Kindred Spirits

What do a fire station and an elaborate Swimming pool have in common with a small white Modernist villa? They were the creations of two women! Firstly, the much lauded Zaha Hadid, born in Baghdad, Iraq and whose untimely death at the age of 65 occurred last month in Miami. Secondly, Eileen Gray born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, died in Paris in 1976 at the ripe old age of 96. Both of these women fought to become recognized as bona fide members of the male dominated profession of architecture. Hadid achieved the status of a modern day “starchitect” and went on to become the first woman, in her own right, to win the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in February 2016, prior to gaining the Pritzker Architectural Prize in 2004. Gray, whose nature though reserved and retiring, would finally become acknowledged as an influential designer and architect of the twentieth century.

Hadid’s whole life was focused on her architectural career. Yet in spite of her numerous proposed and conceptualized projects many never came to fruition. Her designs were often cruelly referenced as “expensive, weird-looking buildings”. Those built were eclectic and ranged from the Vitra fire station, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Weil am Rhein, Germany – 1994, Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton, London – 2008, Sheikh Zayed Bridge, Abu Dhabi, United Emirates – 2010 and Riverside museum, Glasgow – 2011. Gray’s oeuvre consisted of two houses, E-1027 and Tempe à Pailla, Castellar.

In 2012 a striking building with an undulating roof, echoing the flowing water of the river landscape wherein it sits, was built in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, London as an aquatic center for the 2012 Olympics. Today, this much lauded space, albeit in a slightly modified form, is a vibrant “open to all” water sports arena. In contrast, some eighty years earlier in the closing years of the 1930’s (water being a common denominator), a small house is built into the rocky coastline above the Mediterranean, in a then remote area of the Côte d’Azur, at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. However, this was a private build by Gray at the instigation of and for her lover Jean Badovici. Yet both women though architects were also designers. Hadid was a designer of fashion and furniture and a painter, whilst Gray turned to architecture after an early career specializing in lacquer work and decorative arts. Perhaps, or because of, their additional involvement in these “lower elements”. Hadid, throughout her stellar career, fought vigorously against the jealousy and prejudice of her male counterparts. Did she triumph? Of course she did! Yes! She died before her time! But then she did everything ahead of time. “Maybe we were not ready for her arrival – just as none of us were ready for her departure.” As of now, her architectural practice will continue without the founder at its helm!

What of Eileen Gray – she who also dared to be modern and different in her lifetime without courting fame and recognition? E-1027, today viewed as an iconic Modernist space, is newly restored and open to visitors. Nonetheless, this small secluded build, would become an obsession for Le Corbusier – a space he greatly coveted. Did jealousy cause the renowned architect to paint, uninvited, murals on the walls of the house without her permission? An act Gray deemed to be defacement, not only of her building, but also of her person. Maybe fate took a hand, as in 1965 Le Corbusier would die whilst swimming in the waters below E-1027! Recognition came late! Her works are now judged to be on a level with those of Le Corbusier and his early 1920’s male counterparts. Gray’s celebrated ‘Dragon Chair’ would go on to break records for a twentieth century decorative artwork when sold at auction for €21 million in 2009!

At last, poetic ‘justice’ for two multi-talented females who dared to challenge the mores of the preconceived notions prevalent in the world of architecture – AND WIN! Though sadly for Zara Hadid she died before all her projects came to fruition. May her ideas continue to surprise and delight us from beyond the grave!


Feature Photo from StockSnap

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