued vociferously that the building is out of scale with its surroundings, as well as completely insensitive to Japanese heritage. It's a shame that the previous stadium has already been razed.

  • The argument of Bayley stands but his position put forward one side if medallion. Looking to retrospective the previous master rather than speaking they have made architecture. If one would see the last 40 years of architecture many architects have talked so much but when you look the product it is not that high quality. Zaha Hadid have done so much and have talked very little because her products speak.