Dame Zaha Hadid has become the first sole female recipient of the Royal Gold Medal for architecture, as colleagues claimed she has missed out on becoming a national treasure because she does not play “the comfy British game of platitudinous waffle”.
The medal, approved by the Queen and awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects, has been the preserve of men since it was first given in 1848, although women have shared the prize with others on a handful of occasions. Previous winners include Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, IM Pei and Sir David Chipperfield.
The judges hailed Hadid, 64, as a “globally-influential force in architecture” whose work pushes boundaries. She runs a practice in Clerkenwell, north London, and her British designs include the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics.
But she receives relatively few commissions in Britain, her home for the past 40 years after moving from her native Baghdad aged 22 to study at the Architectural Association in London.
Her 2016 Royal Gold Medal citation, written by Prof Sir Peter Cook, described her as a “scary” character in the style of John McEnroe, but questioned why she has not been embraced by the British Establishment.
“Many of our chattering classes and not a few fellow architects have treated her with characteristic faint praise,” Prof Cook said.
“Of course, in our culture of circumspection and modesty her work is certainly not modest, and she herself is the opposite of modest. Indeed, her vociferous criticism of poor work or stupidity recalls the line-side comments of the tennis player, John McEnroe.
“Yet this is surely characteristic of the seriousness with which she takes the whole business: sloppiness and waywardness pain her and she cannot play the comfy British game of platitudinous waffle.”
Many of Hadid’s buildings divide opinion. Her proposed Olympic stadium for the 2020 Games in Tokyo was variously likened to a bike helmet and a toilet seat, and eventually ditched by the Japanese government, while her design for an opera house in Cardiff Bay was rejected by local politicians despite winning an international competition.