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Zaha Hadid, architect of the Sheikh Zayed Bridge

Born in Baghdad and raised in Britain, she was long dismissed as a fantasist, but today her designs are seen as nothing less than visionary. She returned to the region to construct the new Sheikh Zayed Bridge, one of her most challenging projects yet.

By reputation, Zaha Hadid is an architect who pushes the boundaries of structural design. Such is the complexity of recreating her vision in real life that it has taken eight years for her to build a bridge.

It is, of course, no ordinary bridge. This is a radical design with steel waves that seem to engulf the roadway. Its completion this month will only enhance her reputation for futuristic constructions that not only defy gravity but raise expectations about whether they can even get off the ground.

The new Sheikh Zayed Bridge, a crucial link in the new highway that will push into the heart of the city, is one of her most ambitious projects in a career spanning more than 30 years. Afterwards she will turn her attention to Saadiyat Island, where she is constructing the Performing Arts Centre, an extraordinary, organic design. These are projects that in a sense mark her homecoming to the Middle East from Britain, where she lives: she was born in Baghdad almost 60 years ago, the daughter of a prominent Iraqi industrialist and politician.

For a long time she was dismissed as a starry-eyed fantasist, making designs that appeared to mock feasibility. Decades on, she has become a superstar in the eyes of both the architectural elite and developers.

The Abu Dhabi projects are being realised just as she adds yet another award for her mantelpiece - the Stirling, from the Royal Institute of British Architects, one of the ultimate accolades. She won it for Maxxi, in which she shaped irregular lines and curvaceous geometry into the National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome.

The Stirling judges praised her "structural pyrotechnics" and acknowledged that many of Hadid's designs are so daring that they have yet to get beyond the drawing-board stage. She once said, "My ambition is always to realise theoretical projects that seem difficult at the time."

"Zaha Hadid is a visionary", says Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, which commissioned two temporary pavilions from her in 2000 and 2007. "She works in a visionary way. She creates something truly extraordinary with each client and each context. While having a significant architectural language on the one hand, she is also a pioneer in terms of her own work, constantly reinventing."

Several leading international architects are being drawn to work on projects in the Middle East, but Ms Hadid is the only Arab and the only woman among them. She is busy on design projects not only in the Gulf, primarily Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but also in Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus and Istanbul. She is about to start her first building in her country of birth, a commission from the Central Bank of Iraq in Baghdad.

Abu Dhabi is a highly mobile society, and Ms Hadid's bridge is part of the new route that includes the massive Salam Street project, which will take motorists to the Corniche without passing a single traffic light.

In 1967, a steel-arch bridge was built to connect the fledgling city of Abu Dhabi island to the mainland, followed by a second bridge in the 1970s, connecting downstream at the south side of the island.

The location of the new gateway crossing, close to the first bridge, is a "sinusoidal waveform", a structural silhouette across the channel that rises up to 60 metres above the water level, a feat of engineering.

Urban landscapes and even society can be completely transformed by great or controversial architecture, as in the Spanish city of Bilbao with the avant-garde design of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry: it put Bilbao, previously avoided by travellers as a grim industrial city, on the tourism map. Bilbao now attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, and the museum has rejuvenated Bilbao economically. It has inspired pride in the citizens of Bilbao - even those who don't like the museum's design.

Hadid's bridge and the Performing Arts Centre (which is set to house five theatres along a seafront promenade), along with Gehry's Guggenheim outpost and Jean Nouvel's Louvre, are all part of Abu Dhabi's ambition to transform itself into an extraordinary cultural destination.

She was inspired to draw by her mother and as a child set her heart on becoming an architect. She went to school with children from different backgrounds, and those memories have, it seems, stayed with her.

Hadid's belief that the arts have always bridged cultural, economic and social divides led to her appointment earlier this year as an Artist for Peace for Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Her father was a wealthy Sunni industrialist from Mosul, a political liberal who was involved in the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. Her early education was at a school run by nuns in Baghdad, and continued in Switzerland and at the American University in Beirut, where she studied mathematics.

In the early 1970s she arrived in Britain, and has lived there ever since, in Clerkenwell, London.

After completing her studies at the Architectural Association, she joined Rem Koolhaas as a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. She opened an independent practice in London in 1980. It took Hadid 13 years to get her first project built, a period in which she survived by teaching. But in 1993 her first built work was completed, the Vitra Fire Station, in Germany.

The following year there was a major setback. She won an international competition to build an opera house in Cardiff, Wales, but the project was blocked because of local objections to her futuristic design.

It was a difficult time for Hadid. But, as popular taste became more daring, international commissions eventually followed, and she is now regarded as one of the world's great architects, a designer of revolutionary experimentation, unexpected architectural forms and unorthodox responses to sites.

Crucially, Hadid's treatment of space encourages social contact. In 2004, she was the first woman to receive another of architecture's most prestigious prizes, the Pritzker. The Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, in the United States, and the Hoenheim-Nord Terminus in Strasbourg, Germany are among her seminal projects admired for transforming our vision of the future.

Hadid is now in such demand that she is working on 30 projects at any one time, and has a team of 400 in offices worldwide. Beyond the Middle East, her practice is working on the wave-roofed Aquatics Centre for the London 2012 Olympic Games, high-speed train stations in Italy and Spain, and urban master plans for Beijing.

Although her colleagues say Hadid is shy until she gets to know people, they praise her team spirit and leadership.

Each project begins with her sketching furiously with a black felt pen. She discusses the ideas with her team, and they shape them into models on computers or paper.

Kenny Schachter, an American who is one of her close friends and patrons, and who has commissioned 30 projects, from a car and a boat to a building, says that with Hadid "all previously held beliefs are suspended, blurred and ultimately overturned, but with mathematical precision.

"She makes order out of distorted reality. Hadid is busy filling voids, controlling space and constantly morphing and transforming."

Her materials - Plexiglas, mirror, fibreglass, metals - are as diverse as the objects she crafts like "a mad alchemist", Schachter says. "Her work is at times construed as futuristic and outlandish, but the reality is that it is entirely grounded in natural concerns. She uses geometry as an artistic medium to paint pictures and craft sculptures of the physical world around us."

Fellow architects say her imagination knows no bounds, that she is brimming with ideas - "millions of ideas", one says.

As Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine's Swiss-born director of international projects, puts it: "She has completely invented a new language in architecture ... her importance will grow more and more. She is one of the great heroines of our time."

* The National

 

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