Bolder Than Bold

In an age when architects have become like so many rockstars and celebrities, one rises higher. Not only a dynamic figure and icon for aspiring architects the world over, Zaha Hadid has talent. Tremendous talent. Hadid has already received every significant award an architect could hope for—including being the first woman to receive the most respected Pritzker Prize – yet at age 62 she shows no signs of slowing down.

Zaha Hadid  interview WILD mag

Last year the Iraqi-British architect completed the much lauded London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, and is currently balancing projects in Riyadh, Milan, Seoul and Beijing. Both a powerful and opinionated subject, we were deeply honored to interview “architecture’s diva” and quickly learned to never use that expression again.


Zaha, do you sleep?

I would love to—but the people at the office won’t let me! They always find something to tell me on the phone—usually at two in the morning.

Being an Iraqi citizen by birth, speak to us about how your upbringing in a more liberal and secular Iraq affected your decision to move West and pursue a career in architecture.

I had a very nice childhood in Iraq. As in so many places in the developing world at the time, there was an unbroken belief in progress and a great sense of optimism. If you look back to the 60s, when I was growing up, it was a moment of nation-building, there was a lot of emphasis on architecture, not only in the Arab world but also in South America and Asia. These ideas of change, liberation and freedom of this era were critical to my development. My father studied at the London School of Economics under Laskian and Fabian. When he returned to Iraq he joined the Beirut Group that was the basis of the Iraqi Democratic Party. There was incredible moment of social reform everywhere. This ideology was an important to me.

For such enlightened open-mindedness and selfless support, my mother and father were definitely an inspiration. It was my parents who gave me the confidence to try new things and encouraged my passion for discovery. My father’s interest for freedoms and reform was matched by my mother’s great sense of style. She was the one who taught me to draw. My older brothers shared this spirit of adventure and suggested I should become Iraq’s first woman astronaut!

The teachers who taught sciences in the nuns’ school I went to when I was growing up in Iraq were all from university, and so the levels of the science courses were really incredible. The Headmistress, who was a nun, was very interested in the education of women, so in a way she was a kind of pioneer in that part of the world. We were all these girls from different religions—Muslim, Christian, Jewish.

I became interested in geometry while studying mathematics. I realized there was a connection with the logic of maths to architecture and the abstraction of Arabic Calligraphy. Although there are no direct formal references to my cultural roots in the designs, it is this mathematics of the Arab world that I am fascinated by—the mix of logic and abstract.

Being an Arab woman and a modern architect certainly don’t exclude each other! When I was growing up in Iraq, there were many woman architects. My earliest memory of architecture, I was perhaps 6 years old, was of my aunt building a house in Mosul in the north of Iraq. The architect was a close friend of my father’s and he used to come to our house with the drawings and models. I remember seeing the model in our living room and I think it triggered something, as I was intrigued by it. But for me, it wasn’t until I was studying mathematics at university in Beirut that I considered studying architecture. My older brother was at Oxford and told me the Architectural Association school in London was doing interesting work so I decided to visit and see for myself.

This road that you took to becoming an icon in architecture has made you an inspiration to women everywhere. Tell us about how your life has changed since winning the Pritzker Prize in 2004 as the first female architect in history. In 1999, when speaking to Charlie Rose on PBS you referenced the “dissipating cloud” of gender bias in architecture, primarily the disproportion of men to women practicing. How much has this changed in past decade?

It’s still very difficult for women to operate as professionals because there are still some worlds women have no access to. But I don’t believe that much remains of the stereotype that architecture should be a male rather than a female career. Fifty percent of first year architectural students are women, so women certainly don’t perceive this career as alien to their gender. In our office we have no stereotypical categories that relate to gender at all.

You now see more established, respected female architects all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the difficulties are incomprehensible. But in the last fifteen years there’s been tremendous change, and now it’s seen as normal to have women in this profession.

I still experience resistance, but I think this keeps me focused. It’s not as if I just appear somewhere and everybody says yes to me—it’s still a struggle, despite having gone through it a hundred times. It’s not necessarily always great, but it makes you think about and do things in a different way.

Do you resent being called “architecture’s diva,” or do you find it empowering?

I do find it incredibly frustrating, but I don’t mind. Everything that I am called which was negative, I try to think of it as positive—so it’s fine. It is so tough for women in the professional world. If a man has an opinion, people describe him as opinionated or powerful. However, if a woman in business voices her opinion, she is considered to be difficult or a diva!

How does it feel to hold the same prize held by your teacher Rem Koolhaas and other “starchitects” like Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, Renzo Piano, and others?

Winning the Pritzker represented the full recognition of what started 20 years ago as my projections of a possible future architecture. It’s certainly not a solo act. I have wonderful collaborators in the office like Patrik Schumacher and Woody Yao who I’ve worked with for many years. The office has a great atmosphere of incredible energy and buoyancy and I can’t take credit for my projects alone—many people in the office have contributed to the work.

People have always been very kind and nice to me when they approach me; they say good things to me about the positive impact our projects have had on them. I think it’s exciting that people now know about architects. Twenty-five years ago, they didn’t—architecture was considered the lowest of the service professions! I’m pleased to have contributed to this progress.

Share your thoughts on architecture and its recent boom in pop culture?

Ultimately architecture is all about well-being; for the creation of pleasant and stimulating settings for all aspects of life. But I think it is also important to ensure that each project provides uplifting experiences that inspire, excite and enthuse.

I remember I once had a great experience and discovery when I went to the Reichstag wrapping by Christo in Berlin. There were millions of people there singing and dancing; they flocked to see this building being wrapped, because it was a strange idea. That’s when it became clear to me that people are very interested in fantastic projects. It was an extraordinary event, and very critical historically, because people were not just fascinated by the idea of wrapping an object, but how it was wrapped and how you make something new out of something very familiar. I think before this, people didn’t believe it was possible to achieve the fantastic.

At the WILD we are always exploring the intersection between fashion and it’s ecological impact, therefore we are interested in your thoughts regarding resource efficiency in building. Can you discuss?

I think the first solution is to organize social and living processes in a meaningful way so that everyone can contribute to a more ecologically sustainable society. As you know, many architects use sophisticated air conditioning and interior design methods to improve the ecological balance of a building—but we are also concerned with adjusting new materials and manufacturing methods that are relative to a whole new paradigm of space articulation and space making. In the end, all these different clusters of research and development into sustainability and the applicability of the materials—will come together again, bringing solutions to a great many problems.

Architects are now using new concepts and methods to develop projects that respond to individual living patterns; creating buildings that engage, integrate and adapt to the needs of their inhabitants. These buildings recognize these changing parameters to optimize their environment and composition to suit the needs of their users.

These new design and construction techniques will also be applied to urbanism. Individual buildings communicate with—and connect to—the next; creating an organic, field of separate buildings that are highly correlated. The same tools that allow the built environment to engage and adapt with use will also constantly modify the architecture with respect to ecological performance. With the architecture itself responding to daily usage patterns and changing environmental parameters, all buildings will contribute to a completely sustainable society—a solution to the urgent ecological challenge that is a defining question of our own era.

On the topic of building, would you do me the honor and wax poetic on your feelings about the 90-degree angle?

One of the tasks I set for myself was the continuation of the unfinished project of modernism in the experimental spirit of the early avant-garde—taking some of its compositional techniques like fragmentation and layering to a new level. My designs became more extreme because the buildings themselves became more complex — having to accommodate so many different programs and uses in one solution. It is obviously non-Euclidean geometry. People ask Why are there no straight lines, why no 90 degrees? This is because life is not made in a grid. If you think of landscape, it’s not even and regular. But people go to these places and think it’s very natural, very relaxing. I think that one can do that in architecture.

Sometimes your work is reminiscent of the vistas in films such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner or the interiors of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Has film and other visual arts culture played a significant role in the development of your work?

I’ve always been interested in how movement affects architecture—as in the frames of a film: not seeing the world from one particular angle, but having a more complex view. We view the world from so many perspectives—never from one single viewpoint—our perception is never fixed, and the way we move around a building impacts our experience. This movement through space is very critical in all buildings, particularly for cultural buildings because our perception of the exhibitions is all about movement, time and the connections and relationships we experience when interacting with the art.

What is your definition of radical and how does this influence the way you approach design?

True avant-garde architecture follows the inherent logic of cycles of innovation generated by social and technological developments. Mies van der Rohe said: “Architecture is the will of an epoch, living, changing, new.” Contemporary society is not standing still—and buildings must evolve with new patterns of life to meet the needs of its users. I think what is new in our generation is a greater level of social complexity, which should be reflected in its architecture.

I’m curious about the next step—the next big thing, and I think computing that encourages more complex geometry is very exciting. The rapid developments that computing has brought to architecture are incredible. Our designs demand continual progress in the development of construction technology, and the industry continues to respond by providing ever more sophisticated tools and materials. There is a strong reciprocal relationship whereby our more avant-garde designs encourage the development of new design technologies and construction techniques—and those new developments in turn inspire us to push the design envelope ever further. Great things come from this method of working!

We never take a brief literally—but instead try to interpret the purpose of an institution, as it is not only the form of a building that interests us – but we also research new and better ways in which people can use a building. We are finding that clients are increasingly calling for something radical. And from a much broader group of institutions that now have strong willingness to innovate.

As our readers the world over remember the Chanel Art Pavilion, which traveled to Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, and Paris, can you tell us about how you feel architecture, art, and fashion communicate?

I’m into fashion because it contains the mood of the day, of the moment—like music, literature, and art—whereas architecture is a very long process from the start of a project to its completion. When I moved to London to study, fashion at the time was more about costume and a personal statement of who you are.

Our collaborations with other industries like fashion and cars have given us an opportunity to express our ideas in a different scale and through different media. We see it as part of a continuous process of design investigation. It’s a two way process. We apply our architectural research to these designs, but we also learn a great deal about the process and new materials of other industries. Of course there is a lot of fluidity now between art, fashion and architecture—a lot more cross-pollination in the disciplines, but this isn’t about competition, it’s about collaboration and what these practices and processes can contribute to one another.

The current success and popularity of our architecture is often a result of the invention and innovation discovered from the research generated in our collaborations. For instance, the Art Pavilion for Chanel adapted advanced design and manufacturing technologies used in the automotive and yachting industries. It is through this experimentation that we begin to unravel future possibilities for new design and construction methods or realize the benefits of new materials that can be adapted from other industries to the architecture.

I am a big fan of the London Aquatics Centre [along with about a billion others who watched the games last summer] and its undulating and wavelike contours, it is a masterpiece. Though I fear that it is like asking if you have a favorite child, but do you have a favorite building?

It’s difficult to suggest one single building because they all came at different times and represent different times of my career, and as such, I’m equally proud of all of them.

I do have a particular kind of affection for the Vitra Fire Station project because it was really my first completed building. Rolf Fehlbaum, the Chairman of Vitra, should be considered a true patron as he dared to engage me without seeing a prior track record and without the certainty of public success. Rolf is an incredible client. In the 80s, he first commissioned us to do a chair, but it didn’t work out, so he asked us to build the Fire Station at Vitra instead!

At the WILD, we love getting inside the homes of artists, musicians, and designers, to see how they live. What is your place like? Cozy? Minimal? I picture a concrete shell with frosted glass doors that operate on vocal command, however, maybe it’s old hardwood floors, Afghan rugs and tufted leather sofas. Tell us.

I’m always traveling for my work so home for me is really my bed. I’s where I can just crash out; somewhere you can go and switch off. I don’t have to be in my London apartment to feel at home. To me, home is somewhere I feel comfortable with my friends and enjoy myself. My London flat is near our office. It’s not one of my projects. I didn’t design the building. I moved there after my previous apartment flooded and I needed to go somewhere quickly. One of the reasons I like it is that it’s got a large living room that can hold many of my own design pieces. As I must travel so much for work, it is a real luxury for me to be in London long enough to have a dinner for my friends. I use the Aqua Table I designed in 2005. I discovered it can seat 18 people very comfortably!

What is your WILD Wish?

I feel architecture is a vehicle that can address some of today’s very important issues, and I would wish to continue developing projects that raise standards for everyone.

Part of architecture’s job is to make people feel good in space. Our idea of this starts when we’re very young, reflecting where we live, where we go to school. We recently completed a government school for 1200 students in London. Working on the Evelyn Grace Academy school project in London has been extremely rewarding. The school provides the highest standard of educational facilities to one of the poorest areas of the city. Each day, it inspires its 1,200 schoolchildren to achieve their dreams and be part of London’s progress; and each afternoon and evening, it is used by the entire community as a centre for all. Whenever I visit the school, it is wonderful to see such passion from the students and enthusiasm from the community.

We are also researching social housing that raises standards, as everyone deserves a good home. Social housing has always been based on the concept of minimal existence. That shouldn’t be the case today as architects have the skills and tools to address these issues if people are committed to resolving these issues.

Zaha Hadid Architects Chanel Pavillion NYC

text by: Nick Cope

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