In defense of Zaha?



It has emerged that news stories last June out of Qatar, where Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid has a commission to build a stadium to host soccer’s World Cup in 2022, falsely asserted that hundreds of itinerant construction workers had died in the process of building her stadium. In fact, her stadium was not yet under construction. In an earlier conversation with the press she had said about poor conditions in general for workers in Qatar, death resulting, that “it is not my duty as an architect to look at it.”

Some architecture critics, such as yours truly in “500 or more workers,” relied in error on the fair assumption that the news reports accurately pegged her comment being as about deaths at her project. We picked up the story and criticized Hadid for insensitivity. Hadid chose to sue Martin Filler for this, but not me. I was not, it seems, on her radar. Obscurity has its benefits.

Nevertheless, for the record I hereby, henceforth and forthwith apologize to Zaha for any and all hurt feelings and unwarranted damage to career that may or may not have been the result of my naughty opinions therein or herein expressed.

Filler got Zaha’s goat, and she sued him, because he unpacked his negative feelings about her in a review in the New York Review of Books of a book that barely mentioned her. I have no comment here about the merits of her suit, except for a general feeling that modern architects have no moral standing to sue anyone for anything anywhere. But I do regret that the press wrongly linked her comment to her proposed stadium. Still, she did make the comment and it does reflect the inhumanity of modern architects that arises from the inhumanity of modern architecture, especially that of major commissions by starchitects. (The most direct reflection of this is Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters, in Beijing, a building that appears to be stomping on the Chinese people.)

Some critics, such as Beverly Willis in “In Defense of Zaha Hadid” on Sept. 4 in Architect, have deemed Filler’s criticism of Zaha Hadid to reflect sexism. I cannot peek inside Filler’s mind to leap to that conclusion, but in my post “Zaha ‘Ha Ha’ Hadid’s thing,” I criticized her stadium for looking like a vagina and ridiculed her absurd denial. That was not sexist because I also criticized a Chinese architect for designing a headquarters for the China People’s Daily, in Beijing, that looks like a penis (an anatomically correct penis, not just building considered vaguely phallic for being vertical rather than horizontal).

I have long criticized modern architecture for being the latest round of Western colonialism. It seems that modern architects can commit sins against a culture that would generate fierce criticism in any other field. Zaha Hadid has designed a stadium that looks like a sexual body part in a society that does not permit a woman to expose her nose in public. If modern architecture’s crimes against humanity had a literal death toll, its practitioners would be hauled before a tribunal in The Hague. Now, although it may be premature to lay any deaths at Zaha’s door in Qatar, it is very clear that people are dying in large numbers to construct modern architecture, at least in the Mideast. I doubt workers are dying at such a rate in the construction of new traditional buildings there, if any.

When a completed modernist building designed to defy gravity actually falls down on the volition of its own arrogance toward the laws of physics (as opposed to the volition of terrorism, whose anniversary will sadden us tomorrow), maybe then it will be time for the world to sue modern architecture.

I stand by the conclusion of my “Zaha’s thing” post from June:

I think almost any modern architect would have responded the same way as Hadid, and that the willingness to inflict such ugliness and sterility on a hapless world suggests an essential deficit in the makeup of the character of the profession as it is constituted today, at least at the level of the celebrity architect.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to In defense of Zaha?

  1. Pingback: Zaha bolts BBC interview | Architecture Here and There

  2. indra says:

    my view is that the architect here has taken the premise to absolve any social and moral responsibly , such as the comments by zaha hadid and the deaths of construction workers in Qatar. the whole region in UAE area is a culprit of slavery and to seek projects and design commissions is almost like going to bed with the slave traders!
    I have spent time in Doha and have witnessed the brutality of the regime.
    I imagine zaha hadid would not have any problem with a new concept if the Third Reich were to invite her to design the Olympic Stadium !
    shame on you to not call her on this matter


    • Huh? Shame on me? But this post and the linked post are a veritable “J’accuse!” directed by me not just at Zaha Hadid but at all celebrity architects who muck up the world on behalf of oppressors of greater or lesser blood lust.


  3. Nathaniel Martin says:

    The central premise of this article — that modernist architecture is inherently inhumane, and is equated with inhumanity on the part of its practitioners — is utterly absurd and profoundly offensive. Mr. Brussat is apparently ignorant of the prominent role that progressive social concerns played in the formative period of modernism, as many architects sought to provide decent, affordable shelter to poorly housed masses, while incorporating new technologies that, in fact, often enhanced the safety of construction workers and building occupants. He also does not seem to recognize that “modernism” is a very broad term, encompassing a vast range of ideologies, design strategies, and even “styles.” It is a branch of modernism, after all, that has recently advanced the cause of sustainability in design and construction, a movement that has already resulted in substantial savings of energy and other resources over the past couple of decades, while producing interior environments that are much more healthful for occupants than those of the past.

    Mr. Brussat is entirely welcome to his tastes. He finds classical architecture beautiful — as do I, actually, when the building in question is one that was built during an era in which bearing-wall construction predominated, and which did not have to respond to contemporary requirements and expectations regarding life safety, accessibility, ventilation systems, and so on. Contemporary buildings are logically and appropriately NOT like those of the past, by virtue of the fact that they must respond to a complex array of code constraints, technological realities, and user needs that did not exist in the classical era. I avidly support the preservation of great architectural works of the past, but I do not expect that new works should pretend to be something that they are not and cannot be.

    Which brings me back to the principal problem with Mr. Brussat’s commentary: he confuses taste with moral certainty. I am not a fan of Zaha Hadid (with whom Mr. Brussat seems to be on a first-name basis), and I was indeed taken aback by her comments about the deaths of construction workers — even when those comments were placed in context. Her personal arrogance, however, is not a reflection on all architects, nor on modernism in general.


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