Architecture might be the second oldest profession, but it is remarkable how few women have succeeded in it. Outstanding among them is Zaha Hadid, a gruff, laughing, scowling, very loud and exotic earth mother in a hard hat. Indeed, a force of nature in tabard and site boots. And a function of nature, too. Her latest building designs look like something that have been wrenched from the firmament: ravishingly biomorphic, primitive, but futuristic. If modern architecture ever truly had functional principles, Hadid has abandoned them in favour of a wilful expressionism that is as wonderful as it is annoying.Before Hadid there was Julia Morgan, architect of Randolph Hearst's Californian castle at San Simeon (1922-1939). Alvar Aalto's wife, Aino, was an architect, but happy to live and work in her husband's long Nordic shadow. Lilly Reich was Mies van der Rohe's professional and personal companion from 1925 to 1938, when he left for the United States. Some say she was responsible for the design of his Barcelona Chair. Denise Scott Brown was Robert Venturi's wife and collaborator, co-author of the book Learning From Las VegasIn our day, Eva Jiricna has achieved real distinction and Amanda Levete is a dynamic partner in the firm Future Systems which gave us the gloriously odd press box at Lord's and a Selfridges in Birmingham that cheerfully reversed all rational assumptions about department stores.But there is more about Hadid. She became determined not to be either first, best or different, but to be all of them. As one measure of success, the Design Museum in London is about to host a major exhibition of her work.Hadid was born in a prosperous suburb of Baghdad in 1950, which in those days had its own garden cities (in magnificent direct descent from Babylon rather than Letchworth or Welwyn). Some of the great architects of mid century Modernism - Gio Ponti, Frank Lloyd Wright, Josep Sert - were at work in the Iraqi capital.Hadid had a cosmopolitan education: the family wintered in Beirut, the 'Paris of the Middle East', mixed with Christians and Jews and she read about heroic American architecture of the Fifties and Sixties in the pages of Time and Life magazines. At 54, Hadid won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the prestigious annual award which recognises 'significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture'. She was the first woman to do so.It was London's unique architectural culture of the Seventies that formed Hadid. In 1972, she arrived at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square, a private school with a vivid tradition of debate and contrariness. The AA, as it is always known, was not a milieu for gentlemen in corduroy suits, suede shoes and knitted ties sitting politely at parallel-action drawing boards.Instead, one of the chief influences was the magnificent, cigar-chomping, aphoristic Cedric Price, designer of an influential, but never built project, Fun Palace. Indeed, some of the AA's most famous output - the technophiliac fantasies of Sixties group Archigram - was also never compromised by the crude processes of construction. Instead, the notions sit there still in the architectural imagination - bright, optimistic and wholly uncontaminated by any very close contact with dismal reality and its water intrusions, its rust and its pigeon droppings.For a long time, Hadid seemed to be the inheritor of this bizarre tradition of becoming famous for what she had not built. After graduating in 1977, she went to work for Dutchman Rem Koolhaas, also an AA student and a keen disciple of Cedric Price. She taught in US universities and, until 1987, she maintained her own 'unit' at the AA.She collected plaudits, not contracts. In 1987, she moved to a studio in Clerkenwell, where she remains, to start an independent career which began with agonising tribulations and soul-destroying frustrations, only to develop, wonderfully, into the self-fulfilling cycle of competitions, prizes, publicity, first-class air travel and art circuit celebrity.The first big failure that led to Hadid's later great success was in the unlikely location of Cardiff Bay. Architects in private practice exist in a world of competitions. Since they are never (or rarely) realistically paid for competing, the system is a sort of tax on the profession. But it is a tax willingly paid since to win a major public competition guarantees about five years' work and, with profile raised, offers the realistic prospect of more to come. So it was in 1994 that Hadid fatefully entered the competition for a new opera house in Cardiff Bay.Her winning design was a dramatic, angular composition, quite unlike anything seen before. It was immediately criticised on two fronts: first as an elitist project irrelevant to rundown Cardiff, second as a design that would present certain practical difficulties to realise.Funding drifted away. Cardiff Bay became, in some quarters, a synonym for provincial philistinism. Meanwhile, Zaha Hadid, a rejected heroine, a champion of the future, had experienced her second great career move. (The opera house was never built, replaced by the Wales Millennium Centre, designed by local architect Jonathan Adams.)Her first great career move had been to win a commission in 1991 from furniture manufacturer and design entrepreneur Rolf Fehlbaum. This was for a fire station at his Vitra factory in Weil am Rhein. At the time, Fehlbaum was collecting autograph buildings from celebrity architects, including Frank Gehry who designed the Vitra Design Museum. Hadid's creative process is to use paintings to visualise a plastic concept. Not much time is spent on contemplating the drain schedules.So the Vitra Fire Station became a dramatic composition of jutting, irregular, sharp concrete planes. It is fidgety or dynamic, depending on your view. It is also, her critics would say, an example of Hadid's dramatic sculptural strength and lamentable functional weakness. Fehlbaum realised it was more valuable as a monument than a fire station and the Feuerwehr, perhaps with relief, moved into more sensible premises.But the Vitra connection confirmed Hadid as a leading member of the international architectural circus. Her first realised building in Britain was a 1995 temporary pavilion for the magazine Blueprint. In 1999, she won a competition for the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, a fantastical, earthbound spaceship in the home town of Volkswagen.In the same year, she designed a stage for the Pet Shop Boys: Neil Tennant described her as funny, but terrifying. She built the Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati in 2003. She has built a 'vanity factory' for BMW in Leipzig and will build the 2012 Olympic Aquatics centre in Stratford.Hadid has evolved a language of form which has developed from angular and trapezoidal to biologically zoomorphic: voluptuous to photograph, but - allegedly - difficult to build. Like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, who are not so much making art as providing big-ticket luxury goods for the hyper-rich, Hadid is not so much designing working buildings as providing what the modern classical architect Robert Adam calls 'global status products'. While interesting pheomena, they are, Adam insists, failures as architecture since, being global and deracinated, they cannot have any relation to context.Since Robert Adam, a favourite of the Prince of Wales, is still working in a style his 18th-century namesake would recognise, with pilasters, cornices and brackets, his criticism is not unexpected. But nor is it unfair. Hadid has a genius for formal novelty, but not so much interest in the technology that makes her daring shapes possible. An example is a car she has 'designed' for art entrepreneur Kenny Schachter.It is as much an unusual morphological experiment as any of her buildings, but shape-making is no longer a driving force in the automobile industry. The big interest there is fuel-cell power systems, not techno-organic blobbismo. Any student can do that. But it will be much photographed, which is the point.And yet the world's most famous woman architect has her practical uses. Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen failed to meet the deadline for delivery of a temporary pavilion for next month's Serpentine summer party, an international love-in with cocktails for the Prada-clad art and architecture crowd. So Hadid and her partner, Patrick Schumacher, have been drafted in at the last minute to provide an on-time replacement. It will be ready by 11 July.When a fantasist gets called in to do first aid on a troubled project, you know that architecture has changed. No one denies that Zaha Hadid has been a fundamental force in that process.Born Zaha Hadid, 31 October 1950, Baghdad, Iraq. Degree in mathematics, the American University of Beirut. Studied at the Architectural Association School in London.Best of times Now. After years of being known for her designs not being built, she has had a very good run. British work includes Maggie's Centre, Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy. She won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004. Exhibition at Design Museum, LondonWorst of times The failure to realise her winning design for the Cardiff Bay opera house.What she says 'As a woman, I'm expected to want everything to be nice and to be nice myself. A very English thing. I don't design nice buildings - I don't like them. I like architecture to have some raw, vital, earthy quality.'What others say 'She had spectacular vision. All the buildings were exploding... one of her most beautiful designs - an absolute triumph - was her plan for a museum of the 19th century. She couldn't care about tiny details. Her mind was on the broader picture.'
Former teacher Elia Zenghelis