Architects are not household names, especially not living ones. The average reader of Sunday newspapers can probably name Frank Gehry or recognize his derivative blobitechture by sight, but otherwise it's difficult to think of a living architect who might be recognizable to a non-enthusiast or professional in the field. The most important, decorated, and accomplished living one died on Thursday, and her death was no more than a Page 3 level headline.
Zaha Hadid was born in Iraq in 1950 to a wealthy family, which allowed her in 1972 to move to London to study architecture under, among others, Dutch giant Rem Koolhaas (who, like her, would win the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of architecture). Today both are recognized as founders of the first identifiable successor to postmodern and modernist architecture, a heavily geometric yet smooth style that defies its mathematical origins by blending in place with its surroundings. It is a shame that neither figure is better known, but it is not uncommon in architecture for time to be a crucial ingredient in the growth of one's reputation.
In a professional world in which few women become prominent, Hadid won the Pritzker in 2010 (the only solo female recipient to date), two Stirling Prizes for individual works (Rome's MAXXI art museum – get it? XXI? – and London's Evelyn Grace Academy), and the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal, of which she is also the only solo female recipient.
The word "visionary" should not be tossed around lightly. Hadid was one. Her architecture of multiple perspectives – buildings that present dramatically different impressions depending on the point at which one views them – is now a commonly imitated aspect of contemporary architecture and even interior design. The BMW Building and the aforementioned Evelyn Grace Academy are probably the most representative examples of this, as well as excellent examples of how geometric designs can be made to blend naturally with the landscape. Any architect can make a geometric design that stands out like a jagged shard from a flat landscape. It takes restraint and an eye for aesthetics that few have or ever will have to make it look natural.
It's sad to think someone so important could depart without attracting more attention. Maybe it is the lack of major projects in the United States. Maybe it is the absence of a loud, garish "Hey look at me" style to her work. While the name might not be familiar to you, she did as much as or more than anyone to shape the way the world around you looks today and the aesthetics of urbanism in the foreseeable future. Her influence will outlive her.