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From Wren to Foster, the best-known architects are usually men. But, as a major exhibition of her work opens, one woman with a singular vision continues to make waves. Even if few of her buildings are actually built.

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 Vegas.

In 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.

Stephen Bayley
Guardian