Zaha Hadid's First U.K. Building Was Designed to Make Sick People Feel Better

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Although Zaha Hadid had lived in London for years, her first U.K. commission didn't come until 2006. Although overshadowed by stadiums and skyscrapers in the years since, Maggie's Fife is perhaps the late architect's biggest hearted project. . (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell /Getty Images)

Dame Zaha Hadid, Iraqi-Anglo architect and noted glass-ceiling shatterer, suffered a heart attack and died March 31 after being hospitalized in Miami for bronchitis. She was 65.

Those unfamiliar with the Baghdad-born force of nature and her eponymous London-based firm prior to her sudden passing have now likely received a crash course in the wild and not-always-wonderful world of Zaha Hadid. Perhaps they’ve studied up on the criticism or read tributes from her many celebrity admirers (and collaborators). Perhaps they’ve viewed photo galleries of her curvaceous, colossal edifices seemingly imported from a galaxy far, far away. (Or maybe China.)

Most importantly, perhaps they’ve learned about the accomplishments of a female architect who achieved celebrity status in a profession largely dominated by men. Just as she broke the rules of architectural form, she broke the rules of exactly how far a woman of color with a career in designing buildings could go.

Zaha Hadid didn't just break rules. She ruled. And in the process, she won numerous awards, many of them previously not afforded to women including the coveted Pritzker Prize in 2004, for which she was also the first Muslim laureate. She was also the first woman and the first Muslim to receive a Stirling Prize from the Royal British Institute of Architects — two years in a row, 2010 and 2011. The following year, the feisty starchitect and sometimes furniture designer was anointed a dame by Queen Elizabeth II.

Zaha Hadid at the opening of Maggie's Centre at Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland.
Zaha Hadid at the opening of Maggie's Centre at Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell /Getty Images)

Described by the Guardian’s Stephen Bayley as a “gruff, laughing, scowling, very loud and exotic earth mother in a hard hat,” Hadid was fearless and unapologetic. Her personality matched many of her commissions — aggressive, extravagant, uncompromising, big.

And those are the commissions — the London Aquatics Center, the Guangzhou Opera House, Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev Center, the Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi — that will be remembered the most.

It’s also, however, worth remembering one of Hadid’s smaller projects. While she never designed a proper single-family home (well, there's that one), she did come close with her first-ever permanent building in the United Kingdom, which, curiously, didn’t come until 2006. At that point, Hadid been living and working in London for almost three decades, just taking on projects elsewhere — Beirut, Copenhagen, Madrid, Basel, Cincinnati. She was the first architect to design an annual summer pavilion for London's Serpentine Gallery in 2010, but that swooping, tent-like structure only survived for a couple of fleeting months.

The client of Hadid’s inaugural permanent U.K. project was Maggie’s Centres, or simply Maggie’s, a Scotland-based charity that operates a network of over 15 decidedly very non-clinical "practical, emotional and social" support centers dedicated to serving those impacted by cancer, patients and loved ones alike. Meant to inspire, uplift and comfort, each Maggie’s location is designed to be the antithesis of drab and depressing; each drives home namesake/founder Maggie Keswick Jencks’ mission to never “lose the joy of living in the fear of dying.”

Joining an impressive roster of architects including Frank Gehry, Sir Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Richard Richards, Thomas Heatherwick and many others who have designed Maggie’s Centres both completed and in-the-works, Hadid designed the location at Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland.

The Zaha Hadid-designed Maggie's Centre at Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland.
The exterior of Maggie's Centre at Victoria Hospital may look imposing, even a bit sinister, but it's all warmth and light inside. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell /Getty Images)

It’s a modest structure — again, this is atypical for Hadid — both arresting and unusual, stamped with Hadid's signature sci-fi zip but not quite as alien as some of her other commissions. After all, this is a building purpose-designed to promote healing.

Said Hadid:

Once you step into the building you enter a completely different world. It is a kind of domestic space, it’s relaxing. Hospitals should have intimate spaces, places where patients can have a little time for themselves, to retreat into... It’s about how space can make you feel good.

Noted for its glass walls and triangular windows that flood the interior with natural light while “drawing the attention of visitors, and their spirits, upwards,” Hadid’s design for Maggie’s Fife is a comment on transition — the transition between hospital and home, man-made and natural spaces. At the heart of the building is an informal kitchen, the natural gathering place in most homes. The interior is largely open but there are also spaces in which to seek solace, privacy. And although the building’s black polyurethane-coated exterior and oversized roof overhangs take on a somber appearance, it’s actually a nod to the area’s coal mining heritage that reminds visitors “a piece of black coal contains within it a source of warmth and comfort.”

The Zaha Hadid-designed Maggie's Centre at Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland.
Emphasizing the transition between the interior and exterior worlds, Maggie's Fife stands on the edge of a hollow, facing away from the adjacent hospital complex. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Zaha Hadid Architects refers to the building as creating a “relaxed, homely” atmosphere. "Relaxed” and “homely” are two words difficult to apply to any of the firm’s other work.

Wrote Simon Garfield for the Guardian, just prior to the center’s opening:

The building she has designed, which cost a little over £1m to construct, is quite far from the avant-garde anti-gravitational creations that sealed her reputation. It is, in fact, like a small house, which befits its purpose: a home from home for people with cancer.

Hadid, who was friends with Maggie Kenswick Jencks and her husband, the architecture critic Charles Jencks, tells Garfield: "I think that fundamentally architecture is really about wellbeing. Every building you make, people should feel good in it.”

Maggie Kenswick Jencks succumbed to cancer in 1995.

Inspired by her patient’s positive outlook and courageous resolve to “die as well as possible,” Jencks’ own oncology nurse, Laura Lee, went on to become the chief executive of Maggie’s Centres. Prior to the opening of Maggie’s Fife, Lee told the Guardian that Hadid’s design was “spot-on” and that she anticipated visitors would feel “hugged by the building.”

Zaha Hadid, 2011
Zaha Hadid at the 2011 opening of the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. While Maggie's Fife preceded it, the museum was Hadid's first major public building completed in the U.K. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell /Getty Images)

While Hadid was an incredibly radiant flame snuffed short not by cancer but by a heart attack, her impact on modern architecture and design is indelible. She didn’t politely crack open a door — she swung the door wide open and came bursting through with guns blazing. Still, Hadid’s trajectory to “world’s most famous female architect” status wasn’t easy. She struggled. And she faced whole lot of sexism.

Hadid carried with her somewhat of a fearsome reputation. She certainly was not afraid to sound off against her critics and was dogged by scandal in her final years. Much of the flak revolved around the scrapped plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium and allegations of worker exploitation at the under-construction Qatar World Cup Stadium. Her work continued to polarize, with many writing it off as being too ambitious, too expensive, too much. Yet despite all of this, what the world really needs are more Zaha Hadids — daring, relentless, fierce and, as Maggie’s Fife demonstrates, not afraid to show a little heart every now and then.

Her shoes will be hard to fill because, after all, she designed them herself.

She'll be missed.